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

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sources in FamilySearch Family Tree -- Why do we need sources?

This is a series on sources in the Family Tree program. The series will examine the reasons behind adding sources, the benefits from adding them and the mechanics of doing so. I am firmly convinced that the long term viability and integrity of the Family Tree program can only be maintained through the systematic examination, correction and documentation by adding sources to the existing entries and by adding documentation, sources and supporting documents to any new entries. The inclusion of incomplete, inaccurate, and in some cases, inappropriate entries is unacceptable and tends to make the Family Tree program less credible.

 It is evident, that there are a significantly large number of sources being added to the Family Tree program since the implementation of the "Record Hints" feature. However, the addition of a source does not in and of itself constitute valid documentation of the events in an individual ancestor's life. Sources cited in the program must contain valid supporting information for historical events in the ancestor's life. In addition, the sources must actually refer to the person to whom they are attached.

It is important to understand the concept of a "source" in the context of adding that type of information to the Family Tree. Family history research is exactly that; history. The main task involved in the process of investigating and recording a family history is the examination of historical documents containing information about a target ancestral family. For example, if I were going to document and extend the Tanner family line, I would begin by examining what information was missing and then attempt to determine historical sources that could supply the missing information. Obviously, the research process is considerably more complex than this simplistic example. But, I believe that the research process can be summarized in the following steps:

  • Reviewing existing family history information for inaccurate or incomplete information
  • Determining appropriate historical documents or records that may contain information about the family
  • Locating the historical documents or records
  • Examining the historical documents or records
  • Analyzing the information contained in the records
  • Extracting pertinent information
  • Recording pertinent information in an appropriate family history database
  • Documenting where the information was obtained i.e. by adding a source

This is not a strictly linear activity. You may find information that is unexpected or pertains to a totally different research topic, but eventually, you will have to go through each step of the process.

It is common to examine many historical records without finding specific information about the target ancestral family. Good family history procedure would dictate that you needed to record all of the documents examined whether or not they contained any pertinent information. It is outside the scope of this particular post series, but I'm not completely in agreement with that practice. Basically, my disagreement lies with the inference that creating a research log is like a checklist of places you have already looked. I have found, that it is absolutely necessary to review some historical records multiple times in order to extract all of the pertinent information. If the purpose of a research log is to preserve the location of previously visited records, then it certainly can have some value.

Back to sources. A record itself is not a "source" until you determine that it contains pertinent information. The threshold for what is and what is not pertinent is very low. You should record as a source, any record that contains information about your ancestors, no matter how trivial. In addition, the best practice is to record all sources even those that are repetitious. For example, the same record for the same year of the United States census. But it is important to record the location of both copies of the record in the event that one becomes unavailable. In this sense, there is no upper limit to the number of sources that should or could be added.

The process is very straightforward. When you examine an historical record and find information about your family your record not only the information, but also the place where the information was found. This is done for two reasons: first, to enable you to return to that location in the future and second, to give other researchers the benefit of your research experience. One of the biggest problems with family history research is the fact that much of it is done over and over again. This duplication of effort can be avoided by the addition of detailed sources.

In addition, sources add credibility to the record and dissuade subsequent researchers from making changes arbitrarily. One of the major concerns of the users of the Family Tree is that there entries are subject to change by other users. This problem can be largely avoided through the process of adding substantial source information for each individual in the program. My own experience indicates that adding sources has substantially diminished the number and frequency of changes being made to my own ancestral lines. Those ancestors who were not yet documented are still subject to frequent changes.

I cannot understate the importance of examining the historical records to verify that the information is pertinent to the particular target ancestor to which it is to be attached. Too many times, researchers get into the "same name – same person" syndrome and simply add sources where the names match the target ancestor. Fortunately, due to the accuracy of the FamilySearch Record Hints, this is not yet a major problem.

One very important reason for adding sources is the fact that the sources add stories, photos, and supporting historical documents to each individual in the Family Tree. In addition, the very process of adding sources becomes the major method for adding additional ancestors to the Family Tree and thereby providing a supply of individuals who need Temple ordinances. During the past few weeks, my wife and I have both added individuals to our family trees by the process of adding sources.

The Family Tree program will only advance and become more useful as the individual family historians continue to have valid sources to each of the individuals in the program. A natural outgrowth of the additional sources will be the correction of the data and the addition of new people.

Stay tuned for the next installment in the series.

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