My Plea for More Citation of Primary Sources

"Are You a Genealogist, or Just a Collector of Genealogy?" -

My Plea for More Citation of Primary Sources

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Some people are genealogists, and other people seem to be just collectors of genealogy. A genealogist looks at primary sources -- census records, wills, deeds, military pension files, etc., etc. -- or at least transcriptions and abstracts of primary sources. A collector of genealogy, on the other hand, compiles the names, places, and dates that other people have provided (usually other collectors), and (too often) presents that information as Genealogical Truth. Some of the information provided by a collector of genealogy may be correct, and some of it may not be. Much of it may not be. A lot of the genealogical information on the Web is apparently compiled and provided by collectors of genealogy. It has no references to primary sources, and no one seems to know where the information came from originally.

I'm amazed how often unreferenced information is posted, transmitted, and discussed as if it were solid, proven data.

Please don't get me wrong: I appreciate receiving collections of genealogy. They can suggest avenues for research. They can give me names to check, sometimes new places to look for a family. Sometimes, I can track down a few of the primary sources by working my way back through successive generations of collectors. But often -- more often, it seems, on some lines than on others -- the sources just do not appear to exist. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough. Or maybe I don't know where to look. But I'm amazed how often unreferenced information is posted, transmitted, and discussed as if it were solid, proven data.

After one recent exchange of gedcoms with another researcher, the lady on the other end of the exchange sent me a final e-mail, saying in essence, "Is this all you have on this line? I don't mean to be offensive," she offered, "but...." My gedcom contained relatively fewer people, true; but I was pretty sure it was right, unless I was misinterpreting a source. Her gedcom? You guessed it: Lots of lovely "data" -- most of which I had already received from other people -- but very, very few references to sources. And it wasn't just because she hadn't had time to type the references; she simply did not know where most of her data came from.

Many, many people will accept unverified information as Gospel Truth.

What's wrong with posting or passing on unverified data as Gospel Truth? Three things, primarily. First, many, many people will accept it as true, and they'll pass it on to others, and the data will (it seems) become more "accurate" with each transmission. It's like gossip: once it's out, it takes on a life of its own. Second, relatedly, a lot of people who accept your unverified information as correct will stop researching that line, thinking, "My genealogy is done." They'll forget about genealogy, or they'll turn to another line, losing (at least for a time) the opportunity to look for primary sources.

Third, an asserted but incorrect connection may waste someone's time pursuing a line that isn't really theirs. Until I'm pretty sure that Sarah's father was John, I shouldn't be spending a lot of time trying to find John's father (unless I'm hoping John's father referred to his granddaughter). But I suspect that a lot of people take unverified data from the Internet and spend a great deal of time and money trying to push back lines that do not really belong to them, because they had assumed the data were correct.

Please don't misunderstand me about the Internet: I think it's the greatest tool for real genealogy research since the computer. I'm like a kid in a candy shop among the images and transcriptions and indices on the Web. I honor the generous, stalwart souls who establish and maintain such resources as USGenWeb, the Library of Virginia's digital records, the Court Records Digest, and the American Memory collection. I'll take a slightly-flawed Chalkley's over a sourceless gedcom any day! I'm also extremely grateful for GenForum and VA-ROOTS and other discussion facilitators: exchanging ideas and leads and experience is a powerful, valuable part of genealogy research. [In case there's something in this paragraph that you don't recognize, all of the resources mentioned here are on my page of genealogy links.]

But the plethora of unverified, unreferenced names, dates, and places posted on gedcom sites and on zillions of personal Web sites -- presented as accurate data -- that's what I'm talking about.

First: Please, please cite your sources!!!

So I beg leave to make two humble, hopefully painless recommendations. First, please cite your sources, whatever they are! If you have seen a primary source or a transcription or abstract of a primary source, please put the reference in your gedcom! That way, the rest of us will know the extent to which your data have been verified. And when someone else passes your data along, the references will (we hope) be included. Or, if you have not seen the primary source for some particular item of information, please say so! Say, for example, that you got it from John Doe, whose e-mail address is [email protected] And, more specifically, if you know that Elizabeth's father was William because you've seen his will (or at least a transcription of it), but you have Elizabeth's birthdate only because someone gave it to you (without a source reference), cite the will for the first fact but say that the birthdate came from [email protected]

Second, please state the nature of your data.

Second, to the extent your data are not verified from primary sources or from transcriptions or abstracts of primary sources -- to the extent you're just passing along what collectors have sent to you -- please say that up front, at the top of your Web site or at the beginning of your e-mail! How about: "Most of the information in this gedcom came from other researchers, and I do not know to what extent it reflects the information to be found in primary sources." Sound a little sheepish? Certainly, but at least you won't be misleading anyone. And please don't bury your caveat under a note of thanks, like "I'd like to thank all the many people who contributed to the information on this site." That kind of language conveys niceness, but it doesn't convey the necessary warning, because other people can provide both primary sources and unverified data.

If you're having trouble finding sufficient motivation to cite primary sources or to state the nature of your data, then try doing it for the main reason that I do it: for your children, and for their children, and for their children! Sooner or later, one of your descendants is going to pick up your research where you stop. If you have primary sources but don't cite them, your own descendants may have to go over the same ground again. And, on the other hand, if you leave them unverified data without labeling it as such, they may spend generations (literally) working on lines that are not really theirs. Or, worse yet, they may never get involved in genealogy, thinking, "Grandma already did it."

I would almost make a third recommendation, too, but I won't because I know it would be hopeless. My personal practice is not to post or transmit data at all, if I haven't verified it from primary sources, or from abstracts or transcriptions of primary sources. Okay, I'll admit that that approach might deprive other people of some clues. But too often, unverified information is taken as Verified Truth, and the person on the other end forgets that line and moves on. And, as the popularity of genealogy grows -- and grows and grows! -- newbies will come along all the time who'll think, "It's got to be right, 'cause I found it on the Web." Still, I can understand (although I don't share) the desire to put the data out there, even if only as a source of clues.

But please, if you must introduce unverified information to the world, just introduce it by name.

Similar comments from other researchers --

"Internet Genealogy - What's Good! What's Not! . . . and What Are We Going to Do about It?"
by Bettie Cummings Cook, C.G.
(on the Augusta County, Virginia, GenWeb site)

"Why Bother? The Value of Documentation in Family History Research"
by Kory Meyerink, M.L.S., C.G.

"RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees: Creating Worthwhile Genealogies for our Families and Descendants"
(on RootsWeb)

"A Note About Sources," by Marty Grant

"Restoring Ethics to Genealogy," by Barbara A. Brown
(reprinted on Genealogical Research Publications)

For excellent articles on citation of sources, skillbuilding, etc., see The Board for Certification of Genealogists.

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This page was last updated on February 20, 2015.

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