Tag Archives: source citation

Don’t Trust What You Find on the Internet, and Cite All Your Sources

When you do research into your family, you need to cite your sources. Without sources for all the names, dates, etc. that you put into your family tree, your tree doesn’t really mean that much. Let me explain why this is the case.

There are millions of people worldwide who are actively researching their family trees. Some people consider it an occasional hobby, and others spend all their waking days looking into their families. No matter which side a researcher finds themselves on, or anywhere in between, the quality of the research done by these people varies greatly. In other words, some people do quality research, back up everything they find, and cite the sources for everything so they can go back and tell you how they determined the year a particular person was born, or what their name was before immigrating to the US, etc. Other people do lower-quality research, don’t record where they found anything, and just enter the names and dates they find into a database on their computer, or directly to an online family tree. I would venture to guess that there is little correlation between how much time someone spends on their family tree, and whether people are quality researchers or just name collectors.

So why is it a problem to just collect names and dates and throw them into a database? Well, primarily the problem is that you will make mistakes. I don’t mean that quality researchers don’t make mistakes and sloppy researchers do make mistakes – I mean everyone makes mistakes. There will always be times when you find a record of a person and you think it is the brother of so-and-so or the father of this-or-that cousin, and it really isn’t.

A good researcher will cite the source for the record, and most likely recognize that without more information they cannot conclusively say that the person is who they think it is. The good researcher might not even put the person into their tree, but put them in a folder for unconfirmed relatives until such time that they do find more information. If you don’t cite where you found out a piece of information, then when you do find more information, you will have no way to compare your new information with the old information.

For example, if you first calculated the birth year of a person by their age listed on their grave, but later find another record with the birth year on it, how will you know the relative strength of the new record versus the old record in terms of determining the birth year. Will you remember ten years later that you determined the age from a gravestone? What happens if you ended up recording the age of the wrong person? How would you confirm that without knowing your original source? Maybe you recorded the name of the person’s niece of nephew that shared the same name. How would you be able to tell?

Imagine a researcher just records names and dates as they find them. They don’t double-check anything, and couldn’t if they tried since they don’t know where their information originated. Using an example where someone recorded a nephew instead of the uncle, let’s say that same person finds a tree of the nephew online (which they identify since the spouse is the same). They copy and paste the new information into their tree, except it’s under the uncle instead. Now you have a branch of the family which is completely wrong. What does this researcher do next? They post their tree online with no sources. The next person comes along and finds someone who matches in their tree and copies the rest of the tree into their own, propagating the mistake.

There are really two lessons to be learned here.

First, don’t trust anything you find on the Internet, without independent confirmation. If you import a tree from a web site, make sure to check it out first.

Second, cite the source for everything you record in your own family tree, so you won’t come back years later with a new, different, piece of information and not know which is correct.

How To Cite Sources

When you were in high school or college you probably remember having to format your sources according to a citation style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Handbook. These guides defined where the title of the book or article went, how the author’s name was listed, etc. with examples for different types of citations – like newspaper articles, published books, unpublished dissertations, etc.

In the world of genealogy, there are many more types of evidence that one might need to cite in their research, since a scribble on the back of a an old photo, a listing in a commercial online database, the inscription of a gravestone, vital records of all kinds from all countries, etc. can be cited – all for the same person. The bible of genealogical citation is Elizabeth Shown Mill’s Evidence Explained. The book contains over a thousand citation models for just about any source you can think of that you will come across in your genealogy research. For example, do you know how to cite this blog entry? According to Evidence Explained (pg. 812) it could be formatted something like this:

Trauring, Philip, “Don’t Trust What You Find on the Internet, and Cite All Your Sources,” Blood and Frogs: Jewish Genealogy and More, 27 February 2011 (http://www.bloodandfrogs.com/2011/02/dont-trust-what-you-find-on-internet.html : accessed 27 February 2011)

It gives a two more options for different types of blog citations. It also has citation models for tweets, chats, discussion forums, podcasts and other Internet-based content that probably wasn’t listed in the MFA Handbook or Chicago Manual of Style the last time you used one of them. I’m pretty sure that even today you won’t find a citation model for citing a gravestones in the Chicago Manual of Style. Coming in at over 800+ pages, Evidence Explained is a much bigger book than those other style guides.

There has been an effort by some to try to standardize genealogy citation models around those in Evidence Explained, and indeed some genealogy software programs have offered the ability to use Evidence Explained citation models when citing sources in your program. I think that it’s good to have a standard for citations, and I hope all the major genealogy software companies adopt Evidence Explained as their citation model. If there isn’t a standard for citations, then sharing citation between programs becomes difficult.

