|by Kory Meyerink, MLS, CG|
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.
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.
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:
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 ProGenealogists.com, 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.