Wednesday 18 December 2019

Another Tree Can Be a Valid Source

I’m just taking a short break from my work to write about “valid sources”. I was prompted to do this after reading an article on the Family History Daily website entitled “Another Person’s Family Tree is Not a Valid Source”, posted approximately March 2018. The article is anonymous but Melanie Mayo-Laakso is the website’s founder and editor.

The thrust of the article is straightforward, and is not challenged here: that information from someone else’s tree is very likely to be inaccurate, and that you should at least verify the information in more reliable records before adding it to your own tree. This is particularly important since providers of online family trees make it oh-so-easy to copy information into your own tree, whether accurate and relevant, or not. Quoting from that article,

The issue arises from the fact that many people don’t view the information contained in a family tree any differently than they do the data found in a record source. When they are presented with individuals from a tree that appear to match their needs they see the data as existing research and very often copy the information without a thought.

The challenge presented here is to do with the nature of a ‘source’, and that online family trees have distorted this in the minds of their users. Furthermore, to explain that family trees are “valid sources”, and that the difference is primarily in their degree of reliability.

First, let’s dispel some related myths:

  • A "source" is simply a source of information that you have used in some research, and not specifically information that you've followed blindly, or even that you agree with.
  • Genealogy is not just about discrete bits of information: the so-called “facts”.
  • No source is guaranteed to be factual, and all sources must be assessed with a critical eye some more than others.
  • Many answers will never be found directly in a single source.

Why are the associated myths relevant? Well, these points suggest that there is more, in real research, than collecting discrete “facts”. Sometimes, you need to make a case that involves looking at multiple sources, and ones that may contain conflicting information. Writing up this type of inferential genealogy is what makes the difference between information (just something a source says) and evidence (something that substantiates, or refutes, a claim you have made). NB: This is not just something that professional or academic genealogists do, but people in other fields of research as well, although their terminology may differ.

Now the problem with online trees is that they circumvent this sequence, and subscribers are led to believe that “sources” yield discrete reliable "facts", and anything that doesn't yield such cannot be a "source". These trees can easily make a connection between such a discrete “fact” and some database entry, but that says nothing more than where the information came from. Very few trees — in fact, I have never seen one — include any type of narrative explaining why a cited database entry (or image) is in any way relevant, let alone analysing multiple sources to derive a considered conclusion when there are no direct answers.

Sources may be original or derivative, where a derivative may be close (e.g. a facsimile or a scan) or distant (e.g. transcribed or translated), and so at best an online tree must be considered a derivative form that compiles information from other sources. They are no less a source than any of the other derivative sources already offered by your genealogy provider, even though their accuracy may well be poorer. But no source is guaranteed to be accurate, whether it’s a database, an online image, or even a stamped birth certificate directly from the relevant government office.

Note that a source may also be an ‘authored work’, which is a form that looks at information from several other sources, and rather than simply compiling it, it analyses the information to derive specific conclusions. The nature of these works means that they have to consider all types of source, whether original or derivative, whether reliable or sloppy, whether agreeing or conflicting, whether primary or secondary information, whether official or private information, and even including authored works by other writers.  To date, none of the genealogy providers have got their head around this concept, and how it works in the rest of the research world (cf. “Research in Online Trees”), but the principles stand.

So, to summarise, in writing up your research, you can utilise whatever sources of information that are relevant to your argument, as long as you evaluate them with the appropriate critical eye.