Archive for the ‘Genealogical Proof Standard’ Category

Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part three

In recent posts I have been discussing other bloggers’ comments about source citations, and generally why I disagree with some of them. In this post, I want to go in another direction, and discuss two recent blog posts about source citations that I agree with to some extent.

The first is the post “Genealogy Citations: Good, Better, Best,” in the Luxegen Genealogy and Family History, posted on 6 March 2011. Joan writes,

As I mentioned in my comments on a couple of blogs, my philosophy is good, better, best.

We all strive to do our best but start out as ‘good’ and become ‘better’ along the way to ‘best’.

I feel the genealogical community can put a positive spin on the citation issue by helping newbies grow.

Most newbies (or casual hobbyists) simply don’t know how to do it better because they haven’t been exposed to better or best yet.

A kind, gentle approach to educating them is the key.

I suggest using a toastmasters approach which is sharing what they are doing well, offering constructive suggestions for improvement and leaving them hopeful and wanting to help build the best research possible. We can offer suggestions that provide concrete examples for others to follow.

Contrast this with slamming them for what they don’t know they are doing wrong now, and you can see why issues don’t improve.

Perhaps, if we do this in a kind, humane fashion, the casual genealogists will buy into being part of a community that is striving for the good of all. Being part of a community can be a big draw. …

My suggestions are to create a Good, Better, Best Genealogy Approach

GOOD might be – copy the link to where you got the source into the notes section of your genealogy software program

BETTER- photocopy or scan all pertinent identifying documents (title page of the book flap, ISBN number, publisher, page numbers, etc).  Have a log book of that microfilm record; copy the pension record source down, etc etc.  (insert myriad of examples here).   We would also need examples of organization systems to keep track of the information.

BEST – Evidence Explained to the letter

I agree with Joan’s assessment that part of the problem is a lack of education on the part of the beginning genealogist. I also agree that learning to cite your sources properly involves a steep learning curve. Joan offers a productive level-based philosophy toward improving source citation skills.

This also brings to mind the “Genealogical Maturity Model” developed by the Ancestry Insider last year. You can view his GMM levels in the post, “Rate Your Genealogical Maturity,” posted on 6 March 2010. The levels he defines for Source Citations are as follows:

  • Entry: “Captures URLs for online sources and citations for published sources.”
  • Emerging: “Increasingly captures necessary information for manuscript sources.”
  • Practicing: “Typically produces complete source citations.”
  • Proficient: “Gives complete and accurate source citations including provenance and quality assessment.”
  • Stellar: “Overcomes limitations of genealogical software to create well organized, industry standard reference notes and source lists.”

Personally, I would actually reverse the positions of “Proficient” and “Stellar.” I don’t use genealogy software for any of my client research projects, and I believe that this is the case for many professional genealogists. The use of genealogical software is completely unrelated to source citation skills. But this is beside the point.

Both of these posts display the development of the skill of source citation. It is important to note that genealogical skills, like all skills, do take practice to develop into proficiency.

On the other hand, I also believe that some might be settling a little short of the end goal.

When you are learning to drive, parallel parking might take a lot of practice before you can do it well. But you don’t really have the option of saying, “It’s too hard,” or “This is good enough.” You have to keep practicing until you get it right.

This is how source citation should be treated. It is a vital part of the genealogy research process. Not only for the end result of the finished citation, but the actual process of creating the citation. The citation-creation process involves a level of awareness about the record you are using that makes the process itself extremely valuable.

The second post I wanted to mention, “Is Mills Style Necessary?,”  is part of a series of posts on the subject of source citation also written by the Ancestry Insider. I would recommend that anyone conducting genealogical research read the entire series. I actually agree with almost everything that he has written in this series, so there is no need to comment further here.

In the three parts of “Source Citations: Why Form Matters,” I have discussed why a consistent format for source citations is necessary. I am sure that not everyone agrees with me, especially among some beginning hobbyists that are only researching their own families for their own entertainment. The points that I hope that everyone comes away with is that (1) source citation is necessary, (2) a consistent format for source citation is necessary for purposes of clarity, even if you will be the only person who ever looks at your research, and (3) the skill of developing proper, consistent source citations is achieved through practice.

