Reducing Risk by Using Original Sources

In a mere three pages in the September 2016 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, author Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL, illustrates the risks genealogists run when they do not pursue original sources.[1]

Sources fall into one of three categories:

  • An original source is described by Elizabeth Shown Mills as “material in its first oral or recorded form.”[2]
  • A derivative source is one that is created from another source. The earlier source may have been an original work, or it, too, could have been a derivative—transcribed, abstracted, indexed, or summarized from an original source.
  • An authored work is one that is created based on information that was obtained from multiple sources. The “author” analyzes, draws conclusions, and puts details together to create something new. Authored works include articles, books, trees, and charts.

Errors can occur as derivative sources are produced. Creators of authored works may slip up as they assemble evidence and draw conclusions. Original sources are considered more reliable. Unless genealogists seek out and examine original sources, they may never be aware of errors or omissions hiding in the derivatives and authored works. Powell’s example drives home this point.

Derivative Sources

Powell’s article discusses a will that lists the testator’s children. The list differs depending on whether a researcher uses the original will, the recorded copy of that will, or the published abstract made from the court volume. The confusion stems from multiple misreadings of a single word. The original will contains the word “Daughter,” but the official who made a copy in the court’s will book wrote “Dautors.” An abstract made from the recorded will transforms “Dautors” to “Daubois” and positions the word as if it were the name of another child.

Researchers who rely solely on the will abstract are misled about the number and names of the testator’s children. Some genealogists interpreted “Daubois” as a corruption of “Dubois.” They speculated that Dubois was a family name, perhaps the mother’s maiden name. Hypotheses about ethnic origins arose, as Dubois seemed to be a French surname.

Research based on evidence obtained from the flawed abstract clearly would be a wasted effort. Comparing the abstract with the court copy would raise questions; examining the original will would clear up all the confusion. The original record leaves no question that the list of children does not include anyone named “Daubois.” Powell’s article includes images from the will volume and the original will, allowing readers to see for themselves how easily errors could occur.

Authored Works

Powell discusses a sixteen-page family history compiled in 1972. Although the compiler relied on the will abstract and fell victim to the “Daubois” reading, she did use appropriate qualifiers in her compilation. She flagged her ideas with words like “probable” and “possible.” She explained her reasoning to help readers follow her train of thought. Her authored work includes documentation and discussion to help researchers assess the strength of her conclusions—qualities that increase the family history’s usefulness to other researchers. According to Powell, other authored works state the mother’s maiden as Dubois without indicating a source and without using any sort of qualifier—and some authored works improperly attached Dubois grandparents to the children.

Genealogists vary in knowledge and ability, and the works they produce will reflect those variances. As researchers look at books, articles, family trees, and charts, they must analyze the contents and conclusions. Some authors see no need to cite sources. Some portray relationships as established although research is incomplete. Some misinterpret records and draw incorrect conclusions. Genealogists encountering the work of others must pause to think about the underlying evidence—the quality of the sources, the strength of the information, the resolution of conflicting evidence, and the extent of research.

What does Elissa Scalise Powell’s article teach genealogists?

  • She shows that errors in derivative works and poorly documented authored works can lead researchers astray.
  • She illustrates the importance of pursuing the strongest, most reliable sources.
  • She demonstrates the reasons why researchers must think about underlying sources instead of simply accepting authors’ conclusions.
  • She encourages genealogists to be responsible when compiling work that will be shared with others—to include documentation and to use terminology that appropriately reflects the level of certainty regarding statements and conclusions.

Three short pages. One solid example. And a very valuable lesson for all.

[1] Elissa Scalise Powell, “Notes and Documents: The Dubious Identity of Mary ‘Dubois’: The Danger of Relying on Derivative Records,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 104 (Sept. 2016): 233–35; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngs_quarterly_archives : 12 Sept. 2017).

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd ed., rev. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2017), 24.

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