Rootsweb Review had an excellent article yesterday by Mary Harrell-Sesniak entitled “Have You Really Proved Your Ancestry.” The article starts out:
“Researchers often feel they’ve proved ancestry because they located family in one or more online trees.
But tying into a database doesn’t suffice as proof. For that, you need to verify an author’s sources and references – whether they are from original or derivative documents – and whether they can be treated as primary or secondary sources.”
One of the reasons I started posting my research online was because when I searched for information online all too often the data I found only referenced someone else’s family file as a source. And that’s if there were sources at all. Unless there are sources—and I mean documentation like birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, estate files, wills, deeds, obituaries, etc.—how can you know if the information you find online has any substance?
It’s certainly easy enough to find someone with the right name in the right area, decide they’re related and add them to your file. But have you really proven anything? No. Unless you have sources that you can verify—and no, finding it in a book isn’t a verification—and analyze yourself you can’t know if what that other researcher found is true.
I found this last part out myself the hard way. I had reviewed another researcher’s work, gathered the documentation and verified that yes, indeed, they said what was claimed. So, the information was good, right? Hmm. Not so fast. I was ignoring the problems I kept seeing with the timelines regarding births of children and grandchildren (the parents were just TOO young), because all the data seemed to fit. Once I actually did the analysis, I found that several key documents that I already had—although very difficult to read—actually disproved the connection that the other researcher and I were trying to make.
So, yes, you need to find and verify sources. Do they exist? Do they say what the other researcher claimed? You also need to perform your own analysis of the source. Is it an original document or a derivative? It’s best to get as close to the original document as possible. Is the information in the document primary information—created at the time by someone with firsthand knowledge of the event—or secondary information—created after the fact? The closer to the original event the document was created, the more reliable the information is deemed.