Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cite Your Low-Rent Sources!

Sometimes as genealogists we have trouble distinguishing between our grubbies and our Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.

Source citations tell our readers what our evidence is. When the work is finished and meant to prove our conclusion, the sources will usually be original records. But when the research is in progress, our best evidence may not be very good. (And some books and articles may simply be created in order to systematize the pile of records and notes found in grandma's attic, and make them accessible, not to prove anything.) They're really more leads to follow up on.

Failing to distinguish these two uses of citations may be a cause of "source snobbery," a disorder in which genealogists (your blogger included) sometimes refrain from perusing Ancestry trees for fear of polluting our minds or our databases. (Of course taking those trees as gospel is an even more widespread disorder among newbies, but we're not worrying about that here.)

Sometimes we need to be polluted in order to become successful -- much as a cop might need a drunken snitch's whisper to get started on a trail, even though it wouldn't count for anything when the case came to court.

My wife's ultra-mysterious great-great grandmother Jennie (Cochran) Boren was born in North Carolina and died in Pittsburgh, but her maiden name was so common we never had any luck finding her in her parents' household. The break we received was not due to our diligence. Somebody who didn't answer emails posted an unsourced tree of Jennie's family from the North Carolina Cochran side, and from that lead we were able to amass plenty of evidence proving the long-lost connection.

Leads document our chase, and later on higher-quality sources document our case, helping us convince our skeptical peers. Don't confuse the two.

Harold Henderson, "Cite Your Low-Rent Sources!," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 11 October 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Judy G. Russell said...

I've also found a number of leads in things like undocumented online trees, at Ancestry, Rootsweb and personal websites, and am always grateful for any hints I can get!

Shelley Bishop said...

Thanks for this helpful distinction, Harold. Your imagery of how the low-level "chase" can lead to the high-level "case" makes good sense!