You just found a church record for the marriage of your great great grandfather, or the record of your 4th great grandparents on a passenger list of a ship to the New World in 1777 - wow! But you have questions - how accurate is this information? How can you verify it? The first thing researchers need to remember is that all records have the potential for error once they have been transcribed.
Humans can make mistakes, a transcriber can miss a line or misinterpret an unfamiliar name. This results in the possibility of a culmination of errors with each succeeding transcription. Deliberate altering of the records (such as adding details the transcriber believes are correct; changing the spelling of names etc) results in even more possibility of corruption.
Generations (Versions) of a Record
Each generation or version that a record goes through increases its chance of errors. Researchers should always try to use records as close to the original as possible. Let's go through an actual example:
Many of the records and databases on websites such as Olive Tree Genealogy are transcribed from microfilm of the original. They can be considered a second generation level transcription. This means they have one chance of human error (assuming the original minister made no mistakes). If the original minister or clerk made errors then they have two changes of human error. In most cases these records may be considered as good as book-published records.
The two images above illustrate an error made by an indexer who indexed the name of a spouse as "Clanke Peer" But the image clearly shows the correct name of "Blanche Peer"
Records transcribed from published versions (such as the Marriage Records of the Reformed Dutch Church in New Amsterdam/New York used with permission of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Record who published them in series), are third generation, having been transcribed from the original to the New York Genealogical & Biographical Record (NYGBR) to the website publishing them.
Records at 3rd generation level stand a greater chance of error. How useful they are depends on how reliable and accurate the working publication is. In this example the NYGBR is considered a scholarly journal, is well regarded, and might therefore be considered trustworthy.
The following example is based on an interpretation and explanation of the number of generations an early New York will can go through before it ends up on a webpage or mailing list on the Internet.
An Example of Generations in Wills and Abstracts
1. Generation 1 (original) The original will. Many have been microfilmed by the LDS church
2. Generation 2 (2nd version/transcription) At the time of probate the will was copied into the book (or "liber") of wills. Microfilm of most of the early libers is available.
3. Generation 3 (3rd version/transcription) In the 19th Century a copy of the original libers was made. Microfilm of these is available from the LDS church.
4. Generation 4 (4th version/transcription) Abstracts were done and published as part of the Collections of the New York Historical Society. These are also available on CD-ROM
5. Generation 5 (5th version/transcription) Those abstracts were either scanned or retyped and made available as on-line databases on webpages.
6. Generation 6 (6th version/transcription) The Generation 5 on-line abstracts were posted on an e-mail list.
You can see how many times errors can be introduced, or parts of the records lost along the way. This holds true for all online records.
So what can you, the researcher, do?
1. Use original sources wherever possible.
2. If you can't use the original source be sure to carefully note where you found the information. Hopefully you will one day be able to consult the original to verify the transcript.
3. Scrutinize your source - is it reliable? Has it been altered? Was it taken from an original, or was it taken from a source further removed from the original?
4. Research your sources! Find out if there are better published records that are known to have fewer errors. Talk to those knowledgeable in the field, write emails and ask questions.
5. Don't accept everything you see in print. Be a savvy researcher and protect yourself from errors in your family tree.
The question you should ask yourself every time you access a webpage with information is:
HOW MANY GENERATIONS AWAY FROM THE ORIGINAL SOURCE IS THIS INFORMATION ?
The further removed it is, the more chance of error. Keeping that in mind will make for better and more accurate genealogy research.
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.