- Where did the information come from?
- How can someone else find the same information?
How those questions are answered has developed into a major issue among genealogists. At one end of the spectrum are an extremely small number of academic/professional genealogists who have developed an elaborate "citation" system based primarily on various published systems such as the Chicago Manual of Style. 2017 and others. The professional/academic system of recording sources has become so elaborate that my 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is 956 pages long.
Clear at the other end of the spectrum is the system of citations included on the standard family group record for many years Here is an example of the source field:
Unless you use very small letters, there isn't enough space here to encourage the entry of a source.
Hmm. It is time to start defining my terms.
The word ambiguous is defined as a word that has more than one meaning or interpretation. The word "source" as used by genealogists falls into that category. One meaning of the word focuses on where the information used by the genealogist to enter names, events, and other information was obtained. Another use of the word "source" is used as a synonym for the word "citation." The first use of the word "source" answers the first question above. Citing the source involves recording the identity of the place where the information was obtained. For example, if I find a reference to my ancestor in a book, the source is the book. When I use that information to enter names or dates or whatever and to my own records, i.e. a genealogy database program, the citation is the information I enter telling others about the book.
A genealogist's failure to record where the information was obtained renders the information useless to subsequent researchers. The concept here is that any information recorded about our ancestors, i.e. historical figures, needs to be documented with detailed information about where the recorded information was obtained so that subsequent researchers can verify whether or not the information is correct and also determine the degree of reliability of the information.
Yes, I do have to keep repeating myself in order to make sure that what I'm saying is absolutely clear. No, I do not have detectable dementia yet. :-)
So when is the source not a source?
Even if the information supplied is referred to as a "source" if it fails to tell where the information was obtained it is essentially not a source. For example, here is an entry from FindAGrave.com:
Accompanying this entry are three photographs showing the grave marker for Dr. David Shepherd. The only information on the great marker is the name "Dr. David Shipherd" and the two dates. The information contained on grave markers is commonly considered to be a "source." However, the origin of the remaining information in the entry except for the identity of the cemetery is missing. It is helpful to have a citation to this FindAGrave.com entry and to see the photo of the grave marker, but there is no real way to determine where the information came from or when it was recorded. There is a link to David Shepherd's wife's grave in the same cemetery. However, that entry although also detailed, does not has the same three photos shown for her husband. Although a reference or citation to the FindAGrave.com memorial tells us where the researcher found the information, it does not tell us how we can find the same information since the FindAGrave.com information must have come from some other source.
So, simply copying information that does not answer the questions above, does not help us determine the origin or reliability of the information and therefore has little or no value. By the way, grave markers are not necessarily accurate as to birth information. You cannot also assume that they are accurate as to the death information either. The marker could have been placed many years after the actual events.
The real issue here is our ability to determine the reliability of the information we find in genealogical compilations such as online family trees and other types of publications of collected information.