Documentation: The Backbone of Genealogical Research

Many beginner genealogists get caught up in chasing their ancestors back in time, and fail to record where they found the information they discovered. Eventually, they realize they should have been doing this all along—perhaps after sifting through papers in search of the source of a specific piece of information. Documentation and source citations are commonly discussed in genealogical publications, and on blogs, mailing lists, and websites. However, discussions are often focused on how to properly cite sources, and many beginners may overlook the reasons why documentation is so important.

Staying Organized
Beginners may not realize at first that genealogical research will eventually amass a ton of records and lots of information. Soon enough, it will be difficult to remember where each piece of information came from. In addition to documenting where information came from, it is also equally important to document the results of research that did not turn up any useful information. Documenting sources of information and research results helps genealogists see what they already have, what they’ve already looked for, and where they need to focus their efforts next. Rather than just amassing records and filing them away, writing up a source-cited research report of findings can be helpful. Staying organized helps genealogists pick up on their research years later, and also helps save time and money by minimizing the chance of duplicating past efforts.

Interpreting Information
Genealogists who know the sources of their information can better interpret that information. For example, researchers may find themselves correlating several inconsistent ages or birth dates for a Civil War soldier. Knowing that one of those birth dates comes from a pension application, and understanding that veterans often wanted to appear older than they actually were, can be useful in weighing that birth date against birth dates from other sources. Explaining why a piece of information is likely to be accurate or inaccurate is only possible when the source of that information is known.

Producing Quality Work
Citations to sources strengthen the credibility of any genealogical work. They demonstrate the thoroughness of the research and the caliber of the sources used, and allow readers to evaluate the information presented. Readers need to understand where the information being presented comes from in order to evaluate it. Regardless of whether the genealogical work is a biography, proof argument, or compiled genealogy, the evidence will be much more convincing if it is documented using quality sources.

Collaborating With Others
Most genealogists hope to someday encounter another genealogist who is interested in their work on a specific family. One researcher may inquire about what evidence suggests the relationship between a father and son. Another may present evidence that conflicts with what has already been gathered. It’s much easier for genealogists to compare notes and resolve conflicts when their work has been thoroughly documented. The information and its reliability can be discussed with ease when the sources of the information are known.

Avoiding Plagiarism
Genealogists use a variety of sources, including historical records that provide information about events that took place, as well as the authored works of other researchers. Genealogists need to be responsible about how they use and cite information and ideas. They need to use their own words, not the words of others. Careful note taking and giving credit where it is due helps genealogists avoid plagiarism and copyright infringement.

More About Citing Sources
Many opportunities exist for genealogists to learn how to properly cite sources. The most comprehensive guide to citing genealogical sources is Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA. Mills’s website, Evidence Explained, also includes valuable “QuickLessons” and numerous models from the book.

The National Genealogical Society also offers a course on citing sources: “Guide to Genealogical Documentation and Source Citation,” by Michael Grant Hait Jr., CG. This three-module, cloud-based course teaches best practices for source citations based on Mills’s Evidence Explained.

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  1. September 16, 2015 7:45 pm
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