Monday, November 15, 2010

Safety Rule #2 for the Genealogy Internet Playground

Safety rule #2 for the internet genealogy playground: Share your pail and shovel.

Ok. So you know not to pick up half-licked suckers on the playground and not to go home with anyone you don’t know. But to play fair on the internet genealogy playground, you need to make sure that you are a good playmate yourself. In order to do that, you’ll need to provide the sources for what you have researched.

You might say, “Why bother?”
• “It’s just a hobby. It doesn’t matter where I got it.”
• “I’m never going to publish a book or anything.”
• “The fun is in the searching”
• “I’m too busy. As long as I know it’s right that’s enough.”

To which one might answer:
• “As you work your way up, are you ever going to find a cousin genealogist?”
• “Do you want them to share what they have learned?”
• “Are you ever going to participate in a collaborative database?”
• “Do you want your children and grandchildren to be able to build on your work or do you want them to have to recheck it?”

Now I’m not naive. Typing in all the particulars about where you found some information is not the fun part. But, if we are going to play together on the internet genealogy playground, we are not going to get anywhere in a collaborative environment if we don’t cite our sources. If we submit data to any genealogy database without the source information, we are only contributing to conjecture—not building anything for future generations to work with. Our children will have to start all over to verify what we have done.

Citing your sources doesn’t have to be a perfect science. Record enough information so that another researcher can follow your path and not have to redo your research. And, by the way, anything can be a source—even if it is your mother’s memory or a silver tea set with a wedding date engraved on the back. However, only cite sources you have personally seen. If your cousin tells you about a census record, your cousin is the source, not the census record. If Great-Grandmother said something that was written in your aunt’s journal which was then copied into your cousin’s book which your dad emailed you about, your dad’s email is the only source you can cite. Remember, though, that a good researcher will go back to their cousin’s book, their aunt’s journal and will talk to Great-Grandmother, if possible, to get as close as they can to the original source.

It is also important to record any analysis surrounding the source. Record why you think this is a good or bad source and why you came to that conclusion. Perhaps you know that the family bible passed through the hands of an aunt who didn’t want any illegitimate births in the family recorded as such. Or maybe Grandfather lied about his age to get into the military. Elizabeth Shown Mills writes, “Once we refer researchers to a specific source, we are obligated to alert or caution them, as they may be less experienced with the materials“ (Mills, Elizabeth Shown, “Citing Your Sources,” OnBoard 1 (September 1995): 24). Even recording other researcher’s false information, and noting why, will be helpful to future researchers. Usually this kind of analysis is recorded in the notes section.

Originally published in the Generation Maps Newsletter

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