Source Quality: Do Your Sources Hold Water?


Have you ever played the children’s game “Telephone?” It is played by a large group of people. The first person whispers a phrase into the ear of a second person, who whispers it to a third person, and so on. The last person then speaks the phrase out loud. Invariably, after twenty or thirty people, the phrase and its meaning have changed dramatically or even beyond recognition—just in the process of a few minutes. The story of the game is from the trenches of World War I: a message sent down the trench line, “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” became “Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.”

Like the game “Telephone,” historical information can become unreliable very quickly. Thus, one of the most important concepts in genealogy research is that of source quality: how reliable is the information you find? As discussed earlier, source quality is critical for any genealogist who wants to know that his or her family tree is more than just fiction. To back up the names, dates, and other information you have or find, you should always seek to have real documents, tight logical reasoning, waterproof critical analysis, and solid, trustworthy sources. Without this background foundation, your research may be completely wrong no matter how much effort you spend.

Researchers distinguish between different qualities of sources and records, depending on how trustworthy the source of the record is. Since sources can provide conflicting information, it is important to be clear on what the different sources are and how much weight to give to any source.
Firsthand accounts by people who experienced events or facts and wrote them down immediately are, in general, clearly the best, since these are from people who have actual knowledge. As the source becomes removed from the actual event or facts, either in time or people, the information becomes less trustworthy. The two most important and trustworthy levels are primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources.

Primary sources are eyewitness accounts created during the time period that you are searching. Naturally, these aren’t foolproof—like modern eyewitness accounts, the source and his or her perspective may be biased, incomplete, uncertain, wrong, or lying. Just think about witness testimonies given on any courtroom television show. Do the witnesses always know and tell the pure, unvarnished truth? Historical witnesses can be the same.

It is thus important to always consider whether and how primary source material may have it wrong. Despite these limitations, primary sources are the best thing we have to go on for facts and events from long ago.

Primary sources can be found in many different types of record types, such as legal documents, census records, journals, and newspapers, among many others. Books can also be primary sources if they were firsthand accounts written during the time of the book’s study.

Secondary sources.

A secondary source is created by someone who did not have firsthand knowledge. The author did not experience the events or facts in question. Thus, for example, most history books are secondary sources, as they are typically written long after the facts have transpired and by historians who were born much later.

Source types together.

Primary and secondary sources can both be found in the same document, depending on which information is referred to. For example, a death certificate typically provides information about the person who died—the decedent—and his or her parents. This information is often provided by someone who knew the decedent personally but did not personally know the decedent’s parents. Thus, the information about the decedent would be primary source material, but information about the parents, such as their names and places of birth, would be secondary. The information about the person who died is very likely to be correct, but the information about the parents would need to be considered carefully to determine how likely it is to be correct, since the information was given by someone who did not have firsthand knowledge.

Get Organized, Get Started

Organize Your Genealogy Papers

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“First comes thought; then organization of that thought, into ideas and plans; then transformation of those plans into reality. The beginning, as you will observe, is in your imagination.”
-Napoleon Hill


I though I was going to go crazy. What else could I do?

My research was almost complete. I had nearly finished the book I was writing, and it was on the verge of academic publication. I had found fantastic amounts of information on the paternal line, the goal of the project. My family had never before been able to get much on this fifth-great-grandfather, but I had been able to find the right town records that showed he was born in 1743 in Connecticut. He fought in the Revolutionary war, and helped found the town. The information surrounding his life was the capstone of my research and the detailed and lengthy family history book I was planning to publish.

Now all I had to do was check a couple of facts in the story and edit the references, and it would be ready to go. But that would be easy, because I already had found that information. All I had to do was get it and insert it.


But when I went to look for it, the information I had previously found was not on my flash drive or in my online storage folders, where I keep copies of everything. I looked on my computer, where I keep backups of nearly all of my data. Nothing. I looked through my backup CDs, other computers, my paper files for the research. I reviewed my old flash drives and even moved back into floppy disks. I knew that I had saved it somewhere. I checked again. And again. And again.

Ultimately, I never did find that data. I had to go back and redo the research, and find it all again.

If only my story was unique.

