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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda:
You Can Never Have Enough Sources
by Rhonda R. McClure

June 01, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

A few years ago a discussion erupted on an online bulletin board about the method in which a particular genealogy program handled footnotes to display the source documentation. There were many complaints about the number of "Ibids" that the program was generating, as once source had been used to document many different facts. This prompted me to write an article about how this particular genealogy program could print out a bibliography instead of footnotes.

In response to that article, a professional researcher wrote to me suggesting that perhaps the researchers should have been more concerned that they had relied so much on a single source. This got me thinking then, and a published genealogy that I was looking at recently reminded me of this issue.

Genealogists should not rely heavily on a single source.

There Are Never Too Many Sources

I confess: I belong to the school of thinking that says you can never have too many sources. Of course, the type of sources you rely on is extremely important, with primary documents generally the most reliable. However, there are times when all you will be able to work with will be secondary sources or those that imply the information indirectly. In such a case, it becomes imperative that you amass more than a single source to verify that the information is correct.

Even if a secondary source has been compiled by a well-known and highly respected genealogist, you should still do your best to look for additional resources to back up the suppositions and conclusions found in the secondary source. You just never know when a researcher's conclusions may fall short. With those researchers that have proven themselves, this is often not a problem. However, few newcomers to genealogy know just who can be trusted. By routinely looking for other sources, you can better assure yourself that you won't get led down the wrong trail.

Where Did They Get the Information?

One issue that few researchers keep in mind when working with different published family histories is the sources those researchers relied on. Very often a researcher will justify a conclusion because they have found the same information in two different published family histories. Unfortunately, more often than not, the published family histories the researcher is relying on may both have gotten erroneous information from the same source originally.

That is why, whenever possible, it is important not to rely on published family histories alone. After all, if the published family history contains some information, they had to get it from somewhere. This means that in many instances you, as the present researcher, should be able to recreate the research. Just be sure to draw your own conclusions. Sometimes it is easy to fall into the trap of not viewing the evidence objectively, but instead, being swayed by the conclusions of the previous research found in the published genealogy.

The Ultimate Goal

While primary documentation is the ultimate goal, oftentimes such documents may not exist, at least not specifically for the event we are trying to prove. Sometimes, our only alternative is to rely on secondary documents. In that case, I often find myself not only citing one source, but also others. I find myself looking at the source documentation from the published genealogy. Or, if they haven't included footnotes, a search of the bibliography to see what other resources I may not be aware of.

When dealing with fellow genealogists, we oftentimes will take what they share with us and verify the accuracy. I know that I am always thrilled when I receive information and they have cited a source that I either wasn't aware of or hadn't thought to check. However, when we are working with published materials, oftentimes we don't seem to be as diligent in verifying the accuracy of the information.

In Conclusion

So, if you are having trouble taking a particular line back further, you may want to step back and re-examine the conclusions you drew based on the source or sources you relied on. See if perhaps there are some other sources that may enhance your understanding of the family unit and those who associated with it.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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