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.