Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A couple of the mistakes I have made. (So far...)

Okay, I have realised that I have made a few mistakes to date in my genealogical wanderings. Not that this was unexpected - I would be a fool if I thought I was going to get things perfect the first time out. So in the interests of full disclosure, here are two of the mistakes I have identified and what I propose to do about them.

1) Not adequately documenting my sources: I have far too many images (scans of census pages, parish registers, birth certificates, etc) that simply do not have any citation information attached. In other words, I do not know where they came from. For most of them I could hazard a guess (most of them I got from AncestryLibrary) but I couldn't tell you what census district, what parish register, where or when these documents were produced. Then there are some odds and ends that I simply have no clue where they came from.

What can I do about this? I'm not going to simply throw out all these documents. Instead, when I get around to restarting the rebuild of my tree I will be searching all the likely repositories and this time I will record the correct citations for the material I use. I had already planned to redo my searches to make sure I haven't missed something out or misinterpreted some material, so this won't be a huge imposition. I just need to make sure I am more disciplined. Part of this will require me to learn more about citing my sources properly and the first step has already been taken - I have a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills' book Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian and will shortly be obtaining a copy of her follow-up book Evidence Explained. I have also been scouring the interwebs for information on genealogical citation and have found a wealth of material on various genealogy blogs which I need to absorb and understand.

2) Not being discriminating enough with my source selection: I thought I was doing the right thing, honestly I did. But it turns out I was collecting too many duplicate sources. Well, maybe not too many duplicates, but I was not being discerning enough when analysing my sources. The problem here is that I was scouring various repositories for every reference to an ancestor and attaching all those sources to that ancestor's events. In part I was doing the right thing - the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) was a genealogist should conduct a reasonably exhaustive search, but maybe I was being too exhaustive?

As an example, when searching on FamilySearch it is not uncommon to turn up multiple copies of the same information. Much of the information in FamilySearch comes from microfilmed copies of parish registers and census documents that the LDS church has collected over the years. These microfilms have been indexed and transcribed by different projects and sometimes the same source documents may have been filmed and/or indexed and transcribed multiple times. Each of these copies has been entered into FamilySearch's databases and as a result there are sometimes several copies of the same data that get returned by a search. These are not separate sources, but copies of the same source and as such should not always be given equal weight when determining the validity of the data.

Another example is the difference between a parish register and what are known as Bishop's Transcripts. During the 18th and 19th centuries, local parishes recorded baptisms, marriages and burials and on a regular basis copy of the parish register was made for the Bishop's Transcript. In some cases only the Bishop's Transcript remains, in others only the parish register is available, but in many cases both copies still exist. In my tree I have many ancestors for whom both original parish register and the Bishops Transcripts exist. Given that the Bishop's Transcript is a copy of the parish register, they should probably be considered a derivative source and less weight should apply to them. Where the transcript differs from the parish register, the register most likely is the more accurate data. That doesn't mean I should ignore the transcripts, I just need to be more aware of the provenance of the data contained in them.

Finally, I have been getting my source information from multiple sources - AncestryLibrary, FamilySearch, The Lancashire Online Parish Clerk project, etc. In many cases these have all come from the same original source (or microfilms of the original, via the LDS) and as such, they really aren't different sources, just copies of the same source again. Now each of these repositories may have different transcriptions - some better, some worse - which may aid in finding the information I am looking for, but if i can get an image of the original source, I probably don't need to be continuing my search on different repositories for the same information. If I do search multiple locations, I should not be applying the same weight to each result - instead I should probably make an annotation to the effect that this refers to the same original.

What can I do about this? I can spend a little more time analysing the provenance of the source and be mindful of the possibility that the information I am looking at is from the same source as information I already have. Use multiple repositories to find my sources, but don't treat them all as independent sources - accept (and make note of) the fact that the original source material may be the same, or that I may be viewing a derivative of the source. where possible try to get as close to the original source as I can. I won't discard sources I have used, but I won't treat all sources as being of equal value.

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