Search for the source: It would be nice if all Web resources included a source. Whenever you find a record on the Web that relates you to your family, look for a source of the data. This can be in the form of source citations and references (often denoted as footnotes at the bottom of the page or at the end of the publication), notes or comments, or an "about this database" section for websites like Ancestry.com. You could also send an email to the author or contributor and politely ask for source citations.
Seek to find the referenced source: If the website or database you are using does not have digital images of the actual source, you can search to find the source references. For example, if the source of the information is a genealogy or history book, look for a library in the area you are searching that has a copy and is willing to provide photocopies. Expect a small fee. If the source is a microfilm record, you will most likely be able to secure the original from your local family history center, where the film can be borrowed and viewed.
View the original material online: There is a growing trend of many online databases to provide access to scanned images of original documents. The vast majority of Internet resources have been copied, abstracted, transcribed or summarized from previously existing, original sources. Understanding the difference between these different types of sources will help you best assess how to verify the information that you find.
Use primary sources when possible: Primary sources were created at or close to the time of the event by someone with personal knowledge of the event (for example, a birth date provided by the family doctor for the birth certificate). Primary evidence usually carries more weight than secondary evidence.
Know the power of originals: If the record you are seeing is a photocopy, digital copy, or microfilm copy of the original source, then it is likely to be a valid representation.
Know that limitations of compiled records: Compiled records, which include abstracts, transcriptions, indexes and published family histories, are more likely to have missing information or transcription errors. If you find these records, it's in your best interest to track down the original sources.
Think about the possible source: When you find information that doesn't provide you a source for the database or website, ask yourself what kind of record could have supplied the information. For example, if it's an exact date of birth, then the source is most likely a birth certificate or tombstone inscription. If it is an approximate year of birth, then it may have come from a census record or marriage record.
Use the "sanity checks" built into the better genealogy programs! The exact name of this feature may vary from one program to another, but all the better genealogy programs have the capability to find suspicious data within a database. These built-in quality checks help you quickly identify questionable data, such as very young girls or elderly women giving birth. When your software identifies such data, examine the evidence closely.
Whether the source provides good, limited or no information — write it down. Citing sources gives credibility to your research, helps others understand where you have been, and aids during your analysis.
Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on June 15, 2013, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.
Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History." Find him on facebook.com/barry.ewell or at MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.
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