Use the Source, Rob!

One of the the things that I am learning the hard way would have come from my genealogy Obi-Wan Kenobi, if I had one: Use the Source, Rob! Here is a tip.

There is a bit of genealogy mania that can be acquired when you are starting to develop your family tree. The first step is always to gather as much information as you can from the people in your family who remember (perhaps accurately) family history details. You get everything written down and organized, and then you start adding the details to a genealogy database, either in a software tool that runs on your computer or mobile device, or an online tool or service. Once you have done this, you start to work on proving the data that you have with records. At the same time you work on expanding the data that you have, fleshing out the details of each person in your database, and also adding new related people to your database. Some online services, for example, Ancestry, will give you hints for  people whom you have added to your online family tree. There is where the mania gets triggered. The more people you have in your family tree, the more hints that will be popping up. The more hints that you have, the more data that you can add to your database. The more data that you have in your database, the more satisfying the genealogical hunt becomes. Before you know it, you will be furiously copying or linking all kinds of data to your database, at least until you hit a brick wall.

If your families are in the United States, and you have enough data to work back to 1940, you can use start to use U.S. Census data. In the “old days” before many resources became available online, this would involve going to a Family History Center or a genealogical library or a repository for the source materials, like the National Archives. Today, you can use one of several online services to access census data. The census data has been indexed and some of most useful fields have been extracted. However it is very important to remember that the data shown in the formatted search results screen is not the census. It is a machine-readable extract, most likely transcribed by a human being.

There may be mistakes in that transcription. There may be typographical errors in the dates. There is data in the census records that will not be included in the extract. Every decade of the census contains different data that was gathered by the enumerators, but those data elements are important! If all you are doing is attaching the extracted data to your family tree based on hints, you are not doing good genealogy. You will end up with a mess and there will be tears.

If there are images, it is very important to look at them and verify that what you are adding to your database reflects what it says in the source record. You also want to verify that the source images that are being attached to your record are what you expect them to be, and are properly annotated. I recently found that Ancestry had somehow linked the image of someone else’s census record to my person. If your database software links to your online service, be sure to verify when you are downloading data, one person at a time. Save copies of all the record images to your database, or on your computer somewhere.

This might become painful if your family history crosses over into a country where you do not speak the language, or the handwriting style is different from what you have learned how to read. However, you will learn how to decipher the words and the writing styles with practice.

Slow and steady is the way to go. It’s not a sprint, it is a marathon. A very long, lifelong marathon.


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