Why You Should Consider Your Source

We know we should cite our sources… but as a researcher, you should also consider your source.  Maybe you’ve collected all sorts of information about an ancestor and you have a variety of sources to back that information up.  But maybe there is something that doesn’t add up, something that doesn’t fit.

To avoid feeling like something is off, you need to evaluate and judge each source.  Why was the source created?  Who created the source?  Does your ancestor have some sort of reason to exaggerate or lie?  Maybe they didn’t lie purposefully – maybe they just forgot?  Perhaps you have immigrant ancestors who didn’t speak English (or had a very heavy accent) and there was a communication barrier.  There are a lot of reasons why information on a source document could be incorrect.  It is your job to weigh how likely the information on the source document is to be correct.

For example, after my mom passed away, I received a lot of beautiful condolence cards from family members and friends that often included a little anecdote or memory about my mom.  These were so special for me because it helped me get to know another perspective of my mom.

I trust that most of these stories were true.  However, I received one letter in particular that I know was full of inaccuracies and falsehoods: The letter from my schizophrenic aunt.

I know in my heart that when my aunt wrote this letter, she was telling what she believed to be the truth – but her mental illness has made it difficult for her to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

The letter itself was beautiful and talked about wonderful of a sister my mom was.  It talked about happy times and how much they got along.  It talked about when the Pope visited their little Catholic school.  It ended by saying that I was much too young to lose a mother and asked if I was excited about starting high school next year.  In short… the whole thing is made up fantasy.

The Pope never came to the Catholic school that both my mom and my aunt attended.  My mom and aunt had anything but a wonderful relationship growing up – in fact, my mom had plenty of stories that showed how my aunt was a bully and did some pretty mean (borderline cruel) things to her.  I even remember feeling the tension when my aunt and mom were in the same place – there wasn’t much sisterly love and happiness going on between them.

And I was 20 when my mom passed away – not a 13-year-old middle school kid.

If my grandchildren or great-grandchildren discovered this letter, they would be getting a lot of completely untrue stories.  The stories are nice, but there isn’t an ounce of truth to them.

As you are doing research, please remember to not only cite your sources, but weigh it too.

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7 Responses to Why You Should Consider Your Source

  1. You make an excellent point Elyse. In the past I’ve taken information from family members on face value but as I gained more experience in genealogy much of what they believe to be true was way out.

    These people were telling the story as they remembered it but time and age dulls and distorts memories. If only I’d realised that at the time I wouldn’t have spent many happy, but ultimately unproductive, hours chasing wild geese.

  2. Great point that the years and sometimes medical issues can blur the facts. My grandmother had a correspondence in her papers (back in the ’80s, most of those mentioned now passed) with an apparent second cousin that listed four immigrants with labels “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D”, and their subsequent families, indented as an rough outline might for subsequent generations — all unsourced.

    If I had taken the letter as evidence of the four being siblings (which my grandmother had at the time), I might have listed them as such, but the letter only started with the vague, “Here is as much information as I could find for you.” I haven’t found a copy of the letter(s) that might have requested the look-ups.

    Instead, tracing the parish records back in their original country, they were actually two pairs of siblings from two different farms in the same parish, one using the main farm/parish name as an immigrant surname, the other using the same same parish name (but not their own subdivision’s name) as their immigrant surname.

    The person who had written it was descended from one of the pair that wasn’t directly related to us. Since it’s an island parish to boot, I wouldn’t be surprised to trace them back far enough to learn if the two pairs had been somewhat distant cousins to each other, but direct siblings (and first-and-second generation cousins so far) has shown false. I’m still occasionally cluster-researching the half that’s not (yet?) directly related, in case. :)
    Eric Jorgensen´s last blog post ..Book Club Tangent: BCG Evidence Analysis

  3. Thanks Elyse. Your comments are so true when you wrote about your aunt’s note. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Elyse. Your comment was so accurate when you talk about your aunt’s note. Thank you for reminding us to read items like that carefully and to double check the “facts”.

  5. Great points Elyse. I had one Aunt on Dad’s side and have one Aunt on mom’s side that I’ve always tempered what they told me until I could vet it out. Strange thing is practically everything the paternal aunt told me, I’ve actually found documentation to support. I always questioned because paternal side of the family is always embellishing things and swearing we are kin to somebody important. So, it’s like the truth is there, minus the famous people part, but you just have to pull it out from the embellishment part.

    Maternal aunt on the other hand is very different. I swear it seems like she just out and out lies. She gives no credence to the research me and my cousin have done because if she didn’t say it it’s not so. This aunt is always going on about how we missed a great opportunity by not talking to my great grand aunt while she was living. Sometimes this aunt actually does remember a few things correctly but I’ve just gotten to the point where I trust nothing she tells me on the family. Extended family is always asking her about the family and believing everything she tells.
    Mavis Jones´s last blog post ..31 Days of Genealogy – 10 Minutes at a Time – Days 15 – 18

  6. Very well said. When I did my history research module at Open University, I remember very strongly the importance of asking questions of each source – especially Why it was written, and who it was intended for.

    We have to always remember that human beings are not infallible! They lie, forget, get things wrong, exaggerate, make mistakes and generally have all kinds of reasons for being inaccurate. As a professional researcher it’s very much part of my job out to try and sift out the truth from often dubious resources, and this isn’t always easy. One thing one needs to do is to always try to back up each source with other sources.
    Rosamunde Bott´s last blog post ..Charles Dickens’ Genealogy: Are You Connected?

  7. I have to say that you had a great points. I had one Aunt on Dad’s side and have one Aunt on mom’s side that I’ve always tempered what they informed me until I could vet it out. Strange thing is practically everything the paternal aunt told me, I’ve really found documentation to assistance. I usually questioned simply because paternal side of the family members is usually embellishing things and swearing we are kin to someone essential. So, it’s like the truth is there, minus the famous individuals part, but you just have to pull it out from the embellishment component.
    Grace´s last blog post ..How to Lose Chest Fat for Men

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