|Avoid Regrets: Don’t
By Candice Lynn Buchanan
If we were to rank genealogy regrets, there is no denying that the number one position would belong to the missed opportunities to interview accessible relatives. Coming in at a close second though, would be all those times when we let perfectly good sources literally slip through our fingers. Those early years of our research when we got so excited about filling-in the blanks that we failed to write down where we filled-them-in from. It is at least a regret over which we have much more control. Most beginning genealogists just don’t know better; other genealogists think they can ignore citing sources – that it is somehow unnecessary. Sooner or later we all recognize what a mistake we made by not noting those sources while they were right there in our hands. Most of us don’t realize the full effect of our error until we have had to waste time and energy trying to remember where a fact came from and then trying to relocate that “from” – even worse is when we realize that relocation is impossible because the record was privately owned, has been lost or destroyed.
Perhaps the most avoided, yet ultimately one of the most valuable components of any genealogist’s research is documentation. It’s not just something for the “serious” genealogist or the one who wants to publish; tracking your sources is an essential and do-able part of any researcher’s process. The result of good source citations is good analysis and good research.
Documentation validates our research by demonstrating that we have utilized a varied range of resources and that we have logically weighed the evidence supporting our results. Without documentation our research can be questioned and dismissed; while it might make a good read or even a good lead source for research direction, without complete citations our hard work cannot be relied on or used to its full capacity.
Documentation leaves a trail of where we have been. An easy way to check that there is enough basic information in your citation is to ask yourself, could another researcher look at this notation and relocate the source? Consider the difference between saying, Marriage license, or saying Samuel Lewis Ogden & Edna Pearl McClelland, marriage license no. 4295 (1905), County Clerk's Office, Waynesburg, Greene County, Pennsylvania. There is great frustration in store for the researcher who finally discovers a critical genealogy fact in a fellow researcher’s report only to find that the compiler cited just Adams Bible as the source. Which Adams? Where is the Bible? Who is the owner? A potentially good source now is only a lead that we may never be able to follow-up.
Beyond the basic information such as the location of your source, you should note the relevant information it contains. It is inevitable that at some point in your research you will discover a contradiction. If you have kept proper source notes you will be able to weigh out the contradicting references without having to revisit each source to compare data. For example, in using a Will to establish a possible death date, a researcher will benefit much more from a citation that includes a description of the applicable data from the record, such as: Andrew Buchanan will (1785), Chester County Will Book P: 354, Chester County Archives, West Chester, Pennsylvania. Andrew Buchanan wrote his will 16 May 1785 and it was proven 9 July 1785. This simple note provides the evidence that his date of death fell between these two recorded events.
With source location documented and relevant information noted, the final component to the citation is any analysis or explanation that adds to the reliability or authenticity of the source and/or the data within. For example, the path from relative to relative that a family Bible, personal papers, photographs, etc., have taken over the generations will help us to determine who would have written entries or captions. A look at the family tree will tell us how closely (or not) the owners were connected to the relatives discussed in the record. Consider documenting data from a tombstone that appears to have been placed many years after your ancestor’s death or a family Bible with entries in a second handwriting style, or with modern ink – these circumstances are important notations pointing out potential problems that could lead to major research errors if ignored.
Undocumented or inadequately documented works, such as the family trees often found online or the family group sheets stored in genealogical society files, can serve as lead sources, but any subsequent researcher will have to attempt to re-research the data to determine validity. It is a sad situation when a potentially good piece of information cannot be verified because the unnoted source simply cannot be re-discovered. An example of a notation I have had waiting unverified for years in my files was originally compiled by a locally esteemed historian who probably had his facts correct, but I have not been able to discover where he found them. Howard L. Leckey, “Family of William Thomas Evans Webb,” compiled in 1936, and held in the Webb family file at the Cornerstone Genealogical Society in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. This document is several pages in length and offers some specific documentation; however, no sources are listed for the data pertaining to Joseph N. Brown or his family. Despite lack of documentation, this information deserves consideration because Leckey’s wife descended from the Webb family discussed, and Leckey was a respected genealogist and local history author.
This column just scratches the surface of information readily available to help you to correctly cite and weigh out your sources. There is an excellent guide specifically written for genealogists that I think every genealogist should own: Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997). This book is not expensive and can be bought online or through any bookstore. It includes easy-to-read discussion of how to consider, cite and analyze your source information, as well as an excellent chart that provides a template for documenting many of the most common genealogical sources (cemetery markers, census, courthouse records, family Bibles, letters, obituaries, photos, taxes and much more).
All material within this
web site has been compiled by Candice Buchanan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(63 W. Franklin St.; Waynesburg, PA 15370).
Data sources documented whenever possible. Contributors credited for shared information. Questions, feedback and contributions welcome.
Copyright © 2003-2008 Candice Buchanan. All rights reserved.