Monday, January 28, 2013

Using the Historical Method to Cite Your Genealogical Sources

My reply to Mr. James Tanner's blog "What are sources and why should I care?"

     Mr. Tanner, you said, “As genealogists we need to forge a new methodology with a new terminology based more on evaluation of evidence and seeking for historical truth or reality...” 
     I would ask you, “Why re-invent the wheel?”
     There is a perfectly good methodology for choosing, using, and citing sources which has been in place for hundreds of years: the methods employed by historians.
     As Bowdoin College explains:
“A citation is the part of your paper that tells your reader where your source information came from. This is one of the most important elements to your paper. In order to evaluate your argument, your reader must be able to consult the same sources you used. Proper citing is crucial to making a credible and persuasive argument, and to conforming to professional standards of proof.” 

     When, as a historian, I cite a source I am doing so in order to show you where I found the information so that if you wish, you may find the same book, record, or document and determine if it is, indeed applicable, appropriate, and accurate. This seems to me to be the whole point of citing genealogical sources. 
     If you tell me that Maud was the daughter of Francis and Herbert and I think her parents were Nellie and Albert, then I want to know where you got your information. If we are talking about the same Maud, then clearly one of us is wrong, and I want to make sure that I have the correct information in the family trees and histories which I produce for my clients.
     If, upon closer examination of the sources we both cite, I find that my source is family lore but your source is Maud’s birth certificate or her baptismal record or her obituary (or all three!) then clearly you have superior information to mine, and I can correct my error.
     But if I find that we are both relying on family lore, or that you are basing your information on someone else’s tree, then unless that family tree has a more reliable source attached to it, I can safely ignore your information – for now.
     You stated that genealogy is in search of Truth, with a capital “T.” That is also the goal of history: to discover and evaluate all documents and records available to determine the facts relevant to a specific person or event and arrive at the Truth regarding that person or event. Genealogy is a branch of history, and as such, should be using all of the tools and techniques available to the rest of the historical world. 
     There is no reason to spend time and effort creating some “genealogical” method for citing sources when the historical method is ideally suited to our task.

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