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Why Bother? The Value of Documentation in Family History Research

by Kory Meyerink, MLS, CG
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Why Genealogists Say "Without Proof there is No Truth"
How to overcome the biggest obstacles in documenting your research and why taking good notes will make your research faster and easier.

New family historians often ask: What's all this hubbub about documentation? Why does it matter, and what difference does it make where I got my information? After all, I am just doing this as a hobby, or to sort out the branches on the family tree for the upcoming reunion. Often there is the feeling that "I'm not going to publish my findings or write a book" and no one is going to see this research but me. Anyway, I'm just doing this for fun and the fun is in the searching, not in writing down, in minute detail, where the information came from, so "cut me some slack and lay off the preaching about citing sources."

Well, I can appreciate those thoughts; they are not much different than my thinking several years ago when I got started. But since then, I've seen the light! Let me share with you three of the many reasons why you want to document your family history findings. Let's begin with the most useful reason.

Documentation Will Make Your Research Easier and Faster

Surprising, but true. Taking time to document where you got your facts (or allegations) will save you time later in your research. Let's face it, most of us do our research a little bit a time, as we have time and opportunities. Often you do some research on one family, only to set it aside for a couple years (or more) while other activities, and even other research, take priority. Well, what happens when you sit down to work on that line you put off two or three years ago? Without writing down what you searched and where you found your information, you will likely look at some of the same sources again, only to find, or not find, what you had already learned. Like me, I am sure you do not want to spin your wheels redoing what you did earlier. Indeed, isn't that part of what we love about genealogy? It's always a new adventure. No two searches, or families, are quite the same.

We would have found one of my wife's ancestors much faster if her cousins had documented the source of their information sooner. For years we heard that Frank Cromwell came from Woodstock, but the state was not given. We searched every Woodstock in the northern states (there are more than a dozen) without finding him. Many years later, when her cousins sent us a picture of Frank's mother, we learned the source of the Woodstock statement. The back of the picture included the name and city of the photographer. Only then did we find out that this was a fair-sized city, with a photography studio in the mid-nineteenth century. This seemingly insignificant piece of documentation redirected our efforts to Woodstock, Ontario where we did find Frank and his family.

Documentation Helps Prevent Duplication of Research

In the course of our research, we can't help but spend some time researching families others have already researched. Eventually, someone else will be researching some of the very same families we are looking for today. Indeed, one of the admonitions new researchers receive is to check for "previous research." Most of us don't have time to do only "original research" on all of our families, after all, every person we find means there are two more (his or her parents) for us to find. We depend on quality previous research to speed us along our search. Without documentation, we do not know what sources somebody has already used. This means we will likely use some of the same sources the earlier family historian used. This wastes our time and resources which could better be used to solve problems others haven't tackled yet.

Years ago I located a distant cousin who had acquired some pedigree charts and family group records about a common ancestor, Penelope Hazzard. Clarence King had compiled these pages in the 1950s, but he had assigned different parents to Penelope than had my third-great Aunt (Arcelli Hall). My task was to determine which, if either set of parents, were correct. Much to my dismay, none of the material I received from Clarence King or Aunt Arcelli indicated how they arrived at their conclusions. It took me about two days of research in probate, land, and other records to learn that Clarence had made the right connection. Oh, how I wish he had just made a simple suggestion such as "according to Joshua Raymond's will, Penelope was an unrecorded child of Oliver Hazzard and Elizabeth Raymond."

Documentation Gives Others Confidence in Your Research

Yes, this is the old standby reason you read in every genealogy textbook, but that does not make it any less true. Indeed, nobody seems to argue with the genealogist's maxim: Without proof, there is no truth. The problem is that many people, especially those just starting out, do not plan on publishing their research findings, as they are just doing it for their own interest. But, let's examine that concept for a minute. Throughout the course of our research we are constantly using the research of others. It may be a published family history, a brief biographical sketch, or a computerized lineage from Ancestral File or the World Family Tree. As noted above, our research moves forward much faster when we use such resources. Now, if we use such resources, aren't we obligated in some way to contribute (i.e. give back) to that growing pool of previously solved genealogical puzzles?

When we eventually do contribute new information to the database of our choice, or print up a booklet for a family reunion, won't we want those who use our information to believe what we say is true? If you have ever had to correct (or demolish) a cherished "family tradition," (and some of us get a strange sense of satisfaction in doing so), you will want to document your findings to make them believable. Of course, not everyone will believe you over Uncle Lester, but many will, and the your true version of the story will eventually be accepted, but only if others have confidence in your research.

Even if you continue to resist publishing (in print or electronic format) parts of your family history, you will likely end up communicating with some distant (or close) cousin doing research on a line common to both of you. This is simply a function of genealogical "networking." As you research, you will find another researcher who has submitted information to the International Genealogy Index or one of the databases noted above, or written an article for a local genealogical periodical, or joined a lineage society with your common ancestor. You will naturally want to contact him or her to learn if they have more information. They will want to exchange information and learn what you have found out. You may place a query seeking information about a problem, or answer one from another researcher.

In all of these situations, you will want others to have confidence in your research, just as you will want to have confidence in theirs. That confidence can be had for just a little bit of documentation.

Documentation Doesn't Have to Be Hard

Perhaps the biggest objection to documentation is the dismay at the necessity of proper formatting when citing sources. Well, guess what? There are so many ways to cite sources, that formatting your citations should not be a big hang-up or time commitment. Certainly if you are submitting an article for a scholarly journal you would be expected to follow their citation format. Lineage societies require a certain level of documentation to constitute proof of a connection. And, indeed there are some emerging standards for "scholarly documentation." However, the good news is that you DO NOT need to follow those standards in everything you document.

There is only one hard and fast rule for general documentation: Record enough information so that another researcher can determine what you have searched. Thus it is not enough to say "U.S. Census" for a source. That is not specific: Which year? Which county and state? What page number? You would want to say, for example, "1850 census, Berrien County, Michigan, page 213." This however is the bare minimum. This is adequate for many research purposes, and it is information that is already on your research log.

Research log? I certainly hope that as a family historian, you have learned the value of a research log or calendar of searches. This is the beginning of documentation, and helps fulfill all three of the reasons for documentation that I've given in this article:

  • A research log speeds your research by easily listing just what sources you have already searched, and what your results were.
  • It also limits duplication of your research efforts by reminding you what you searched, when you searched, and who you were looking for in that source.
  • Lastly, it is a quick way to provide confidence to others with whom you share your findings, as you can easily photocopy or print out a copy of your log.
For those who want to go just a little further in citing their sources, the six elements of a good source citation include:
  • Author (who provided the information)
  • Title
  • Publication information (publisher, location)
  • Date of the information (usually the year)
  • Location of the source you used (library or archive) and the call number
  • Reference number to the specific information (page, entry, line, etc.)

Consistent formatting is useful, helpful, and even required in some settings, but for now, don't get hung up on the commas and colons. Just begin citing your sources, and cite them well enough that others can understand what you searched.

About the Author
Kory Meyerink is an accredited genealogist who lives in Salt Lake City where he currently conducts professional research for, a division of Ancestral Quest, and for Genealogical Research Associates. He is the author of Ancestry's Printed Sources, past president of the Utah Genealogical Society, founder of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, and teaches at many national and local conferences.

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
• Have a question about researching your family history? Ask an expert
How-To Article: How to Cite Sources
How-To Article: Sourcing — The Key to Your Family History Detective Work
How-To Article: What is a First Cousin, Twice Removed?

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