The Debate

While there is no debate in the world of genealogy that there is a need to cite sources, there is a big debate over how to cite sources. Do you really need to follow strict citation standards like those advocated by Evidence Explained? Therein lies the issue debated amongst genealogists, how important is it really to use a citation model? Isn’t it just important to convey the information to find the source cited? Do you really need to follow an 800+ page book explaining every possible citation model you could need?

I’m not going to go into this debate in depth. I’m simply going to give my opinion that as long as you convey the correct information in an understandable way, the style is not really important. I think it’s great to use a system like Evidence Explained if you can, but if there’s a chance you won’t enter the source because it takes too long to figure out the right citation model for the source and you think you’ll get back to it later (which you won’t) then just enter the citation however you want. As genealogy programs add better source citation tools, this won’t become as big an issue and it will actually be easier to cite them properly when it is automated.

People lie, and so do documents

It’s not uncommon to find records that have intentionally incorrect dates and other information on them. One situation in particular which is common is in passenger manifests for people coming from Europe to the US. Frequently you’ll find someone who lists their age as 17 or 18, when in fact they’re younger but lied to get on the ship to America. Sometimes the age given when coming to America was used in official documents going forward, even if they were wrong. Without a birth certificate or other documentation from the old country, you may forever think someone was older than they really were.

My point with bringing this up is that when you’re doing research it’s very hard to confirm information from a single record, or even multiple records sometimes. A good example of the issues involved is that while you can usually trust a death certificate to have accurate information on a person’s death, it may not be a good idea to trust the birth information listed on it. If the birth information on a death certificate is all you have on that person, go ahead and use that birth information, but always source it properly so you know where the information came from. If you one day track down a birth certificate on the same person and the information is different, then trust the birth certificate over the death certificate.

There are many kinds of records out there, some ‘official’ records like birth and death certificates, and some unofficial like birth announcements and obituaries in newspapers. Obituaries can be a great tool for building your family tree, as they frequently contain lists of surviving children, maiden names, etc. Nowadays many small local newspapers are being scanned and put online, some which you need to pay for and some which are free to use. I was recently searching through a free searchable database of Georgia newspapers, part of the Digital Library of Georgia. Of particular interest to Jewish researchers with family that lived in the southern states in the US, is a publication called the Southern Israelite. It contains issues of this magazine from 1929 through 1986. It started as a local newsletter in Augusta, then moved to Atlanta where it covered all of Georgia and then eventually covered other southern states as well.

In any event, records I found illustrate this point about not trusting records too much. I found an obituary printed on July 8, 1983 about Louis Lesser, who it says died about a week earlier on June 29th. It lists his age as 72.

Obituary printed July 8th

See the obituary as printed on July 8th on the left.

If one had no other records about the death of Louis Lesser, and he was in your family, you would probably enter the information in this obituary into your genealogy program. That’s a perfectly normal thing to do. Make sure of course to properly cite the death infromation as coming from this obituary and where and when the obituary was published. The interesting thing about this is that a second obituary pops up a couple of weeks later, in the July 22 issue of the same magazine. It has different information. I suppose you might assume the first one had mistakes and the second one was the corrected version. See the second obituary, published on July 22 on the right.

Obituary printed July 22nd

Now, what do you see? The age listed is 71, not 72. The date Louis Lesser died is listed is June 30, not June 29. There is also additional family information. So assuming the second version is the corrected version, you would guess Louis Lesser died on the 30th and was 71. What can we confirm here? Well, you could look up the record in the SSDI. The SSDI index doesn’t give the date, only the month, so we can’t confirm the date without ordering the full record, but it does list a birth date of Oct 5, 1910. Again, take this date with a grain of salt, it is only the date used when the person applied for a social security number, but let’s use it to see what the person’s age should be. Clearly, according to this date, he’s 72, and closer to 73 than 71. Thus the age listed is probably wrong in the second record. Not a good sign. Okay, so how can we confirm the date? Well I googled ‘south carolina death certificates’ to see if there was some searchable index and came across the Death Indexes page for South Carolina. If you scan down the list of resources, you’ll see there is a link to cemetery burials by the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. The site lets you browse the cemeteries, but without knowing which cemetery the person was buried in, this could take a long time. Luckily, they’ve put in a search box to let you search the whole site. Searching the site brings up a page for the Emanu-el Cemetery in Charleston, SC with his burial record. The good news is it lists the same birth date for him, so although neither the SSDI date or this record are necessarily trustworthy records, at least you now have two records showing the same birth date. For the death date, which is the date listed on his grave, it says June 29th. Nothing is 100%, but if the date is on his grave it’s probably correct. Thus it seems the original obituary had the correct information on his age and the day of his death, not the one published later. Not what you might guess from seeing two obituaries in the same paper a couple of weeks apart.

So to review, don’t trust something just because it’s in print, and while make assumptions like a later revised obituary is probably correct might make sense to you, it isn’t always the right assumption. Always try to confirm the information you find through other sources, and site the source for every piece of information in your records.