The very least you need to know about sources and documentation

sample chart

When we think about genealogy we tend to think about the various types of charts and diagrams that are used to present results. What we tend not to think of, at least at first, are source citations, annotations, and supporting documents. This is natural enough. For one thing, we always start with a certain amount of information we just know, and which we want to record right away, without stopping to record references for every data item. Another reason is that it is just human nature to think in terms of the finished product, rather than the process we go through to arrive at our final product, be it a chart, a narrative or something else. And this is fine. I started out by recording what I already knew on a pedigree chart. Everybody does. But presentation is only part of the story: we want our genealogy to look good, but we also want it to be accurate and as complete as possible.

Notice that I’m not just talking about persuading your audience that your conclusions are correct. That’s important. Anyone could write down a few names and dates chosen at random (and that’s basically what I did to produce the above chart), but you want people to have confidence in your conclusions. You want to be systematic and precise, and not leave important information out through a simple oversight. Of course, your readers will appreciate your thoroughness, and they will be more likely (and able) to make use of your work if they have confidence in it. Even if your readers are not planning on doing any research of their own, they’ll still want to know if the information you present is accurate.

So, how do you get there? Genealogical research is very much like doing research for a term paper, and preparing charts and other diagrams is vey much like writing the paper. You no doubt remember being expected to document your sources in the form of footnotes or endnotes. Why do you do this (except, of course, for the obvious reason that your teacher requires it)? The obvious answer is that doing so, you provide support for your conclusions. Your paper becomes more persuasive. Certainly, this is what my teachers told me when I was in school, and it’s true, of course. But it’s only part of the story. You also want to have confidence in your conclusions independent of any consideration of how persuasive the paper you write may or may not be. You also want to be systematic in your research: you don’t to omit important aspects of the story. Conversely, you don’t want to get bogged down in details or lines of research that ultimately don’t really matter, or which detract from other aspects of your work. In short, you need a systematic way of keeping track of the main points of your presentation, how solid they are, what needs more work, and what you have pretty much nailed down. In the context of genealogy, this can mean not spending a lot of time compiling information about people who are not actually ancestors, but who have similar names and vital dates (such as birthdates) and were mistakenly included in one of your charts. To put it succinctly, proper documentation is not only important as a means of proving or demonstrating the correctness of your conclusions, it is equally important as a research tool. It helps you to guide and organize your research, even if relatively few people will actually want to check your sources.

In spite of the benefits of citing sources in genealogical research, many people do not include extensive documentation. Instead, explanatory footnotes will be included only for selected entries, or there will be no documentation at all. Why is this? Two obvious reasons for this are lack of tool support and lack of familiarity with the process of writing proper source citations. I find that having tools that help me to record, organize and manage information is indispensable. It’s not my goal here to advocate the use of any particular product, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that there is only one software tool that should be the one that everyone uses. But whether you use a specialized tool such as Family Tree Maker, general purpose tools such as spreadsheets and word processors, or paper and a physical filing system, you still need to keep track of your sources and document your charts by citing sources as appropriate. You can start out with a paper record, but the further you go, the more you will benefit from using a specialized tool. Fortunately, there are a number of genealogy tools available, and web sites such as Ancestry.com provide much of the same functionality. But to be blunt about it, even though you can do everything with paper an pencil if you want to, automated tools will make life much easier for you, and decrease the likelihood that you’ll leave out crucial documentation for lack of time. I strongly recommend using a specialized tool or web site (or both).

That takes us to the matter of mechanics. The basic data of genealogy are people, attributes or “facts” (which I place in quotes because the information we record may be incorrect or incomplete, or simply not proven), and relationships such as parent-child relationships, marriage, and so forth. As a matter of terminology, things  like birth, death, marriage, residence, national identifier and the like are called facts or events. We tend to say that things like birth, christening, immigration, marriage and the like are events. An identifier such as a social security number or a national identification number is a fact. But in genealogy, facts and events are generally treated together and are essentially the same sort of thing. It is facts and events that we document. This is crucial. One might think that relationships such as “A is married to B” or “A is the son of B and C” would be documented directly, but instead we document the marriage of A and B, or the birth of A to B and C. Now, events usually have attributes, usually a date and a location, and sometimes others, but it is the events that we document. This is really a design decision. Tools and standards (such as GEDCOM) could have been designed to document relationships (or even people) directly, but if you think about it, documenting events makes sense, and you’ll want to follow this approach.

Okay, so how do you document an event? By referring to a source. What is a source? It can be something concrete like a birth or death certificate, a parish registry, a book, or something a little more abstract like the 1860 census of the United States. A source can also be an index such as a listing of the people buried in a cemetery. What a source is typically not is a page in a book, a particular roll of microfilm, or a record in an online database (such as findagrave.com). As a rule of thumb, if it’s part that can be separately indexed, it’s not an independent source. You should try to include one or more source citations for each fact in your database. A source citation refers to a source (of course), but includes additional indexical information such as page numbers or record numbers where this makes sense. In Family Tree Maker and at Ancestry.com, this is called the citation detail. In addition, you can add citation text, which is generally freer in form, and generally includes a transcription of the cited text or other details. If you are using one of these tools, two additional details you can add are a URL for an online resource and a multimedia item such a scanned document.

leaf exampleFinally, I should say a bit about Ancestry.com and the hint (or leaf) mechanism it uses to help you discover (and sometimes document) information. If you use Family Tree Maker (in this case, Family Tree Maker 3 for the Macintosh) and it is linked to Ancestry. You my see a leaf like this. If you click on the leaf, you will be given the opportunity to review information and decide if you want to add it to your tree. If you use the web site instead, you will see the same leaf icon, but the interface is a little different. If you use this mechanism, Ancestry will add source citations for you, citing the resources it matched against your family tree. At this time, they can be any of a number of things, including census records, indexed birth and death certificates, immigration records, land grants and other types of records. This doesn’t mean you don’t want to review the source citations, and you don’t want to limit yourself to using this search tool. Add your own sources and source citations as appropriate. And if you use public member trees in Ancestry as sources, be sure to click on the tree names and review their sources. Member trees can be a great search tool, but they are not what you want to use as information sources in your final product. Different genealogists will tell you different things here, but my position is that it’s fine to use member trees as a tool as long as you’re careful to document your sources and you don’t treat them as the last word.

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