In the course of writing this newsletter, I get to see a lot of genealogy information. Most of what I see is on the Web, although some information is in books or in e-mail. Some of what I see is high-quality research. However, much of it is much less than that. Even the shoddiest genealogy work could be so much more if the compiler had simply spent a bit of time thinking about what he or she was doing.
Creating a first-class genealogy work is not difficult. In fact, it is expected. It should be the norm. Please consider the following "rules." If you follow these guidelines, you, too, can produce high-quality genealogy reports that will be useful to others:
- Never accept someone else's opinion as "fact." Be suspicious. Always check for yourself!
- Always verify primary sources (see Footnote #1); never accept a secondary source (see Footnote #2) as factual until you have personally verified the information.
- Cite your sources! Every time you refer to a person's name, date and/or place of an event, always tell where you found the information. If you are not certain how to do this, get yourself a copy of "Evidence Explained" by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This excellent book shows both the correct form of source citation and the sound analysis of evidence.
- If you use the works of others, always give credit. Never claim someone else's research as your own.
- Assumptions and "educated guesses" are acceptable in genealogy as long as they are clearly labeled as such. Never offer your theories as facts.
- Be open to corrections. The greatest genealogy experts of all time make occasional errors. So will you. Accept this as fact. When someone points out a possible error in your work, always thank that person for his or her assistance and then seek to re-verify your original statement(s). Again, check primary sources.
- Respect the privacy of living individuals. Never reveal personal details about living individuals without their permission. Do not reveal their names or any dates or locations.
- Keep "family secrets." Not everyone wants the information about a court record or a birth out of wedlock to be posted on the Internet or written in books. The family historian records "family secrets" as facts but does not publish them publicly.
- Protect original documents. Handle all documents with care, and always return them to their rightful storage locations.
- Be prepared to reimburse others for reasonable expenses incurred on your behalf. If someone travels to a records repository and makes photocopies for you, always offer to reimburse the expenses.
The above "commandments" apply to online data as well as to printed information. Following the above "commandments" will increase the value of your work and make it valuable to others.
Footnote #1: A primary record is one created at or immediately after the occurrence of the event cited. The record was created by someone who had personal knowledge of the event. Examples include marriage records created by the minister, census records, death certificates created within days after the death, etc. Nineteenth century and earlier source records will be in the handwriting of the person who recorded the event, such as the minister, town clerk or census taker.
Footnote #2: A secondary record is one made years after the original event, usually by someone who was not at the original event and did not have personal knowledge of the participants. Most published genealogy books are secondary sources; the authors are writing about events that occurred many years before they wrote about the event. Transcribed records are always secondary sources and may have additional errors created inadvertently by the transcriber(s). Most online databases are transcribed (secondary) sources.