What is and what is not a source? I have written about this topic a few times in the past and it seems to come back to haunt me every time I work on the FamilySearch.org Family Tree (or any other online family tree program for that matter). If you are an academic writer, you are probably thinking of footnotes. Historically, genealogical writers copied their sources into their books, if they mentioned them at all. Here is an example from the following book.
Brown, Cyrus Henry. 1983. Brown genealogy of many of the descendants of Thomas, John, and Eleazer Brown, sons of Thomas and Mary Newhall Brown, of Lynn, Mass., 1628-1915. Boston: Everett Press Co.
The author of the book takes the time to transcribe an entire deed and notes right at the end of the transcription that the original is in the possession of one of the family members.
Where would I go today to find a copy of this deed other than the transcription in the book? Absent some specific location for a copy, the citation is really no help to me at all. I must trust the author's transcription of the deed entirely. If the original has now been lost or destroyed in some way, we are grateful for the transcription, but there is now no way to verify the transcription's accuracy. Is this an important issue?
The citation above mentions the "Stoningtown 2d Book for Deeds (follio #535) this 30th of December 1714..." Is this enough for me to find the original deed?
I can search online for information about Stonington, Connecticut and I find the following in Wikipedia: Stonington, Connecticut.
The town of Stonington is located in New London County, Connecticut, United States, in the state's southeastern corner. It includes the borough of Stonington, the villages of Pawcatuck, Lords Point, and Wequetequock, and the eastern halves of the villages of Mystic and Old Mystic (the other halves being in the town of Groton). The population of the town was 18,545 at the 2010 census.Now, if I go to the FamilySearch.org catalog, I can find out if there are any documents preserved from that town. I do find quite a list.
The FamilySearch Catalog does list this particular records set. but when I try to view the records, I get the following notice:
So, for today, my search to verify the accuracy of the transcription is frustrated. This example illustrates the source and citation process. Here is a summary of what happens.
I find some reference in a document or record to an event in my ancestor's life (my example here was an old deed) I record the information in the deed (in this example, there was a complete transcription). I tell where I got the information (what was provided with the Connecticut deed, may or may not turn out to be sufficient to find the original). Some subsequent researcher comes along (me in this example) and tries to verify the information I have obtained from a record or document. What I have recorded may or may not be enough for the subsequent researcher to determine the accuracy of the information I provided from the "original" where I obtained the record.
In my example, let's suppose that I am researching the Brown family and find this reference to the deed. I can simply copy out the transcription and use the book as a "source." Subsequent researchers could then look for the book unless I copied all the information from the book and included where the author indicated he got the information in the first place.
This example raises many of the issues involved in the process of doing research. The best research practices involve examining the best possible source for all the information included. I was recently doing some research in Mexican Civil Registration records. I found three separate references for one individual which were all indexes. Because I don't always trust indexes, I spent the time to look for a copy of the original civil registration record. When I finally found the record, I discovered that the three indexes, which had recorded the person a male, were in fact wrong. The original record showed that the person was a female. All three of the indexes had been listed as "sources" and all three were wrong. I find this issue to be a factor in many of the items listed as sources. Careless researchers cite books, indexes and other extracted references as the "source" of the information. Yes, these references do tell me where they got the information, but they also raise issues concerning the information in the oldest or original source.
Sometimes we are forced to rely on transcriptions and indexes. But we should always remember that these documents are not "sources" in the sense that they are conclusive of the information they contain. A source is, therefore, more than merely a listing of where you got the information. A source should also be found that is as close as possible to being an accurate and contemporary record of the event recorded.
Previous posts in this series.