Don't pick up half-eaten suckers.
Many people who would never break the sucker rule in regular life, don't think twice about breaking a similar rule in genealogy. Some people who would never think of picking up a half-eaten sucker on a playground will take half-researched genealogy information from the internet-not knowing where it has been-and save it as gospel truth in their family history.
It used to be that when you wrote a letter to a cousin to ask about your family's history, your cousin would send you actual sources-a copy of the birth certificate, a page from the family bible, or whatever they had that would satisfy your quest. Now, when you contact a cousin about their genealogy, you often receive a computer file (such as a GEDCOM) which contains information about your family, but the file has no footnotes or citations about the sources that were used to compile the data.
Quite often, on the internet genealogy playground, the situation can be even stickier. In collaboration databases such as Ancestry's One World Tree, or new.familysearch.org, information comes from many
different people-some who cite their sources and some who don't. If you are lucky, you may be able to contact the person who submitted the information, but sometimes it is impossible to figure out where it
A researcher can get stuck when they find information on the internet that conflicts with information from sources they already have. When you come to a conflict, the only way to resolve it is by comparing sources. Comparing where both sets of information came from will allow you to resolve any differences. If there are no source citations, or the information came "from the internet somewhere," the researcher cannot determine which information is correct.
For example, if I have an immigration certificate and a church baptism record stating that my great- grandmother's birthday was June 14, 1897, and my second cousin has put information in FamilySearch stating that the birthday was July 18th 1897, there is only one way we can figure out which date is right. We will need to compare my immigration certificate and church baptism record to his sources-perhaps a copy of Grandmother's obituary. We will probably decide that the children who wrote the obituary were not as reliable a source concerning their mother's birth date as the priest who baptized her as a baby.
Likewise, I might have a great-grandfather who did lots of family history work in the early 1900s (which I do). What if now I have a cousin who thinks grandfather chose the wrong ancestor and then
continued to trace the wrong family line (which I do)? The only way we can figure out which ancestor is right is by comparing the sources my grandfather obtained to the source my cousin is looking at. My grandfather may have had access to documents that no longer exist. Or my cousin may have found records my grandfather never saw. Likewise, my great grandchildren will need to know what sources I build my research on-unless I want them to just start over as if I never did any research. If we want these collaborative databases to be of any use in the future, we have to make sure we are entering the sources we have used.
So, what do you do when you come across information about your family on the internet playground? Look at the notes and sources included with the information. Notes and sources tell you the quality of research that you are dealing with. When there are good source citations you can often just spot check the information and make sure that you can ascertain where the data came from. When there are poor source citations, you can use the data as a pointer to future research. (Like thinking "Hey there are suckers around this playground-I wonder where I can get one?") Well documented sources establish the credibility of the researcher, and well documented sources help in analyzing the research of another
Coming soon, rules 2 and 3. If you subscribed to our newsletter, you would already know what rule 2 is