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Skillbuilding: Perils of Source Snobbery


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, “Perils of Source Snobbery,” OnBoard 18 (May 2012).

“No technique can be said to constitute the gold standard because there is no gold standard. … The common assertion of a gold standard of evidence is merely a rhetorical device. … The hard truth is that we have little choice but to adapt in creative ways to the kinds of evidence that social scientists confront.”1

A genealogist proudly proclaims, “Of course, [          ] should be used only as a hint for research.” Others, with similar views, routinely exclude certain source types from research plans. Whether referring to undocumented and unverified databases, family and local histories, genealogical compendiums, heritage books, old lineage-society applications, online family trees, or other categories, the disdain seems intended to show that a researcher “has standards.” Instead, it betrays misunderstandings of genealogical sources, research, and reasoning.

Routinely spurning certain genealogical sources implies they never contain useful information—that researchers risk nothing by dismissing them. Categorical rejection also reflects a perception that some genealogical sources are obviously trustworthy—that some materials need not “be used only as a hint for research.” Both views are ill-founded. Preferred sources may contain errors; disdained sources may contain accurate information found nowhere else. Some source types have higher error rates than others, but no type is error-free or worthless.

Preferred Sources
Preferred sources are those passing analytical tests—intra-source assessments genealogists apply as they consider and examine materials and information items. Eyewitness accounts of events recorded when they occurred typically pass these tests. These materials include most original court, immigration, land, military, probate, religious, tax, and vital records.2 Careful researchers routinely consult such sources, and genealogical proof requires their support.

Analysis often reveals the need to extend research, and it helps resolve contradictions, but it rarely reveals whether an information item correctly or incorrectly answers a research question. Analysis shows only that a source is likely or unlikely to contain an error, not that a specific statement is right or wrong. Conclusions about whether evidence is or is not correct results from aggregated evidence, not source-by-source assessment.3

Thus, despite passing analytical tests, preferred materials may contain false information. Errors appear, for example, in deeds, religious sources, tax rolls, vital records, and wills—see table 1 for examples. Researchers, consequently, take risk in accepting statements as correct just because they appear in sources that have passed analytical tests. Like disdained sources, preferred sources provide “only … a hint.” They, too, must be verified—single sources, whatever their qualities, always require further research.

A source’s accuracy is unknown until the researcher has accumulated enough evidence for tests of correlation—the comparison and contrasting of sources and information to reveal points of agreement and disagreement.

Disdained Sources
Just as genealogists prefer sources that pass analytical tests, they may disdain those that do not. These typically are derivative sources, often poorly documented, containing information from hearsay or an unknown person, like many online family trees. Despite failing analytical tests, most disdained sources accurately reflect the past. They also may contain information from destroyed or forgotten family records, oral history not recorded elsewhere, and other obscure sources.4

Research plans excluding disdained sources may disserve genealogists and their clients, even when those sources’ information also appears in preferred materials. Disdained sources sometimes show the only or most efficient path to reliable, informative records, or they may provide evidence critical to the researcher’s conclusion.5 They are safely consulted when the researcher subjects them to correlative tests of accuracy—the same tests they apply to preferred sources.

Table 1. Selected Documented Examples of Errors in Preferred Sources

Erroneous Source

Documentation

Baptismal register with a wrong birth date

Melinda Daffin Henningfield, “Determining Linnie Leigh Gray’s Birth Date,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 98 (December 2010): 245–50.

Birth record with an incorrect surname

Teri D. Tillman, “Using Indirect Evidence and Linguistic Analysis to Trace Polin Ries of New Orleans,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 99 (December 2011): 245–74.

Death record with parent’s name incorrect

Allen R. Peterson, “Who were the Parents of Charlotte Ann Williams of Flint, Michigan? A Death Certificate with a Half-Truth,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 98 (September 2010): 177–88.

Family Bible record with fabricated information

Warren L. Forsythe, “Resolving Conflict between Records: A Spurious Moseley Bible,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 84 (September 1996): 182–99.

Marriage bond falsely identifying a bride’s late husband

Richard A. Hayden, “Resolving the Inexplicable: The Marriage Bond of Archibald Young and Lettice Morgan,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 95 (March 2007): 5–16.

Four marriage license applications misidentifying bride’s or groom’s father

Thomas W. Jones, “‘A Solid Gang of Them’: An Illinois Morse-Trammell Family’s Reactions to Scandal,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 92 (June 2004): 105–18.

Military records omitting a soldier

Harold E. Hinds Jr., “The Man Who Wasn’t There: Harold Bion Wiltse (1896–1972) and the World War I ‘Lost Battalion,’” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 97 (June 2010): 101–10.

Quitclaim worded as a fee-simple deed with an incomplete land description

Thomas W. Jones, “Uncovering Ancestors by Deduction: The Husbands and Parents of Eleanor (née Medley) (Tureman) (Crow) Overton,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 94 (December 2006): 287–305.

Tax rolls listing a dead man  as a living taxpayer

Ibid.

Will omitting testator’s  eleven children and falsely identifying three heirs

Thomas W. Jones, “The Children of Calvin Snell: Primary versus Secondary Evidence,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 83 (March 1995): 17–31.

Genealogists exhausting place-specific sources for elusive research subjects must plan and execute broad searches. These will include Web-based genealogies. They typically fail analytical tests, but their large and ever-growing volume and scope make them useful for wide-ranging searches. Research plans often include them, sometimes as step one.

Some researchers disparage user-contributed Internet sources because they repeat errors at a high rate. The repetition results from users’ indiscriminately assimilating others’ information and republishing it, but copying does not affect credibility. For example, a family Bible’s birth date chiseled onto a gravestone remains uncorroborated; the date is merely duplicated. Similarly, copying and recopying incorrect digital information does not make it worse.

Conclusion
Genealogists who categorically disdain certain sources risk overlooking the information they seek or references to that information, thus blocking their research. Genealogists who categorically trust preferred sources risk accepting incorrect information, also blocking—or sidetracking—their research. In contrast, effective family historians consult and assess all sources, regardless of type, that might help answer their research questions. They exclude no potentially useful source, and they trust no unverified source.

Endnotes
1 Robert J. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 384. The author thanks Harold Henderson for noting this quotation.
2 For more information on the process of analysis, see Stefani Evans, “Data Analysis,” OnBoard 18 (May 2012): 13. Also, Donn Devine, “Evidence Analysis,” in Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians, ed., Elizabeth Shown Mills (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001), 327–42.
3 Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000), 11, for standard 26, which refers to “the sum of the evidence” as “the deciding factor.”
4 For an undocumented online family tree based on an unpublished family record, see “Family Pedigree with Details,” FamilySearch: Welcome to the New FamilySearch (https://new.familysearch.org : accessed 9 April 2012), for George W. Edison, person KJ71-JRH. For the underlying source from one of the tree’s contributors, see “Family Record,” printed form containing handwritten entries, likely 1920 or later and from a family Bible; photocopy from Howard Elting, Clinton, Utah; author’s files.
5 For example, anonymous undocumented queries written more than a century after Plummer brothers were born helped identify their parents. See George L. Findlen, “Using Questionable Sources Productively: The Parents of Rial, Edwin, and George Plummer of Alna, Maine,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 96 (September 2008): 165–76. For an example of undocumented family trees on Ancestry.com as key to solving a complex genealogical problem, see Thomas W. Jones, “The Three Identities of Charles D. McLain of Muskegon, Michigan,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 96 (June 2008): 101–20 at 107.

Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.




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