Many newcomers to genealogy research are thrilled when find that many of the names in their family tree are easily available online. Proud of their accomplishment, they then download all the data they can from these Internet sources, import it into their genealogy software and proudly start sharing their "genealogy" with others. Their research then makes its way into new genealogy databases and collections, further perpetuating the new "family tree" and amplifying any errors each time the source is copied.
While it sounds great, there is one major problem with this scenario; namely that the family information that is freely published in many Internet databases and Web sites is often unsubstantiated and of questionable validity. While useful as a clue or a starting point for further research, the family tree data is sometimes more fiction than fact. Yet, people often treat the information they find as the gospel truth.
That's not to say that all online genealogy information is bad. Just the opposite. The Internet is a great resource for tracing family trees. The trick is to learn how to separate the good online data from the bad. Follow these five steps and you too can use Internet sources to track down reliable information about your ancestors.
Step One: Search for the Source
Whether it's a personal Web page or a subscription genealogy database, all online data should include a list of sources. The key word here is should. You will find many resources that don't. Once you find a record of your great, great grandfather online, however, the first step is to try and locate the source of that information.
- Look for source citations and references-often noted as footnotes at the bottom of the page, or at the end (last page) of the publication
- Check for notes or comments
- Click on the link to "about this database" when searching a public database (Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and FamilySearch.com, for example, include sources for most of their databases)
- Email the contributor of the data, whether it be the compiler of a database or the author of a personal family tree, and politely ask for their source information. Many researchers are wary of publishing source citations online (afraid that others will "steal" the credit to their hard-earned research), but may be willing to share them with you privately.
Step Two: Track Down the Referenced Source
Unless the Web site or database includes digital images of the actual source, the next step is to track down the cited source for yourself.
- If the source of the information is a genealogy or history book, then you may find a library in the associated location has a copy and is willing to provide photocopies for a small fee.
- If the source is a microfilm record, then it's a good bet that the Family History Library has it. To search the FHL's online catalog, click on Library, then Family History Library Catalog. Use place search for the town or county to bring up the library's records for that locality. Listed records can then be borrowed and viewed through your local Family History Center.
- If the source is an online database or Web site, then go back to Step #1 and see if you can track down a listed source for that site's information.
Step Three: Search for a Possible Source
When the database, Web site or contributor doesn't provide the source, it's time to turn sleuth. Ask yourself what type of record might have supplied the information you have found. If it's an exact date of birth, then the source is most likely a birth certificate or tombstone inscription. If it is an approximate year of birth, then it may have come from a census record or marriage record. Even without a reference, the online data may provide enough clues to time period and/or location to help you find the source yourself.
Step Four: Evaluate the Source and Information It Provides
While there are a growing number of Internet databases which provide access to scanned images of original documents, the vast majority of genealogy information on the Web comes from derivative sources - records which have been derived (copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized) from previously existing, original sources. Understanding the difference between these different types of sources will help you best assess how to verify the information that you find.
- How close to the original record is your information source? If it is a photocopy, digital copy or microfilm copy of the original source, then it is likely to be a valid representation. Compiled records-including abstracts, transcriptions, indexes, and published family histories-are more likely to have missing information or transcription errors. Information from these types of derivative sources should be further traced back to the original source.
- Does the data come from primary information? This information, created at or close to the time of the event by someone with personal knowledge of the event (i.e. a birth date provided by the family doctor for the birth certificate), is generally more likely to be accurate. Secondary information, by contrast, is created a significant amount of time after an event occurred, or by a person who was not present at the event (i.e. a birth date listed on a death certificate by the daughter of the deceased). Primary information usually carries more weight than secondary information.
Step Five: Resolve Conflicts
You've found a birthdate online, checked out the original source and everything looks good. Yet, the date conflicts with other sources you've found for your ancestor. Does this mean that the new data is unreliable? Not necessarily. It just means that you now need to reevaluate each piece of evidence in terms of its likelihood to be accurate, the reason it was created in the first place, and its corroboration with other evidence.
- How many steps is the data from the original source? A database on Ancestry.com that is derived from a published book, which itself was compiled from original records means that the database on Ancestry is two steps away from the original source. Each additional step increases the likelihood of errors.
- When was the event recorded? Information recorded closer to the time of the event is more likely to be accurate.
- Did any time elapse between the event and the creation of the record that relates its details? Family bible entries may have been made at one sitting, rather than at the time of the actual events. A tombstone may have been placed on the grave of an ancestor years after her death. A delayed birth record may have been issued dozens of years after the actual birth.
- Does the document appear altered in any way? Different handwriting may mean that information was added after the fact. Digital photos may have been edited. It's not a normal occurrence, but it does happen.
- What do others say about the source? If it is a published book or database rather than an original record, use an Internet search engine to see if anyone else has used or commented on that particular source. This is an especially good way to pinpoint sources which have a large number of errors or inconsistencies.