How To Evaluate Genealogy Documents
by Lisa South, Certified Genealogist
The following article was written in the February 25, 2005 OneGreatFamily newsletter. Since Lisa is no longer writing for us, we are featuring some of our favorite articles written by her.
“I have three different birth dates for my grandfather. He told me when he was born; I have a delayed birth certificate; and a baptismal record for him. Each has a different birth year—now what?”
Conflicting sources are a continual problem when doing genealogical research. How do you know which one is accurate? Sometimes an error is so blatant that you can immediately determine which is the more accurate document. But often it is not that cut and dried. When we do find conflicting information, we should evaluate the sources by using a scientific approach.
Each document should be evaluated on the following criteria:
1. Is the document an original or a copy?
An original is the first copy of any document. A photocopy of the original is usually considered an original. Each time a document is hand copied the chance of error is greater. Be especially aware of compiled indexes. Historically these where hand-created, and often error prone.
2. Is the information primary evidence or secondary evidence?
Primary evidence is the testimony (oral or written) given by an eyewitness or recorded by mechanical device present at the event. Secondary evidence is information that is either not the result of personal observation or is collected significantly after the fact. A vital record, such as a birth certificate, would usually be considered a primary source. The parent giving you information about their children would usually be a primary source. There are always exceptions that you need to consider. Is the parent elderly and is his/her memory questionable? In this case they might need to be considered a secondary source. Other examples of secondary sources are tombstones and census records.
3. Does the document contain direct or circumstantial evidence of the information you are seeking?
Direct evidence is information that directly answers a question. Circumstantial evidence gives a logical inference from which an answer might be derived. For example, if you are looking for the birth date of your ancestor, Ohso Elusive - and you find a church baptismal record that says he was born on January 12, 1876, the document directly answers your question. Ohso was born on Jan. 12, 1876. If, on the other hand, you find a death certificate that says Ohso Elusive died March 15, 1948 at the age of 72, you have a document that gives you direct evidence of his death date but circumstantial evidence of his birth date
Naturally, the ideal document would be an original record from a primary source with direct evidence, but genealogists usually are not that lucky. After evaluating each of the conflicting documents using the scientific approach, the document that comes closest to the ideal is probably your most accurate. Of course we could still have erroneous information, so if and when you locate additional records, you should always compare it to your current information and evaluate the information once more.
Using a scientific approach to our research gives us the greatest chance of accuracy, which should be the goal of every genealogist.
OneGreatFamily makes it easy to find differences between your information and that entered by others. The system marks differences in information as conflicts. You can turn on or off the identification of conflicts in the Genealogy Browser by toggling the appropriate button in the tool bar: The first () shows conflicts in information, like perhaps a difference in a birth place or a death date. The second () shows conflicts in relationships, like perhaps not showing a 2nd wife or listing an additional child. When trying to decide between the alternatives, you can now apply these principals of documentation quality in deciding which you believe to be correct.