Terry Mason's quotation

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DOCUMENTING

How does one create a Family History LEGACY which will stand the test of time?

Genealogy record keeping can be about as exciting as reading the listings in a telephone directory. It contains simple facts of names, dates and sometimes places.

I am a retired college professor who taught students about the scientific method so that they could tell the difference between fiction and researched conclusions. I hope you will not think that I'm being arrogant by providing the following information. I am just a scientist trying to prove facts with evidence or documentation. When I ask a person about their entry in a family history record, I am asking in the hope they can provide a source citation.

What are source citations?

All information comes from someplace - a source. A source could be a personal witness of an event or knowledge of a family relationship. It may be from personal journals or an oral or written account from other witnesses found in a book or a government created certificate like court records. Information from a source may be accurate or it may have a germ of truth or it may be completely false.

Written information from sources is source citations. Sources are actual records that contain the information. A source citation details information required to identify the source as a distinct, traceable record. A good source citation usually provides sufficient information to allow others to discover for themselves the same information you have.

Source citations in genealogical records authenticate events. Vital information documents the dates and places of births or christenings, marriages, deaths or burials, and relationships. Such information forms the skeleton of our family tree. Other details describe who a person was and how they lived.

Ancestors become real when you describe the setting of their culture by placing them in history using a time line and descriptions of their lifestyle in their community. Significant religious values or events like war or illness may shape a person's destiny. The character of an ancestor is reflected in their tastes and feelings about events in the story of their life. Most localities have written local histories and public documents. Some family members may have the "good stuff" in photographs, journals and other "old papers". Trust no data without checking it out.

Source entries are reusable. Citations from a source make separate source citation lists that can be used for each individual without retyping or copying. For instance, a census record may be the source of information for many birth years and places and family relationships. That source description is created once and then accessed again and again through a source citation links for specific individuals.


Family History Research is more than genealogy data keeping. One of the biggest challenges of research is to conduct it in such a way that collection, analysis, and interpretation of information is carried out with maximum objectivity. This means that any conditions which might introduce bias or prejudice must be avoided if at all possible.

Research conclusions should be written in such a way that a skeptical interested investigator has enough information to be able to repeat the research that either confirms or invalidates the reported results.

In college classes, students are encouraged to use professional research journals and many different textbooks to substantiate any conclusions. This is how the science of tracing our ancestors should occur.

Quality source documentation validates accurate information. Data may come from sources such as books, microfilm, microfiche, CDs, e-mail messages, web sites on the Internet, and a variety of unpublished documents. Evaluation of the data from these sources often results in discrepant information of dates or places or events, the parentage of an ancestor, or even which persons really belong as children in a family.

Researchers are responsible to evaluate sources and arrive at a conclusion that is as accurate as possible. It is rare that enough evidence can be produced to 'prove family history beyond 'a reasonable doubt' which is a standard legal definition.

Technology has made possible the proliferation of a large amount of unsubstantiated data. Repeating unreliable conclusions does not make them factual. You can read more about this by clicking on the following link The Use and Abuses of Online Genealogy by Gary B. Hoffman.


Documentation requires citing information from two main types of genealogical records - Original and Secondary.

Original Records created near the time of an event by someone with first-hand knowledge of the event are more reliable than biographies and abstracts done by others. Documentation generally satisfies the reader that what is stated is factual. The best documentation comes from original records instead of secondary records. When found, copy original records, quoting important information in your records, and reference and file them in an orderly and safe system. Original vital records are testimonies of birth, marriage and death (birth information on a death certificate is a secondary source). Civil court proceedings are good original records. So are church records that testify of christening and marriage, death and burial. Seek cemetery and government population census records. Also remember probate court records (wills, deeds), as well as land, military, and immigration records. Most original records are found in the area of residence.

Secondary Records include almost all vetted published works. These "compiled records" include records of previous research by others, such as biographies, letters from descendants, area and family histories, printed genealogies or indexes and abstract of records. Bible records and tombstone inscriptions are good secondary sources. All Internet data including the International Genealogical Index (IGI) are secondary records. A cited secondary source is simply an indicator to a researcher that points in a certain direction.

Generally, first search compiled records, then search original records. Read the following article Finding Acceptable Sources© by Allin Kingsbury from the Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group for an excellent discussion of this topic.

Saying that you got something from someone's web site is not citing a source. A web site may have source citations in it, but web sites like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch - Family Tree are not sources. Databases in Ancestry.com such as 'personal family trees', "Millennium File", "Family Data Collections", "U.S. and International Marriage Records" and similar references are not sources. Unless they cite primary or secondary records, they do not provide proof. Many users on the myHeritage.com web site have trees that do not cite any sources to document the accuracy of their records.


Documentation allows: Ask yourself, "Where did I get that piece of information?" Every item in your database has a source. You will not always be able to return to or remember where you got information. When misinformation is entered into our databases we can create many problems. For example: When is my Documentation enough?
    In the scientific world, the documentation process depends on the purpose for which the material is being prepared. A research claim involving a medical treatment certainly should be well enough documented to allow others to repeat experiments and confirm conclusions. It is possible that some person has biased the data. Good research should be objective, orderly and repeatable. If a person is gathering genealogical data for personal amusement, we would assume their research methods might not be as exacting as the methods used by one who intends to publish. If you are doing genealogical research to pass on to your children or others or you intend to publish, then you should be as accurate as possible. It would be irresponsible to claim information that has no source documentation.
    Since we are limited by our resources, however, we often must rely upon the work done by others and make judgments that a source is accurate enough to be relied upon without our having to search out the original record. We may have to accept a census record as a substitute for a birth certificate when we can't find one. When you find some data, it doesn't mean that you should stop researching; it means that you have a lead and depending on whether or not you are able and have the time and the records available, you will still work at confirming the accuracy of data. If no more authoritative information turns up, your effort will have to suffice. Sometimes it takes much effort and the locating of new sources before more accurate conclusions are possible. Therefore, there is no rule which says how much documentation you need. Just do not fail to cite your sources. A reader will someday recognize that further substantiation is necessary.

Share the Information You Compile
I encourage you to share your time and efforts with the rest of the family history community.
Your submissions will enable you to:
- Coordinate your family history research with others.
- Reduce time-consuming and expensive duplication of effort.
- Make a permanent copy of your family information.
- Help build the resources that have been made available to you.
This is the generation to "get it right". The personal computer technology is now advanced enough for quick, accurate and massive recordkeeping. Work to leave such good family history records that anyone can understand your data and no one will question where you obtained the information.
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