Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thoughts on Genealogical Sources

The seemingly simple question, "What is a source?" raises some relatively complex issues.  The easy answer to the question is that and source is a person or a document with information relevant to a particular family history inquiry. But the real question goes much deeper than that facile answer. I think we need to focus on a more specific use of the term. To me, the term "source" implies origination. I would think that a good definition of the term would be something like this:
A source is the most reliable person, place or thing from which we can derive genealogical information. 
To illustrate what I mean, consider the difference between these two questions:
  • What is the source of your information about a particular ancestor?
  • Where did that particular piece of information originate?
The difference is an investigation into the proximity and reliability of any particular genealogical data. For example, let's suppose I record an ancestor's birth date. What did you use as a source? Your answer: "I got the date from Great-grandmother who told me when the person was born." Now, from my perspective, as a former attorney, I would say that what you got was "hearsay," that is, secondary evidence in the form of a statement made by someone who was not available to be cross-examined about the statement. With a few exceptions, most hearsay evidence is excluded from court. From my standpoint, accepting information merely on someone's say so, is very risky.

Let's suppose that instead of telling me you got the information from your great-grandmother you say, "I was there at the birth of the ancestor and then recorded the date in my journal." If you were there and witnessed the event and then recorded your observation either at the time of the event or shortly thereafter, then you have moved away from the definition of hearsay and you would likely be allowed by a judge to give your testimony.

By giving these examples, I do not wish to imply that the legal Rules of Evidence should apply to family history research. The basic idea here is the reliability of a source. In the process of helping people begin their family history efforts, I frequently hear questions about the need to add sources to support entering individuals and families into various programs. For example, suppose the person is filling out a family group record for the first time and is entering their own personal information. Often, the person is surprised when I raise the issue of adding a source. Sometimes the reaction is "I know my own birthday, why do I need a source?" You might be surprised at the number of people that do not know their own birth date. Family history can be full of surprises and one of those may be finding out you were not born when you were traditionally told that you were.

This may seem a trivial example, but the concept here is to choose the most reliable sources possible to extend your family lines and then record the origin of the information. That is what we call a source. As I alluded to above, sources can be either original, that is created at or near the place and time of an event, or derivative, created at a later date. The information in a source is further divided as to whether or not it was obtained at or near the time of the event or at a later date. For example, a death certificate is usually considered an original source because it is a record created at or near the time of an event, i.e. the death of a person. But the death certificate may contain other information that is not original or primary, such as the deceased person's birth date or other such information. If there is a conflict between two pieces of information, the one recorded closer to the time of the event is preferred.

Finding and adding a source, however, is just the beginning. Each source needs to be evaluated and reviewed, not only to make sure the information is complete and accurate, but also to make sure that you follow up with additional sources that may be suggested.

1 comment:

  1. I am collecting all you sourcing articles and linking to them on our site. Very good thinking.