I have discussed source citations so many times in this blog, from several different perspectives. In the course of addressing the Genealogical Proof Standard, I am once again drawn to discuss the subject of source citation.
The second condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard, as published by the Board for the Certification of Genealogists in their standards manual, reads,
We collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information we use.
Hopefully I have convinced you in earlier posts why source citation is important. But why is this part of a proof standard? What does source citation have to do with the quality of our research conclusions?
I have briefly touched on this issue in other posts. You can read my previous posts about source citation by clicking on the category “Source Citations” in the sidebar on the right. But here I would like to address this question more directly, and provide examples.
Suppose a key document in your proof argument is a last will and testament. In your argument, you discuss information from this will.
The most important part of conducting high-quality research and producing high-quality conclusions is using high-quality records. You might remember the phrase “Garbage In, Garbage Out” that we all learned when we started using computers. This is true with genealogy as well.
That will you are using may exist in multiple forms:
- There is the original will written and signed by the testator.
- There is a recorded copy of the will transcribed by the court clerk into the will book.
- There may be a microfilmed copy of the will book created by the state archives.
- There may be an independently microfilmed copy of the will book created by the Utah Genealogical Association available at the Family History Library.
- There may be a published transcription of the will.
- There may be a published abstract of the will.
- There may be a reference to the will with a partial abstract in a compiled genealogy.
So when you refer to the facts of the will, which version did you view? The citation would provide this information. In this way, you can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your sources, and determine the quality of any research based on those sources.
But this is not the only reason that source citation is part of the Proof Standard. To understand completely, look at the Genealogical Proof Standard as a whole:
- Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent;
- Collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information;
- Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence;
- Resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other;
- Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
In other words, we search for information, we cite the sources, we analyze and correlate the information, we resolve conflicting evidence, and we arrive at a conclusion.
But we could not possibly go directly from looking for records to analyzing the information.
When do we actually assess the quality of the source we are using? It could be considered part of the first step, where we are instructed to search in “reliable sources.” But this does not tell us how to determine what constitutes a “reliable source.” The first step deals with the search for records, the third and fourth steps deal with analyzing information. Only the second step deals with analysis of the record itself, as opposed to the information held within that record.
Think of the Genealogical Proof Standard as if it were written this way:
- We conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent.
- We assess the provenance and quality of the records we are using by collecting and including in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information.
- We analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.
- We resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other.
- We arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
In my post “Five things you have to know about every record,” I discuss the importance of a record’s provenance.
When the testator died, his will was deposited with the Register of Wills (or the appropriate probate court depending on where you are researching). If you went to the Register of Wills and looked at that original will, there is a pretty good chance that it had not been moved much from the time it was originally deposited.
If, however, you looked at the original will at the state archives, this means that at some point before you saw it, that will was boxed up and transferred to a separate institution. Once it arrived, it was likely accessioned into the new repository under the provisions of the archival system already in use at that institution. This process may include separating records that had been previously filed together or combining records that had been previously filed separately. In some cases no changes to organization were made. In other cases, no consistent organizational system seems to exist from record group to record group or county to county. It is important to address this as part of your analysis of a record.
Of course, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we view a record. If we use an original will from County A held by the state archives on one project, then a few weeks later use another original will from County A held by the same state archives, we can generally assume that the analysis we did the first time we used the records remains the same. This may not hold true if we are looking at an original will from County B or County C, or any other record group from County A, but when using the same collection, it probably does. Once we learn about a collection or a record group, we can apply that knowledge to future research.
This analysis then appears as part of your citation. When creating a citation, you make use of the organizational system of the records you are using. This forms the basis, to a certain extent, of the format of the citation.
 Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), page 1.
 The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, pages 1-2.
If you would like to cite this post:
Michael Hait, CG, “Why is the source citation part of the Genealogical Proof Standard?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 23 Nov 2011 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]