A Source is a Source, of Course, of Course…or is it? 5


Recently on this blog one of our writers expressed her opinion on the validity of using online trees as a source. Many of you agreed with her, many of you didn’t. You know what? That is fine. We are all entitled to our thoughts and feelings on the subject. However, it was not an invalid observation on her part. I encourage you to read the comments, and her replies, to the post as well.

If you are a long time researcher, think back to when you began your genealogical journey. I am sure we all have memories of being led down that ancestral road with a caffeine induced high at 2 AM muttering “just one more line.” In fact I bet some of your first finds were, well, sketchy to say the least. We all started somewhere and in the 21st century that somewhere is typically online trees.

When I started my family research I was amazed at what I could find online. I spent my 14 day free trial going through pages and pages of member sourced trees. It was awesome! As a person who has researched other topics for years it never occurred to me that people would put error filled or even fraudulent information online on what was a “reliable” place to do research. I should not have been surprised by the practice, but I was.

I fell for that information because I didn’t know any better. To be frank, I didn’t have the knowledge base in genealogy or even someone guiding me to make sure I didn’t fall into that hole. It was something I would never dreamed of doing, so I assumed these were researched and factual trees. Maybe I trust people too much at times?

There were no big warning signs until months later when I started reading and educating myself on genealogical standards. As a scientist I learned to live by rules, documentation, and reports. Once I found the specific “rules” for genealogy I adapted quickly. However, not everyone has a good basis in general research techniques.

As any good researcher knows the quality of the information can be tied to the quality of the source. While this is not always the case, it is a good rule of thumb. If you are new to the whole ball game though figuring out what a source, record, information, or even evidence is can be confusing, frustrating, and at times leave you pulling your hair. So, how can you learn what all these things are?

A good book to have on your shelf that will explain these terms and practices to you, along with giving you exercises to hone your skills, is Mastering Genealogical Proof  by Thomas W. Jones. Of course all researchers should have a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills Evidence Explained as well. They both have a section describing a source, record, information, and evidence. In fact there is an excellent graphic on the inside over of Evidence that should be on the wall of many researchers’ offices.

For those of you who don’t have access to these books, or are just starting out let me give you a visual. Think of these terms as Russian stacking dolls. The biggest doll, which holds all the other dolls, is a source. This doll holds inside it the information we discovered. Some source dolls hold multiple smaller dolls inside depending on its type. A source doll could be a record which could hold inside of it primary, secondary, or tertiary information. The information doll could then hold direct, indirect, or negative evidence based on your research question.

Now, a source may be completely false, unreliable, or at the very least questionable. Hence the reason we cite our sources. Those citations give future researchers the ability to 1) decide for themselves if the information was credible or 2) completely ignore anything with that citation due to its high preponderance of errors.

Which leads us back to the online tree dilemma. Is it a source? In the technical sense of the definition one would have to say yes. It holds information. However, we all know that a generic online tree that only has citations referring to other online trees, which in turn only have citations for other online trees, are dubious sources at best. A family historian may want to use those trees as clues to find the reliable source for the information given. In no way would anyone doing credible work list an online tree, such as the example above, in their own research.

It is true that the world is full of horrible faulty sources (some even historical). Errors are made all the time, even in official documents. We as researchers need to weed the good from the bad and make decisions on why one source may hold better information than another.

Memoirs and interviews are sources even though they may contain false information, omission of details, covering up of facts, or even blatant lies. Do I consider the interviews of my relatives and their faulty memories sources? Yes, I do. Should I considering what I said above about trees and how the interview might be questionable? Maybe not. However, at least I know in that instance where I got the information and 90% of the time they can tell me how or why they know it. Do I take it with a grain of salt? Sure! It’s a clue, I treat it as such, and I do my best to tease the truth out of it.

Now, let’s all get back to work. Oh, and don’t forget to cite those sources, your research depends on it.


About Shannon Combs Bennett

Shannon Combs-Bennett, owner of T2 Family History, is a speaker and author based out of Virginia. She enjoys teaching about a wide range of topics from DNA to methodology. Currently Shannon is the Creative Director for The In-Depth Genealogist. You can learn more about her at http://about.me/tntfamhist.


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5 thoughts on “A Source is a Source, of Course, of Course…or is it?

  • Harold Henderson

    The idea that we can accept or dismiss a source just by looking at it is bogus. (And the idea that some information containers are not even sources is doubly misleading.) Don’t take my word for it, read Tom Jones’s explanation at http://www.bcgcertification.org/skillbuilders/skbld135b.html. Or look up his NGSQ article, “The Children of Calvin Snell,” where usually unreliable sources are shown to be right while Snell’s own will was wrong.

    When my daughter and I started doing genealogy 15+ years ago there were already plenty of undocumented family trees out there. We foolishly believed them. What we learned to do, eventually, was to compare the information and see what could be confirmed — or not confirmed — in other records. Analyzing a single piece of information without correlating it with other pieces won’t work.

    • Shannon Combs Bennett Post author

      Thank you for that article suggestion. I have not read it but will be sure to go find it. Tom Jones is a great writer and I enjoyed having him as an instructor when I took the BU class last fall. In my article I point out that new researchers should look at picking up his book so that they can have a better grasp on this issue. I participated in the first round of study groups for it in the summer of 2013 and learned a lot.

      I also point out in my post above that there have been bogus sources for centuries. Just because something is in print (even historical), in a document, on the internet, or told to you from a trusted member of the family doesn’t mean that you can count on it to be accurate. A source is only as good as the situation that made it, the information it contains, and a number of other factors that went into creating it. You have to look at the whole package when you are going to make a decision about the reliability of the item.

      It is our responsibility as researchers to seek the answers to our questions. Find that accurate information. Can we use anything as a source? Yes, of course we can! Does it mean that if we don’t trust it we try to verify it with many more? Yes, we should! I have a number of sources for my family tree, in fact I color code them. If they are in red it means I need to verify this information in subsequent records because to me it came from an unreliable place.

      Our research is fluid and ever evolving. 10 years from now I may find something that makes an entire line of my tree wrong. That is the fun with this hunt, new stuff is always coming to light. Documenting my sources, cataloging them, and analyzing them will help down the road as I discover new pieces to my family puzzle.

  • Elwood Belzer

    I agree with you. I use online trees as a starting point, and then start digging for sources to back up what is on the tree and to dispute what is on the tree and correct the information that is there so someone else don’t have to do spend all that time going down the wrong path. All my sources that I used are with the tree. I don’t do anything without citing my sources. Too much work has been done without sources or at least citing the sources. Without citing source you have no way of knowing where the information came from.

  • Jade

    Thank you for the sensible approach to the problems posed in the other author’s original post concerning whether trees are sources.

    All of us need to take seriously the tasks of unpacking information in consulted sources, evaluating their qualities and import, and figuring out whether such information is applicable to the problem at hand. And when explaining the methodology to others, it is necessary carefully to explain the difference between a source and the data it may contain. It is a kind of old genealogical mistake to conflate the terms “source” and “evidence.”