How can you tell if the information posted by individuals on internet genealogy sites is correct? Some sites have sources but others don't. How do you know what, and when, to believe what you read online??
A good rule of thumb is....
Don't trust anything you find on the internet (or elsewhere) if it doesn't have sources.
The Importance of Sources
Without sources you can't verify the information, which means you don't know if it is accurate or if it came from a reliable source. Perhaps it came from Great Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha may have some of it right, but she may have mixed up a lot too. Word of mouth, aka family lore, is often quite wrong or confused but with a shred of truth. Without verification, a researcher has no way of knowing what’s true and what is not.
The information may have come from a book written by someone 100 years ago who didn't have access to sources we have now.
Perhaps the information was transcribed from a book that was transcribed from a microfilm which was in turn transcribed from the original. The chance of human error is greatly increased with each succeeding transcription.
Verify the Information by Checking the Source
Even if a source has been recorded for the information, you should double-check it personally. That means find the original source and verify that what you found was correct. If the information does not have a source, it is up to you, the researcher, to track down where the information came from.
If you write to whomever posted the information online you might be lucky enough to get a source citation from that person. Then you can access the original source and check to see if the information you found is correct. If you cannot get a response to your request for a source, you will have to go on a hunt or look for other records to verify the information you found.
Evaluate the Source
You also want to think about the source itself. Is the source a good one? If Great Aunt Martha gives me information on the birth or baptism of my 3rd great-grandpa and I put it online with the source recorded as "Remembrances of Great Aunt Martha", that's not necessarily a reliable or accurate source. So while it is important to source your findings, you also have to consider how reliable the source is. After all, Great Aunt Martha did have that fall from a horse when she was a child and she IS 97 years old. How accurate is her memory?
However, if I source the birth or baptismal dates with full details on the church where I saw the original record, or the published transcript of those church records, that's much more reliable. There are many good books available on how to write proper source citations, such as “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition” by Elizabeth Shown Mills.
Sources Can Be Misquoted
Sometimes (more often than you might think) sourced information is misquoted or misunderstood. For example on a newsgroup recently someone asked for assistance in figuring out exactly where in Ontario her great-grandfather was born. She provided a quote regarding his being born in a “...fortified town near the border with America” adding that it came from a newspaper article written about him while he was alive.
When I obtained the article I discovered she had misquoted what was actually written. The only reference to his birth stated “[He] is a Canadian…born in a distant fortified outpost on the borders of Canada and America”.
That’s quite different from her version. The American-Canadian border is found in other provinces besides Ontario. Thus her misquoting of the information was leading her astray. She had a mythical story of her great-grandfather being born in Ontario when in fact he might have been born in any one of several provinces that border on the United States. As well her use of “near the border” instead of the actual wording of “on the borders” makes a difference as to what locations fit the reference given (near vs on). It’s important to be accurate and precise when using quotes as a source.
Sources Can Be Misunderstood
Several years ago a friend asked me to help him find out where in Indiana his grandmother was born. His source for her birth was a family bible. But a check of the bible revealed that her parents were born and married in Ontario and all her siblings were recorded as being born in Ontario. All other records, such as census and death records gave her place of birth as Ontario. It seemed unlikely that she was born in the United States but what about the reference to Indiana? Further research revealed that there was a small village in Ontario called Indiana about 5 miles from where her parents were born and married and about 10 miles from the family’s location in various census records. My friend had misunderstood the original source.
Keep This Mantra in Mind
When in doubt, remember....
"Genealogy without sources is mythology"
Don’t let your genealogy research be guided by mythology.
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.