This has only happened to me once, but it has also happened to every researcher I know. The more experienced researchers reading this are nodding their heads and smiling ruefully, having learned this lesson the hard way. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, it will, and it will cause untold hours and days of headaches and hassles, with the possibility of permanently losing information that may not be re-found or re-researched, even in original sources. But you can avoid it all, and make your research far more efficient to boot, if you will just read and apply this chapter. You will have to think about your needs and preferences—how you like to set things up—but I can promise this small investment of time and energy will save you far more later on.
The problem is easy to avoid, and with technology, it is getting easier. All you need to do is spend a few minutes at the beginning starting intelligently and planning how you will get organized.

First, consider your needs. You probably will need to be able to share your research with family members and others that might find it to be of interest. You need to be able to quickly access your findings and conclusions. Just as important, you need to be able to quickly go back and see what areas your research has already covered, even if you didn’t find anything. Otherwise, you are likely to redo the work time and again.

Validity Matters



He had settled new frontiers, built groups of settlers, and led nighttime hunts to control marauding bears that were ravaging the community. Was Ephraim Towner really unable to stay up on a family tree? To make it worse, I felt an acute sense of déjà vu. Could this actually be happening again?

I had done all of the research in primary records for Ephraim, taking a dead-end and dead-boring brick wall and lighting it up with vital dates, family information, and stories of his life. His spouse, children, and parents were no longer a mystery; we knew where he came from and where he and his line went. He was a colorful character, even for an early settler, earning several mentions and first-hand stories told in county histories and other sources. I’d even found and visited the area of his (former) homestead and mill along a creek in Vermont, then the frontier and now just a spot off Towner Road on the outskirts of a quiet country town. Now the family just needed it posted online to add to the public record and ensure easy access.

There was just one problem. Almost as soon as it was up, the information that I had worked so hard to collect and catalog, the information that I knew for absolute fact was correct, disappeared from the website. In its place were names, dates, and other information that I knew, for certain, was not correct. I changed it back. And sure enough, after a few days, my information once again had disappeared.

Why would someone just keep posting incorrect information?

Fortunately, I was able to contact the person that kept posting, and she was happy to dialogue about the issue. Unsurprisingly, she had obtained her wrong data for free off a website, unsourced and unqualified. Assuming it to be gospel truth, she put it up. Not knowing why anyone would change “her” information, she kept changing it back.

When I explained the amount of work I’d done and the original sources I used, she realized that the information needed to be changed. Ultimately, the correct information stayed up—for this family.

This story has a good ending. But it is a cautionary tale. How many people, just like that lady on that web site, have obtained information online, assumed that someone, somewhere, checked it, and then re-posted it across the Internet, causing a cascade of wrong information that spills across websites, private family trees, generations, and ancestral lines? How many people have relied on such information, probably never even realizing that what it said actually had no connection to their family?

Returning the Favor


How many languages and cultures can a person deal with at once?

Well, strictly speaking, not in the same one instant. But with the research cases that I had open and was working on simultaneously, they might as well be. A mix of clients with English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish immigrant roots needed work done with records from both sides of the Atlantic. My Columbian client needed family traced from Spain through the Caribbean down through South America, so apart from the different jurisdictions and geographies, the records were primarily a mix of Spanish and English.

I had a German case with records written in 1800s German in Gothic script—I had my razor-sharp languages assistant helping with that one, because we had to do a full interpretation of multiple handwritten originals. And I had just gotten off the phone with another Australian client, so we would likely need to trace 1800s British shipping across the oceans.

These, of course, were all in addition to my normal U.S. clients, with research spectrums ranging from the Northern Yankee colonial heritages to stately Southern antebellum families and Midwestern migrations. My head was buzzing with the various languages, alphabets, strategies, political histories, legal backgrounds, and records systems necessary for different client interests. Though I have traveled widely and guest lectured on genealogy at Harvard, this was still a lot to worth with at once.

What a fantastic job.

Over the years, my clients have given me the opportunity to research records in a number of languages, to travel to archives on the other side of the globe, to meet people from more than a few countries, and to chronicle the histories of hundreds of families. It has been an amazing experience. This blog is an attempt to return the favor: to help you get the basic understandings, big-picture perspectives, and specific tools needed to find the history of your family.

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