Can You Trust Other People's Research?
- When we first start searching for our ancestors we often come across printed or online genealogies for our family lines, and the temptation is very strong to simply accept what is written as accurate. Unfortunately, such a blanket acceptance of the work of others can lead to much frustration further along your research path. The plain truth is that not everything you find about a particular family tree will be accurate. While such works may provide good clues for your own further research, it is strongly urged that you verify for yourself any new data you encounter before adding it to your own family tree.
With the advent of the Internet as a research tool for genealogists, any inaccurate info about a family line can be spread very rapidly. Prior to the Internet, mistakes in data traveled far slower as most researchers relied on the mail service to exchange information. But with today's high-speed connections and large online databases, misinformation can sweep through the genealogy community like wildfire. Though this happens primarily with ancestries concerning better-known ancestors, especially royalty, it is still a problem with the less famous as well.
When looking at a new piece of data, the first clue to a potential problem will be in the sources given for the data, if any. If there are no sources listed at all for a piece of information, or the only source listed is another genealogy, treat the data as suspect. It may be fine, but until you research it further, you simply have no way of knowing for sure. Though printed genealogies are perhaps less likely to contain errors, they are not immune to this problem.
The most accurate sources are those that were created at the time of the event in question. Generally, these will be original documents such as birth certificates, wills, baptismal records and so on - the key is that such records were made when the event happened. Though mistakes are still possible; with such primary sources that would be the exception rather than the rule. It is important to keep in mind, however, that such records are often created as a result of one person transcribing verbal information and, therefore, are only as good as the person recording the information.
Next in line in terms of accuracy are those records that are compilations or summaries of original records. These may include such works, as will abstracts and indexes, transcriptions of microfilmed records, family bibles and biographies. Because these works are one step further removed from the original information, the potential for errors is somewhat higher than it is for primary sources. Much like the children's game of Gossip, each repetition increases the likelihood of a mistake between introduced to the original information.
Still further removed from the original data are tertiary sources - works created from a combination of primary and secondary sources. The vast majority of published genealogies, both written and online, fall into this category. So it is important to realize that these works are several layers removed from the original data and are more likely to contain errors.
Many modern genealogy programs allow the user to note the reliability of the source of the data. If you are using a program that supports a feature of this kind, it is strongly recommended that you make use of it, not only for your own sake, but for those as well with whom you may share that data in the future. If your program does not include this kind of feature, you can still increase the value of your own research by carefully noting the source of the information and its reliability. We may not be able to do much about the erroneous data that is already out there, but at least we can make our own as accurate as possible!
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