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Documenting Your Sources

You should consider documentation of an information source just as important as recording the information itself. Why? If you're like many family tree researchers you don't always work on your genealogy every day, maybe not even every week or month. You may have family lines that you haven't looked at in years! It's difficult to pick up where you left off unless you've documented the information sources. Secondly, if you send family data with no sources to a newly found "e;cuz"e;, then you deprive them of the ability to review those sources. Finally, if you decide to "e;publish"e; a family history, you'll want others to know where you got the information so they won't question it. So documenting sources adds credibility and traceability to your effort. Its not difficult either; it just takes a little discipline.

There are two basic classifications of sources: Primary and secondary. Primary records are those created shortly after an event by someone having personal knowledge of the event. A birth certificate is an example of a primary source, or a family bible if the event is recorded soon afterwards by a witness. However, someone's old letter that has a birth date in it may not be reliable if it's written at a later time. Primary records are obviously the preferred sources for establishing historical facts.

Secondary sources are generally compiled from primary sources or are written from memory long after the event (such as the letter example above). Other examples might be a published family history or summaries of censuses and marriages for a county. Secondary sources are very useful, but their validity could be questionable. So you'll need to examine the primary source if you want to be absolutely sure about a fact. Sometimes, however, a primary source may not be available. So you'll have to rely on the secondary source. An example of this is using the military pension file of your great-great grandfather for his birth date if no other birth record exists. Since he gave the date, there is some credibility for its accuracy.

Just because a source is "e;official"e; does not mean that a fact is correct, either. A great example of this is a death certificate that lists the person?s birth date. The date of birth is usually obtained from someone's recollection, which might be fuzzy. The birth date could be correct, but its not direct evidence of the event, so its circumstantial and possibly suspect. The death certificate is, however, direct evidence of the death date, assuming the attending physician or relative has attested to the event, and should be considered accurate in that respect.

Regardless of whether your information is from a primary or secondary source, document the source. Unless you plan to publish a scholarly work on your lineage, nothing elegant is needed. Use this basic rule: record enough information about the source so someone else can go retrieve it. If you get data from the 1900 census, for example, record the roll number, state, county, city/township, page number, and family number. This way cousin Sue can go look it up easily at her library. For books, record the title, author, publisher, date published or edition, and page number. Be sure to include where you found the source, e.g., Ohio Historical library. Once you?ve been in several libraries, its hard to remember which one had a particular book.

Once you have the source documented, you can tie it to the information in your history. If you have any of today's genealogy software, like Legacy Family Tree for example, then it will do this for you. If you don't have software, then just footnote the source to the fact in your end notes. For example:

"e;Jacob Smith was born May 7, 1845 in Washington County, Ohio1.

End Notes:
1. Declaration for Pension of Jacob Smith dated June 6, 1907, US National Archives."e;

With your sources documented, anyone, including you, can retrieve the same data bringing credibility and traceability to your family history.

Links and related sources:
Source Tips:
http://www.familytreemaker.com/19_carla.html

Understanding sources & citations:
http://www.pipeline.com/~richardpence/classdoc.htm

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