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

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

When is a source not a source? A Family History Challenge

A genealogical source citation should answer, at least, two questions:

  • 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

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 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 memorial tells us where the researcher found the information, it does not tell us how we can find the same information since the 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. 


  1. In keeping with your frequent theme of how changes in technology have led to significant changes on how we do genealogy and the importance of keeping up with these changes, I would like to comment on one sentence.

    "A genealogist's failure to record where the information was obtained renders the information useless to subsequent researchers."

    Recording that information is frequently not that helpful either, other than to make the information look more official. A source citation pointing to the only copy of a record located in an obscure library in the outback of Australia does not help "subsequent researchers ... verify whether or not the information is correct" or "determine the degree of reliability of the information."

    You have discussed the utility of the cameras everyone has on their smart phones. Between those cameras, the ease of uploading to FamilySearch Family Tree, and the massive capacity to store documents on that tree, there really is no excuse for not posting an image of the actual artifact the information was taken from so that everyone really can judge the source for themselves.

    1. Even apparently unhelpful information is helpful. If we know there is an obscure record, such as the one I found recently only available in the Family History Library, then that means we either go and look at the source or we take their word for it. Either way, we can evaluate the need to do more research. If there is no source at all, then we definitely know we need to do some research. By the way, I have friends in the outback of Australia that might be able to help with that obscure record.

    2. Also, thanks for all your comments, they are always helpful and instructive.

  2. Thanks for all the blog articles! They have given me a lot of new insights and a lot to think about over the past few years. And thanks for allowing us to add to your discussions. This time, however, I don't think I made my point clear. If I may, let me restate my proposition.

    You have stated many times that FamilySearch Family Tree is the solution to the continued replication of research and the continued propagation of incorrect information. Also you have stressed the need for adequate sources for information entered into FamilyTree so that information can be confirmed and trusted by other researchers.

    Bases on your previous blogs, there seem to be three levels of sourcing. I propose a fourth. Let me illustrate with the example of the my wife’s great-grandfather, ├ůmund Torsson Matra who died 23 Feb. 1959 at Musland, Kvinnherad, Hordaland, Norway.

    Level 1: No Sources

    Having the information without a source is valuable because if one assumes it is correct, it gives a starting point to look for the information so one is not completely re-researching it. However, one still has to basically complete retrace previous research.

    Level 2: Source Citation

    Including that this information came from the parish register for Kvinnherad church, volume 12, page 127, entry #83 doesn’t necessarily make the information more reliable, although one would hope that it was read correctly, but it does give the place to go directly to confirm it. Re-researching it may still take considerable time, however.

    Level 3: Source Citation Including Repository.

    This I first heard of in your blog. They never taught us in high school English that a source citation should include the actual library, archive or other place one found a document. Being told exactly where to go to find a document would cut down re-research time considerably. Including that the parish register in my example is found only in the Norwegian state archive in Bergen, Norway, gives the next researcher the information he needs to go directly to the record. The time to confirm the information could be reduced considerably if an e-mail to the archive is sufficient. It might still take weeks if the archive is getting tired of all the e-mails from researchers and decides to only answer them when they get around to it. Research time and expense would still be considerable if the researcher needs to fly personally to Bergen to check the record.

    My proposal is to make use of the technology we have to promote the requirement that whenever possible only a new, higher level of source citation is really acceptable.

    Level 4: Source Citation Including Repository and an Image

    If a digital photograph of the parish register page showing ├ůmund’s death record is included in the source citation, time to re-research the information is down to one mouse click.

    1. Thanks so much for your extended comment. I hope you don't mind if I use this organization in a blog post. I think it is an excellent summary of concepts.

    2. Also, I would be glad to give you attribution for your ideas.

    3. Since they are all just your ideas, or at least what I though you were saying, repackaged, of course you can use anything you want. As far as attribution, the only reason for that is that my mother, whose original purchase of an Apple II+ for our home was the true start of this comment, thinks it's pretty fun to see my name on the internet.

  3. Just for the record, Bainbridge in Geauga County is a township, not a city or village but Findagrave does not always have that type of information. Thus, a location of death of Bainbridge, Geauga Co., while perhaps understandable, does not really exist. This really means that one must also research locations, along with people.

  4. Just for the record, Bainbridge in Geauga Co., Ohio is a township, not an incorporated place, but Findagrave does not always have that type of information. Thus, Bainbridge, Geauga Co., Ohio, while perhaps understandable, does not really exist. This means that locations, as well as people, must also be researched.

    1. Actually, it is even more complicated than that. Bainbridge is both a township and a place within the township. The Board on Geographic Names list Bainbridge as both a township and a populated place. It is also a census designated place. But you are right about needing research.

  5. Just for the record, Bainbridge in Geauga Co., OH is and always has been a township, five miles square, not an incorporated place, but Findagrave does not always have that type of information. Thus, Bainbridge, Geauga Co., OH, while perhaps understandable, especially to local people, does not really exist. This means that locations, as well as people, must also be researched and accurately recorded.

    1. See my comment above about Bainbridge. The main reason for being specific about a place is to help to identify possible records about the place. Another reason is to help to differentiate between people with the same or similar names.