Drive-by genealogists should learn a few rules
The genealogy world is cluttered with materials that purport to be the writers' family histories. Too many of them are nothing more than lists of people with unproven dates of birth, death and marriage, and in many cases the people on the list aren't even related. The individuals who created those lists are the same ones who believe the television ads about how easy it is to click on a few links and find your entire family. People who believe those ads are sort of the joy riders of genealogy: They steal the family car and have a grand old time for the weekend, racing around the Internet and leaving a mess for someone else to clean up on Monday morning. I'm not big on government oversight or regulation of everything in our lives, but sometimes I wonder if we should require folks to have a research license (sort of like a driver's license) before they can publish their "work," in print or on the Internet. At the core of this licensing program would be an understanding of some really important terms, including sources, information, evidence, and proof. A source is a physical thing, such as a person, a book or a website. There are two kinds of sources: original and derivative. The original is in its first recorded (oral or written) form. A derivative results from reproducing the original. This can be a copy from scanning, photographing or microfilming the original; or it may be a copy someone made by sitting down and copying it by hand.Information is the data that comes from a source. It can be primary or secondary. Primary information is firsthand knowledge — someone was actually there when an event occurred. Secondary information comes from someone with more distant knowledge, such as Aunt Mary telling you what her mother told her. Just because information is primary doesn't mean it's true, and because something is secondary doesn't mean it is erroneous. Evidence is information that is relevant to the issue we're pondering. It can be direct or indirect. Direct evidence answers a question without help from more than one source. Indirect evidence doesn't answer the question until you add to it information from another source. Proof is a conclusion we reach with thoroughly documented research that we have correctly interpreted, analyzed, and put together. Sometimes folks use these terms incorrectly, and that muddies the water. For example, a researcher might find a document that says a couple married on a specific date. That researcher may tell others that this "proves" the marriage. In fact, it isn't proof, but it is evidence of the marriage and needs a bit more work. Two other terms tie into the proof element. When we do a little research and analyze what we've found, we will form a hypothesis or a proposal of what we think something to be. We take the hypothesis and continue our work either to prove or disprove what we think to be the truth. Once we've done all the work, we then reach a tentative conclusion that we call a theory. We can't quite label it as absolute, so we say, "based on all the evidence I've found and analyzed, this is what I believe to be the truth or what probably happened." When we express a theory we always use qualifying words such as "possibly" or "probably." But if we work long and hard enough, we hope to state unequivocally how something was; all the evidence supports our assertion and we say we have proved our point.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.