07 February 2017

Evaluating Evidence: Books

Last April I wrote a post about ebooks. I periodically review my posts and I discovered this post in particular wasn't getting the attention it deserved. Why? It was mostly about evaluating books as evidence, with some ebook links at the end.

So, I've pulled the evaluation part out and I'm putting it here, under a title that makes it clear what it is. I just wanted you to know in case you're one of the three people that read the old post and thought this sounded really familiar.
Evaluating evidence is an important genealogical skill. It requires practice to perfect. Get started with books, a simple source to use and to evaluate.

I've had several comments or emails lately about topics similar to this. It takes a few weeks to create a new post so I wanted to take this opportunity to try and address those responses quickly, since this post was already written.

If you have questions, leave a comment (I'd prefer a comment if it will benefit others but you can email me, too).

I know evaluating evidence isn't an easy subject. It's OK to ask questions and ask for help. That's what I'm here for.

Why Books?

So many people begin genealogy today with a site like Ancestry.com that they don't realize how many other sources are available for their genealogical research. Before online genealogy was possible, many beginners relied on books. Books are easier to read than documents, and many are indexed.

More and more books are being digitized and made available online. They still have the same advantages as a starting source but with the bonus of being accessible from home. For those books you have to access at a repository, the digital version may be faster to check if it can be accurately searched.

A Starting Point

Ebooks represent a small portion of the genealogy books available, but they may be different books than you would find in your local library or the repositories you are able to visit. Take advantage of what's online and what's "in print" at a local repository.

Books are just a starting point, though. A "good" genealogist seeks out the best source available. Books (including ebooks) usually are not the best source. They are often the easiest source to use, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I see genealogists fall into traps at both ends of this issue. Some find a book and stop there, never seeking out the original record the book used or indicates exists. Other genealogists strive to do great genealogy but refuse to use books because they aren't the best source. This just makes your research harder.

Checking a particular type of source is never "wrong." What makes the difference is what you do next.

Checking a particular type of source is never "wrong." What makes the difference is what you do next.

Evaluating Sources, Evaluating Evidence

Detailing what a good genealogist does next is at least an entire post in itself and maybe several. It starts with the third item in the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). On the BCG website, it is referred to as "tests," as in testing the sources and information.

Realize that there is a difference between "a source" and "evidence." If you're just getting started with the concept of evaluating or testing, I don't want you to get overwhelmed so I'm not going to go into great detail about this. It is important to know and understand the difference, but if you're just learning, let's not jump to calculus before you learn to multiply.

For those who are ready, a source provides information. We can use information as evidence. We need a specific research question before we can use that information as evidence, though. Learn more in this QuickLesson from Elizabeth Shown Mills, CGSM's Evidence Explained website.

Separating a source from evidence kinda blew my mind the first time I learned it. Honestly, for me, it made everything much simpler because you are dealing with individual pieces of information and evidence for an individual problem rather than seeing a whole source.

Note that this is one of the major differences between how we use evaluation in genealogy versus scholarly history (unless academia has adopted some of the same principals in the last ten years, I don't keep up with scholarly history so I'm not sure). I mention this for those who might have a history background they are trying to apply to genealogy.

The GPS is applied to reaching a conclusion. What you read on the BCG website may be more involved than what you'd do after using one book.

Essentially, you perform the first four elements of the GPS throughout the research process but to different degrees. The more experienced you are, the more you apply tests automatically to choose your next step.

A simple example would be finding information on a family and noticing a son was born several years after the father died. Doing the simple math tests the information.

This may seem too obvious to be a test. Yet, some genealogists just write down exactly what they find without even thinking about it. Part of testing is common sense.

Part of testing is common sense.

Don't be intimidated. You are most likely doing simple testing, maybe even more complex testing. You can learn more about "analysis and correlation" to improve this skill, but practice is also essential.

Next Steps

After "testing" you make a decision about what to do based on the tests. In the case of books, the next step is usually finding the original source or a more authoritative source.

You will also need to corroborate the information---does it appear to be correct based on other information (this involves correlating which I described for census records in this post).

There's more to testing, analysis, and correlation, but this gives you the general idea if you've never come across these concepts. Learning more can take your research to another level.

Use books as a clue to lead you to more information or the best source for that information.

Book-specific Issues

Because books of abstracted/transcribed records had to be copied, there is a greater chance they contain errors (think typos) than a photographic copy such as a photocopy, microfilm copy, or digitized copy.

Another pitfall related to this is completeness. You need to understand what the book includes. You may need to search the original for the information you want if the book only included certain information, certain years, or certain sections.

There are also books that are the "original," such as county or family histories. Sometimes histories contain explicit sources you can check. More often, you should be looking for clues to sources to corroborate the information.

An example would be mention of military service; you should seek a military service record, pension, or similar record. A county history probably did not use one of these as it's source, but it provides a clue that such a record could exist.

The major pitfall with histories is they abound with examples of inaccurate or incorrect information. These may be innocent errors or someone's intentional attempt to cover up a fact or make his ancestors sound more important.

Verify the information is correct.

You may also be "testing" the history to determine it's quality as a source. If we're talking about evaluating evidence, a history may contain information from an unobtainable source (a person now deceased, for example). The history may be the only source for that piece of information. If you can find a source to verify the information, you should, but that's not always possible.

The purpose of testing a source (not one piece of evidence) is to help you determine how likely it is that the unverifiable information is correct. It's like tasting your cooking. You take one taste to determine if the whole thing is good.

Unfortunately, a whole book is not as well represented by one or two "bites" as your grandmother's secret sauce. It's more like testing the edge of a cake or casserole to test doneness in the center. The first (100) time(s) you test, you are pretty far off. Guess what...

experience is the only way to get better!

The Modern Situation with Books

Unfortunately, ebooks and on-demand publishing have made testing a source even more vital for books. In the past, many books (but not necessarily family histories) went past an editor before being published. That gave you some confidence that they were quality publications.

Testing and evaluation was still necessary but you could start with some confidence, a real advantage for beginners. Now anyone can "print" a book (or ebook) and put it up for sale.

This still happened some in the past. It was more likely someone privately published a genealogy book than some subjects. However, it was expensive so no one did it for the money. They did it because they were passionate about genealogy.

Now creating ebooks or self-publishing can be profitable. It's great genealogy authors can now make some money (before they often wouldn't even break even). Evaulating a source, especially books, is more vital than ever, though.

In the original post you will find the discussion of searching ebooks and the pitfalls related to that. See that post with links to four free sites for ebooks, one subscription site with ebooks, and two genealogy book stores with ebooks, here.

Let me know what questions you have about testing and evaluating books. This was a world wind approach to a complex subject.
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