Many of the people I talk to about adding sources to FamilySearch.org's Family Tree have apparently forgotten how to write. They seem to have been using computers for such a long time, that their ability to operate without one doing all the work has atrophied. It is time to step back and take a little dose of reality. I realize that the entire concept of attaching a source to an individual's life events is somewhat foreign to many who claim to be family historians, but adding sources is the key to stopping the endless cycle of redoing entire ancestries every generation. If the huge numbers of my own relatives who spent countless hours accumulating names and dates and merely thought to provide adequate documentation for each, perhaps I would not have had to spend most of the last 30 or so years re-verifying everything they recorded.
If my great-grandmother had thought to verify and document her own father's birth place, perhaps while he was still alive, I would not have spent years looking for that same information.
OK, so here goes a rather involved hypothetical situation. We start with Researcher Doe, who is researching his family's history. Mind you, this is all hypothetical and I will be making up the details to suit the points I am going to make. So, listen closely.
Researcher Doe was born in Nephi, Juab, Utah in 1935. (Remember, I am making all this up). He was the second child of Alma Doe and Sarah Roe. His father had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York in the 1920s. He had come west to be near the Church and ended up in Nephi, working in a car repair shop. He met Sarah Roe at a church dance and they got married in the Manti Temple in 1931. Researcher Doe is now in early 80s and is, for the first time, interested in learning about his family.
Researcher Doe goes to his Ward Family History Consultant for some help and is invited to go to the local family history center. R. Doe is moderately familiar with computers because when he was employed as an accountant, he had used one in his work. R. Doe is still healthy and active and wants to get busy finding out about his family. His father died when he was nine years old in a tragic accident, and his mother remarried. He and his step-father were very close and he has always considered him to be his "father."
OK. so now we are ready to do some research. R. Doe, with some help from the staff at the Family History Center, quickly finds his family in the 1940 U.S. Census. His first experiences with FamilySearch.org and the Family Tree program are a little confusing. He is not sure how to choose between doing research for his biological father or his step-father. He hears two different stories; one that he can follow his step-father's family line if he wishes to do so and on the other hand, he is told that he should pursue researching his biological father. It turns out that his step-father's family came across the Plains as pioneers and it looks like all the information is already in the Family Tree program, so he decides to pursue his biological father's line which stops at his father.
He is not sure what to do with the 1940 U.S. Census record. The friendly folks at the Family History Center (FHC) have told him to buy a flash drive and make copies of the documents he finds and store them on the flash drive. He talks to some of his friends about his research efforts and is told that he must have a program to store his data. He is wondering why this is necessary since he can use the FamilySearch Family Tree. But he now has a copy of the census record on his flash drive and is looking at one of the genealogy programs on the computers at the FHC.
Shortly later, he is introduced to Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. He has also found his father's World War II Draft Registration record. Now, what is he to do with the documents he just found? Neither document tells him anything he did not already know about his father so he is puzzled as to why the people at the Family History Center want him to add them as sources to his father in FamilySearch Family Tree. He is even more puzzled when he finds the 1930 and 1920 U.S. Census for his father's family.
What would you tell Doe at this point in his research? Why is it so important to add sources? What does it mean to add a source?
This idea of adding sources to entries in our family trees is a very difficult concept. Even if a person has had some exposure to this concept from doing "research reports" in a school setting, it is still not an easy concept to grasp. What is even more difficult to grasp is the concept of building a pedigree entirely from sources. Perhaps it is helpful to think of research as building a house. The sources are the foundation. They support the rest of the structure, i.e. names, dates and places, that go into making the framework. The sources also add the walls and and ultimately all the furnishings of the house.
Many people who do family history think that all that is necessary is to put up the frame. They think that extending their pedigree with names and dates is enough. As they build, they fail to fill in all the details and soon the house is vast framework without any foundation to hold it together. Perhaps you have seen a house that reached the framing stage and was then abandoned. After time, the entire structure needs to be redone. This is the same thing that happens with family history. If we fail to provide all of the background that fills in the history, the next researcher that comes along has to go back through and redo the entire research, basically because there is no confidence that the framework has been done correctly.
It is this process of discovery; finding new details and adding stories and memories of our ancestors that validates and completes the work. If we fail to record the sources, meaning documents, certificates, and other information we find, then that forces the next researcher to go through the same process. We are also missing the enjoyment and fulfillment of building a complete family structure.
In my hypothetical, Doe will soon find that unless he adds sources to his family tree, he will very shortly become lost in the mass of details. He will find that he is going back over the same facts again and again because he cannot keep focused on where he is going because he is constantly re-tracing his research.
Sources help build a complete family history, one that enables future researchers to make progress and not just redo what we have done already.