Friday, November 21, 2008

Sources, Citations and Repositories...Oh, My!

We, the genealogists, hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all information is created equal, that it should be endowed by its creator with specific source citations, that among these are clarity, reproducibility, and the pursuit of accuracy.

How many of us are as diligent as we should be in making sure we find and cite credible sources before publishing information on the internet, or anywhere else for that matter? Worse yet, there are many beginning researchers that don't even keep track of sources for their own personal research and use.

If you've done any significant internet research, yet, you are already aware of the fact that family or personal genealogy websites often repeat stories or anecdotes about ancestors with no credible source information. I just finished a family history book for a family friend. In looking up stories about particular 17th century American ancestors, I found a quite-repeated detail that a certain female ancestor had been burned at the stake in Salem, Massachusetts, during the infamous witch trials in the late 1600s. I found this fact on at least three different websites, and my assumption is that one of them made an assumption and the other two took it at face value with no due diligence. It's amazing how fast falsities can fly through cyberspace. There were no sources for this information on any of the three sites. However, it took less than 10 minutes to find some sources that proved otherwise. In Salem, there were 15 individuals sent to the gallows, and she wasn't one of them. None were burned at the stake. In addition, several sites with credible source citations indicated that this woman was convicted of witchcraft, sent to prison, and then released a year later when the hysteria started to die down.

Let me explain in very basic terms why we should care so much about meticulous source citations in the first place:

1-) To avoid duplicate work for ourselves or others. Seriously, do you really want to be searching through the same records several times because you can't remember what you've already searched or where you found a particular piece of information? This is where keeping a working source list, such as a research log, is crucial. If you keep track of what sources you've found, what information (if any) you were able to glean from it, etc., you'll avoid unnecessary work for yourself. And for someone else, too, for that matter, as any good genealogist will not just take someone else's "word for it" that certain information came from a certain place.

2-) To ensure that we are making accurate and reliable conclusions about the information we find, and that our work is considered credible. As genealogists, we are really history researchers. Shouldn't we make sure that the information we use and share is sound? Otherwise, we relegate ourselves to being just fiction writers or rumor mill workers.

It's not enough to rely on someone else's pedigree charts, assuming they did the work of finding sources for each piece of information and that their work contains no mistakes. Genealogy is part science and part art, and as such, there are certain basics that we need to familiarize ourselves with in order to produce anything of value.

Having said that, I don't have enough room on this blog to try and detail all of the ins and outs of citing sources, explaining repositories, or any of the other minutiae so critical to our work. What I can do is suggest a really great reference book I found that has become my best tool for accurate source citations. I picked it up at a genealogy conference here in Kansas City several months ago. It is entitled Evidence Explained, and it is written by Elizabeth Shown Mills. The first two chapters give a great overview and basics about citations and evidence in family history work. The remainder of the book is basically a style guide for citing sources for almost everything: from artifacts and old manuscripts to websites and podcasts. There are examples of citations for almost any source you might encounter.

Whether you decide to check out this particular book, glean information from credible genealogy websites, check out a book from a library, or buy a different style guide, please take the time to learn the whys and hows of citing sources. Trust me, if you aren't already handling your sources and source citations correctly, doing so will turn your genealogy research from a hobby into a "real boy."

No comments: