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Tappan Genealogy Assistance: Good Sources, Bad Sources

Who Says So?

For more serious research, research that other people will need to rely on, it is even more important to evaluate authenticity or scholarly validity. If you are not dealing with primary documents issued by a government agency, you may need to look for things like:

  • Acceptance: This source has been in widely-accepted use for a significant period of time without significant controversy.
  • Scholarly Citation: Historians writing for peer-reviewed journals regularly cite this work.
  • Objectivity: This document is not biased towards one position or the other. Facts are stated with good support and low levels of spin.
  • Confirmation: This material concurs with your other sources. If not, what explains the differences?

Points for Originality

Good genealogical research begins with primary resources, usually the original issued documents: a birth certificate with a raised seal, etc. for most legal purposes a notarized copy or reproduction is also considered primary.

You should always make a note in your supporting documents if you did or did not see the true original.

Why Am I doing this?

People start Genealogy searches for lots of reasons: to find out who their family was, to see if they are related to someone famous with a similar name, to understand the economic, social or cultural background their ancestors came from.

Who can I talk to? University libraries or public libraries, State or National Historical Societies all have friendly knowledgeable staff who often run How-To classes. Your local Historical Society is a great place to start.

Do I need special equipment or software? Not at all.  Software packages are great for helping you organize the material you find into a common format or formatting reports on your materials for showing to others, but you still find and provide the original material. Access to a flatbed scanner gives you the ability to make easy copies or digital versions, but Genealogy has been around for centuries without these tools.

The most important thing: have lots of patience and look at each piece of information critically:

  • How do I know this is an original document?
  • Who says its good for my purposes?
  • Does it seem to match with other materials or knowledge I've already gathered?
  • If it doesn't, is my earlier work incorrect or is there an explanation that makes it make sense?

Why not Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a wonderful source of general background information, learning the key-terms or issues of a topic and for roadmaps for further research.

How to see if it should be trusted: (See box elsewhere on this page on Who Says So).

Every wikipedia topic page has extra tabs that most people don't access. "View History" shows how many different users contributed to the page, how many times each, over how long a period and what was changed. Snoop through this and think about:

  • Is one guy in his basement writing what he feels like or an assortment of various interest levels?
  • Do heated arguments move the article back-and-forth between polarized views?
  • Is there a general sense of agreement and refining?

The other key tab which is not often looked at is "Discussion" here the topic users ask and answer questions of each other as to WHY they said what they said. Read this to get a sense of their dedication and professionalism.

Generational Reachback

Sometimes anecdotal evidence is supplied in an interview or through a diary or journal. Reliability of such material considers Generational Reachback. How many persons are between the person making the description of the facts and the occurrences?

Example: A Civil War veteran tells stories to his great-granddaughter in 1923. In 1993, she describes his account of the battle of Gettysburg to you, her great-grandson. You are the 6th generation since the battle, but your "reachback" level is only 2 people. That is to say only one person is now between you and the battle 150 years later.

The lower the reachback level, the more reliable as a source.

Does this Data Make Sense?

An Example would be finding two instances of a Julius S. in your research from the same village, with the same death date but birth dates 12 years apart on different days of the year. Knowing there was another Julius or Julian 50 years earlier that cousins could both be named after is helpful. Finding a headline like "8 members of S. Family killed in tragic boating accident" is even more helpful. 

Don't just assume one piece of info is wrong or right, these kinds of discrepancies can lead to fascinating discoveries!