We are extremely fortunate that Elizabeth Shown Mills took the time and energy to adapt the Chicago Manual of Style citation format to address the citation needs of genealogists. Just a generation ago, there was no commonly accepted, consistent format for genealogical source citations. This caused confusion, which is exactly why Ms. Mills wrote first Evidence! and later Evidence Explained.

Are my sources original? Who cares?

Many genealogists conduct all of their research using digitized and microfilmed records.

So what?

Ancestry, Footnote, GenealogyBank, the Internet Archive, USGenWeb, and other genealogy websites provide access to indexes, abstracts, transcriptions, and digital images of a large number of records. And their offerings are literally growing every day. The Family History Library holds microfilm of deed books, church records, will books, vital records, county histories, landowner maps, tax lists, and all of the other important record groups from around the world. These can be ordered through our local Family History Centers and provide access to the local records we need.

Here is the problem: these are not all of the records that you will need to use.

I use digitized records. See my recent “online case study” in which I attempt to research the family history of a freed slave in Texas using exclusively records held online. I have subscriptions to Ancestry, Footnote, and GenealogyBank, and have even compiled and published an e-book containing over 2,000 records available online on non-genealogy websites.

I also use microfilmed records. Sometimes from the Family History Library, and sometimes at other repositories such as state archives.

But I also use many original records directly at the repositories that hold them. By original records, here I mean those records available exclusively on paper. Records that have never been digitized and never been microfilmed. Often these records have not even been indexed, and the only way to research within the records is to conduct a page-by-page search.

In many cases, my success at locating the necessary records to prove a link or move beyond a brick wall was founded entirely on my use of these original, undigitized, unmicrofilmed records.

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a five-part checklist that allows one to verify, to a certain extent, the validity of one’s genealogical conclusions. The first requirement is that we conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for all records relevant to our research problem.

This does not read “all digitized records” or “all microfilmed records”; it reads “all relevant records,” and should without a doubt be taken to include those records that are not digitized or microfilmed. Take the following cases as examples:

1. Goal: identify the former owner of a freedwoman born enslaved in Maryland. How original records helped: In 1852, some Maryland counties recorded the names and ages of slaves owned, on the tax assessment records. These slave assessment rolls have never been digitized, microfilmed, or indexed. A page-by-page search through hundreds of pages, encompassing four separate election districts, finally revealed a household assessed for slaves with the names of the mother and child of the appropriate ages. Why digitized or microfilmed records would not have worked: The only other source that would have provided the names and ages of slaves during this time period would have been the estate inventory of the slave owner. In this particular case, the slave owner identified died in 1848, but the child was not identified by name in his inventory. These slaves did not bear the surname of the slave owner, and without having even a small “cluster” of people to look for, it would not have been possible to identify the family.

2. Goal: Identify the family of a man born ca. 1800 with a surname common to the area. How original records helped: The county in which this man lived his entire life had a courthouse fire that destroyed all of the probate records prior to 1852. A microfilmed land record was found in which the father sold land to the son, but this deed did not identify them as father and son. However, a case file in the state’s Chancery Court recorded the distribution of land owned by an unmarried brother among his siblings, as fellow “heirs at law” of their father (from whom the brother had inherited the land). This case file, while indexed, has not been digitized, microfilmed, or abstracted. It provided further support by proving that the land was originally owned by the father and distributed among his children. Why digitized or microfilmed records would not have worked: As noted, a single deed in which the father sold land to his son (the subject of research) was located, but no family relationships were noted within the deed. There were also no other tell-tale signs that this was a family deed, such as a low consideration amount, etc. The surname is relatively common within this specific county, so the deed alone does not prove a filial relationship. No other records containing specific relationship information about this family appears in the surviving county records. Only the undigitized, unmicrofilmed court case file provides the list of all surviving heirs at law that was vital to truly proving the relationships.

There are many other cases that can be used as examples, but these are two of the most recent cases that I have worked on. In both cases, there is simply no way that the digitized and microfilmed records would have provided the evidence needed to form a valid and reliable conclusion. Only the original, paper records, held by the State Archives, provided this evidence.

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