Information Baby Steps
“Baby steps” is a system of self evaluation and self improvement. It focuses on five aspects of the evidence analysis process: sources, information, evidence, conclusions, and citations.
Where does information fall in the evidence analysis process? From sources we find information. From information we select evidence. From evidence we make conclusions. Our conclusions contain citations. And citations point back to our sources.
Read through the following table to see how a person might typically improve over time in their use of information. Think about which level best describes you. At the conclusion of the class, set a goal to improve as explained in “Genealogical Maturity.”
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Analysis: A Research Process Map, laminated study guide (Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2006).
|1.||Entry||Typically does not realize the need to judge information quality and has no basis for doing so.|| |
|2.||Emerging||Emerging realization that information quality differs. Muddles evaluation by thinking of primary/secondary sources instead of primary/secondary information, leading to muddled evaluation when sources contain both.|| |
|3.||Practicing||Judges information by source type, informant knowledge, and record timing. Applies "primary/secondary" to information instead of sources.|| |
|4.||Proficient||Additionally, learns history necessary to recognize and evaluate all explicit information in a source.|| |
|5.||Stellar||Additionally, utilizes implicit information in a source. Finds information in cases like illegitimacy that stump most researchers.|| |
Level 1: Entry level Genealogists
“Just because you read it in print or see it on the Internet doesn’t make it true.”
Many erroneous pedigrees exist in print or on the Internet. Some are the results of careless research or typographical errors which are propagated from pedigree to pedigree. Some are out-right fraudulent. Fraudulent genealogies are often created to qualify for membership in lineage societies such as the Sons of the American Revolution or the Mayflower Society. Gustave Anjou, a rather famous perpetrator, fabricated genealogies as a professional genealogist.
Records themselves are not above mistakes. The military pension application of Alonzo Pearis Raymond indicates he was born in 1819 when he was actually born two years later. His death certificate says his parents were from England; in fact they were from New England.
Having never experienced such errors, beginning genealogists tend to believe more than they should. The truth is that records don’t always tell the truth.
Level 2: Emerging Genealogists
With experience, genealogists come to realize that not all information is created equal. Take for example the information on a death certificate. The information provided by the doctor about the date and cause of death tends to be factual and reliable. The accuracy of the information provided by the informant (named near the bottom of the certificate) depends on what he or she knew. Generally he knows the decedent’s name and address. He is almost as reliable with marriage status and a little less so with birth date. Accuracy drops successively for birth place, parents’ names, and parents’ birth place.
This situation confuses the concept of primary and secondary sources. Is a death certificate a primary source or a secondary source? The information about birth and parents is second hand. It is secondary information. The information about death is primary information. While the concept of primary/secondary sources works well in other fields, it fails genealogists. Information, not sources, is primary or secondary.
Level 3: Practicing Genealogists
We must take several factors into account to judge the quality of information.
Primary information carries more weight than secondary information. “Information is primary if it was made orally or in writing (or even pictorially as in a painting or photograph) by someone in a position to know firsthand (such as an eyewitness or participant) and recorded in a timely manner while memory is fresh.”
The timing of creation of the record affects its accuracy. The longer an eyewitness waits to record an event, the more their memory is subject to error. The information is considered secondary when not recorded promptly. It should be kept in mind that whether considered primary or secondary, we consider the accuracy of the information to decline over time.
The quality of the information is affected by the informant, the person who supplied the information. How did he get his information? Was he an eyewitness? Was he biased? The quality of the information is affected by the recorder. Was he acting in an official capacity?
The quality of the information is affected by the motivations of the informant and the recorder. Many military records contain erroneous birth dates provided by volunteers too young to sign up. Pensioners may lie about eligibility requirements such as length of service or marriage date. People may claim to be older or younger than they actually are. Applicants may fabricate information to qualify to join a lineage society.
When primary information is copied from an original, the information remains primary, even though the new source is a derivative source.
Level 4: Proficient Genealogists
Understanding the information we see in records depends on understanding the world in which it was recorded and the reasons for why it was recorded. As the old saying goes, “times, they are a changing.” Definitions change. Standards evolve. Laws are created or amended. Paradigms shift. Context is always evolving.
For example, the meaning of the abbreviation “Ia” depends on when and where it was used. Whereas today IA is the postal abbreviation for Iowa, in the 19th century it was often used as the abbreviation for Indiana. Ancestry.com seems to have missed this point in their 1850 U.S. Census database. Many of the 100,000 Indianans they indicate were born in Iowa were actually born in Indiana.
Level 5: Stellar Genealogists
Stellar genealogists are able to tease information out of a record that eludes the grasp of other genealogists.
As an example, genealogists hate alphabetized census records because alphabetizing all the names removes information about who lived next to whom. Elizabeth Shown Mills faced such a problem with a tax list organized by first letter of last name. She noticed groups of strictly alphabetized surnames seemed to match the tax officials’ visits to neighborhoods. This information allowed her to break through a longstanding brick wall.
From sources we find information. From information we select evidence. From evidence we make conclusions. Conclusions reference citations. Citations point back to sources.
Information can be primary or secondary while sources are original or derivative. Information quality differs, depending on source type, informant knowledge, and elapsed time. Subtle bits of information are obtainable with a knowledge of history and the circumstances of record creation.
Using the table at the start of this handout, and using what you learned in class today, set a small, baby step improvement goal with a deadline. When the deadline arrives, repeat. If you will consistently pursue baby step goals, your genealogical experience will consistently improve.
Advancing from level to level requires continuing education. Avail yourself of these resources:
- Online tutorials and guides: FamilySearch, National Genealogical Society, and others are listed on the NARA website.
- State and regional conferences: Utah Genealogical Association, Family History Expos, and many more.
- National Conferences: National Genealogical Society, Federation of Genealogical Societies, and RootsTech.
- Intensive week-long study programs called genealogical institutes: SLIG (Salt Lake), British Institute (Salt Lake), NIGR (D.C.), Samford IGHR (Alabama), and GRIP (Pittsburgh).
- Academic genealogical journals: National Genealogical Soceity Quarterly, NEHGS Register, etc.
- Society Magazines: NGS Magazine, etc.
- At home university degrees or courses: Brigham Young University, Akamai University, GenealogicalStudies.com, Boston University, and the Insititute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies.
Recommended Books about Sources, Information, Evidence, Conclusions, and Citations.
- Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd edition. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990. In particular, see chapter 4.
- Leary, Helen F. M., ed. North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History. 2nd edition. Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996. The first section is applicable to research anywhere. Because of the cost, I recommend this book only for those doing research in southern states.
- Merriman, Brenda. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians. 3rd edition. Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2010. Lacks an index.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997. Not as good as Evidence Explained, but cheaper.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown Mills. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Second edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009. For the evidence analysis process, read the 26 pages of chapter 1.
- Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. 3rd revised edition. San José, California: CR Publications, 2009.
- Rose, Christine and Kay Germain Ingalls. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy. 2nd edition. New York: Alpha Books, 2005.
- Rubincam, Milton. Pitfalls in Genealogical Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987.
- Stevenson, Noel C. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof, revised edition. Laguna Hills : Aegean Park Press, 1989. The use of legal terminology is outdated, but the research methodology is still good.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source. Third edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006.
- Milton Rubincam, Pitfalls in Genealogical Research (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987), 62-4.
- Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 3rd ed. (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2005), 6-7.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009), 37.
- Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard, 6-7, 14, 53.
- Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard, 15.
- Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard, 8.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, “‘Margaret’s Baby’s Father and the Lessons He Taught Me’: Identifying the father of an illegitimate child,” BCG lecture series for FamilySearch personnel, 12 October 2009.