Sources and Baby Steps
This is the syllabus for one of a series of classes taught by Robert Raymond and represents his private opinions. Suggestions for changes should be made on this page's Discussion page.
“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 sources 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 sources. 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 relies on compiled genealogies.|| |
|2.||Emerging||Mostly relies on compiled genealogies and online sources.|| |
|3.||Practicing||Uses a limited number of record types and repositories. Mostly relies on online and microfilmed sources.|| |
|4.||Proficient||Uses a wide variety of record types. Often contacts record custodians to obtain copies of high-quality sources.|| |
|5.||Stellar||Insightfully pursues research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a plethora of record types. "Burned counties" are not roadblocks.|| |
Some people confuse the terms source and citation. A source is “the origin that supplies information” and “citations are statements in which we identify our source.”
Sources can be classified as either original or derivative. An original source is one that is not derived from another. Originals include documents written at the time of an event or from memory. Photographs and recordings can be originals. Since genealogists can’t visit archives to access originals, they must rely on copies derived from the originals.
There are two types of derivatives: textual and image. Textual derivatives are hand copied text, so mistakes occur regularly. Originals can be hard to read. Important information can be inadvertently left out. There are several types of textual derivatives. Arranged by typical value, best to worst, (depending on the skill of the creator,) they are:
- Transcript - attempt to render precisely and completely all words and punctuation exactly as in original. No corrections are made to punctuation, grammar, or spelling.
- Duplicate original (or counterpart) - a complete textual copy created more or less simultaneously with the original. Examples are deed grantor and grantee copies, and federal and local copies of the federal census.
- Record copy (or clerk’s copy) - a complete textual copy made by a court clerk.
- Extract - a textual derivative like a transcript except only selected text is transcribed from the record, typically dropping nothing but boilerplate information.
- Abstract - a textual derivative. It is a condensed version of the record, containing every detail of genealogical value from the original. An abstract may contain extracts—exact quotes set off by quote marks. The infamous Hawaii “Short Form” birth certificate is a computer printed abstract.
- An Index or database typically mixes verbatim text and interpreted information. Spellings may be standardized. Dates may be reformatted. Birth years may be calculated from age.
Image copies are photographic copies such as microfilm, photographs, digitized images, photocopies, and the like. Image copies are generally regarded as near originals, as very little information may be lost. Image copies are less valuable than the originals when information was clipped, lighting or focus were bad, black and white images were created when color should have been used, or resolution was lost during digitization.
While image copies are generally better than textual derivatives, exceptions exist. For example, transcripts made of gravestones may outlast the inscriptions. Or indexes made from a fading record may outlast the record.
There are many types of sources available to genealogists. One type requires special consideration. It is the entry level genealogist’s favorite source. However, stellar genealogists no longer recommend using it as a source at all. It is compiled genealogies. A compiled genealogy shows the conclusions someone has reached regarding facts about individuals and family relationships. It is sometimes known as a conclusion tree. Compiled genealogies come in computer files, online trees, or published books.
Compiled genealogies have pluses and minuses. They are a quick and dirty way to start a tree. However, they are error-ridden, and consulting one can prejudice thinking and analyses. Too many genealogists treat the information as innocent until proven guilty when it should be treated as guilty until proven innocent. .
Only high quality compiled genealogies should ever be used. Look for genealogies where the author has cited his sources, the cited sources are of high quality, and has provided multiple citations per fact. Using low quality genealogies is not worth the time necessary to redo the research and diagnose inaccuracies.
To find published genealogies in print, use WorldCat.org. Do a subject search for “Raymond family”, substituting your surname. WorldCat lists the titles and libraries where they can be found. There are several major online collections.
- Search WorldCat to find books in several online collections, including FamilySearch’s (currently residing on BYU’s website).
- Search Google to find books in Google Books and the Internet Archive.
- Search the HeritageQuest collection which can be accessed through many libraries, often from home using the library’s website.
Emerging genealogists begin to realize the importance of original sources and start consulting copies online. Three of the most popular websites are Ancestry.com ($), FamilySearch.org, and FindAGrave.com.
Practicing genealogists additionally use records on microfilm and microfiche.
Proficient genealogists go even further, finding sources on location in County courthouses, state and national archives, churches, and more.
Emerging genealogists use whatever sources they find online. Census records and vital records are two of the most important.
Census records are important because they place ancestors at specific places at specific times. They help identify family units. They help locate families moving from place to place. Be careful, however. Information in the census is often wrong because the person who answered the questions often didn’t know all the answers. Names are often spelled phonetically and ages are often approximate. Always verify census information with other sources.
Vital records contain information about three vital events in a person’s life: birth, marriage, and death. Vital records are important because they contain a wealth of genealogical information. Birth records are useful for finding the names of parents. Marriage records often identify not just the spouse, but also the parents. More than just death information, death records can include birth and parents. The sometimes overlooked “informant” is a clue to the identity of a child or another close relative. In the United States, vital records are typically found at the state and county levels. Other countries may have nationwide vitals.
Vital records are typically organized in one of two formats. Register format is a tabular with one line of information per event. Columns contain names, dates, places, fathers’ names, mothers’ names, and the like. One page may contain the records of dozens of events. Certificate format utilizes pre-printed forms. While one form per page is typical, sometimes a page contains a few.
The Social Security Death Index, or SSDI, is the closest thing the United States has to a nationwide vital record registry. Where death date is known, the SSDI can point to a birth date. The deceased’s Social Security Administration application certificate, the SS-5, may identify parents.
Gravestones sometimes lead to birth date and associated vital record. Sometimes gravestones also name parents or children. Having a death date can lead to a newspaper obituary or death notice. These newspaper sources can yield a wealth of information, such as birth dates and places, and names of relatives. Newspapers contain secondary information, so try to validate the information from higher quality sources.
As we’ve seen, different sources provide different information. The type of source to use depends on the research objective. Search for “Record Selection Table” in the FamilySearch Wiki to learn what sources to use for what purposes. For more in depth information, read the town, county, state, and country articles for the desired location.
Genealogists should make a reasonably exhaustive search of available sources. Use a wide variety from multiple repositories. Sources are available online, on microfilm, and on location.
Using the table at the start of this handout, and using what you learned in class today, set a small, baby step improvement goal. See Genealogical Maturity for more information.
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.