Skillbuilding: Analyzing and Reviewing Published
- Newsletter of the BCG
Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Analyzing and Reviewing
Published Sources," OnBoard 3 (May 1997):
A fair examination of any publication begins with a question:
What is the purpose of this work? By the time we
finish our evaluation, we should be able to answer another
question: How well is that purpose fulfilled?
Between these points, the evaluation of a published work
considers a number of factors intrinsic to a book's reliability
for genealogical use.
Original Source Materials
Books that transcribe reference material are judged on
their faithfulness to the original and the appropriateness
of the amplification added by the editor. If the original
source is a diary, for example, our review would consider:
- Relativity. How much value does its content have
to genealogists? Did the diarist gossip daily about kith,
kin, neighbors, and enemies-recording a wealth of personal
detail? Or, is the diary a mere daily weather report?
The latter can be useful to the creative family historian,
but the prospective buyer of this book needs to know whether
he will receive juicy plums or dry seeds.
- Editorial contribution. Did the editor thoroughly
research individuals mentioned by the diarist, to insure
that names are interpreted correctly? Is identification
added (in proper editorial form) at the first mention
of each person? Did the editor point out inherent contradictions
or errors of fact?
- Enhancements. Is there an index, a quality binding,
or acid-free paper? Has the editor added photographs,
maps, or other illuminating material?
Abstracted source materials are a hybrid. Some traditionalists
view them as "primary sources," even when significantly
altered by processing. More precisely, abstracts are derivative
works that may or may not retain the same value as the
original. Consider, for example:
Compiled histories and genealogies must be judged by even
more complex standards, the most important of which are generally
considered to be:
- Documentation. Is there a proper source citation
for each record? Is there a thorough preface, in which
the compiler discusses the nature of this group of materials
and any inherent problems?
- Accuracy. How careful has the compiler been?
Sample documents may have to be ordered for spot-checking,
if the originals are not at our disposal. Certainly, we
would not want to give a glowing review to a book, only
to have more-thorough users and reviewers point out careless
Book reviewing is a service and a skill as old as the publishing
process itself. To test, to teach, to stimulate - that is
its purpose, and yours as a careful reviewer.
- Arrangement of data. The numbering system and
the text format should conform to recognized standards.
Did the author use the NGSQ System or the Register System?
Did she concoct one of her own that took you four hours
and fifty-seven minutes to comprehend? Your readers deserve
- Explanation of mechanics. Does the preface explain
the methods used in compiling or organizing the book's
materials? Does it forewarn the reader of deficiencies
that the author recognizes in his own work?
- Documentation. Is there a specific reference
citation for each statement of fact that is not public
knowledge? Is there a mere list of sources at the end
of each section (or at the end of the whole), with no
guidance as to which specific information came from which
source? Today's discriminating genealogist considers this
- Interpretation. Did the compiler accurately interpret
and represent the facts appearing in the records he or
- Completeness. Does the author systematically
give full names, dates, and places? Are all lines
of descent traced or did the author follow only the narrow
line that produced him or her? Such points tremendously
affect the usefulness of the material.
- Chronology. Are lines of descent validly reconstructed?
Spot-check several. "Generation skipping" and "generation
merging" are common problems. Genealogists who aver marriages
at uncommonly young ages or first marriages unusually
late in life shoulder an extra burden of proof. Has the
author proved it?
- Pre-American ancestry. Is the link adequately
proved between the immigrant and the individual abroad
who is alleged to be the same? Does the book boast a "family
coat of arms" for a line that cannot be traced out of
an American colony?
- Perspective. Has the author portrayed individuals
with realism and sensitivity? Or, are you led to believe
that every member of the family is rich, beautiful, pious,
industrious, and of noble stock? Has the author put the
raw genealogical data into proper historical perspective?
Are you merely told that someone's great-grandfather appeared
on the 1880 census with $850 in property-or has the writer
taken the trouble to determine (and report) how that level
of property-owning fit the community pattern?
- Readability. Does the text read like a collection
of strung-together note cards? Or has the writer consciously
followed the principles of good writing that the world
seems to expect from everything except government publications?
A good family history strives for readability and follows
all customary rules of grammar and essay construction.
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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