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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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How Do I Know a Genealogy Source is Correct?

How do you know a genealogy source is correct? You have to learn to evaluate your evidence. It's not as easy as "this is a good source." But it's not rocket science either!

image with text, quote is this source correct, unquote, learn to evaluate evidence

This post aims to explain the basic differences between asking "is this source right" and evaluating evidence. It's an introduction to evidence evaluation (also called evidence analysis, source evaluation, or source analysis).

Let's start with something really important. 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.

We always want to use the best available source in genealogy, but that doesn't mean skipping a source that isn't the best.

I see genealogists fall into traps at both ends of this issue. Some find a hint online, an online index entry, a database result, a free webpage, or a record from a book and stop there, never seeking out the original record. Other genealogists strive to do great genealogy but refuse to use whatever they don't consider the best source. This just makes your research harder.

Genealogists need to use whatever types of sources are available for their problem. Sometimes all you have is an index (sometimes, the records the index refers to are destroyed, and you literally are left with only the index). Sometimes you have various "derivatives" of a source, with some being easy to obtain, others being hard to obtain, and the original being really hard to obtain. You don't just NOT research that topic/person/source because you can't get the original. Use the derivatives and start with the easiest to get!

Evidence evaluation will help you know how much effort to put into getting that hard-to-obtain original or whether to continue to rely on a derivative. If your problem only has an index, evidence evaluation will help you identify other sources the index hints at.

Evidence evaluation is like your secret power to do genealogy no matter what situation you find yourself in. If you only use "the best" sources, you'll be perpetually getting stuck. Evidence evaluation not only frees you to use any source (appropriately) but will also help you shape what you do next, usually research, but possibly education.

I'll stop trying to convince you how great this skill is. Let's talk about how to do it.

How Do I Know a Genealogy Source is Correct?

I've told you the brief answer to this question, evidence evaluation. Let's break it down some more.

We don't ask if a source is right because a source can be right, wrong, and irrelevant. And one source can be all of those at the same time.

The easy-to-understand part of this is, a source can contain correct information and incorrect information. So there's the first key you must remember.

  • Sources contain information.

The next key piece is, we only care about information related to the question we're trying to answer. That means information not related to that question is irrelevant.

  • Information needs to relate to the question we're trying to answer.

Information we can use to help answer our question is defined in genealogy as "evidence." (So evidence has a specific meaning). Recognize that this is how you'd colloquially use the words evidence or clues. It does not mean the information has to be an answer.

  • Relevant information is "evidence."
  • Evidence doesn't' have to be an answer.

If you think about these key items, it should be obvious that we can't answer "is this source correct?" We also can't answer, "is this a good source?" Even if you determined a source contained all incorrect information, it is still possible to use it for clues.

There is such a thing as "negative evidence," as well, where not finding something provides evidence (this is an advanced use of evidence because it's very easy to do it wrong but highlights how even the lack of a source is possibly evidence, so you certainly don't want to label sources "good" or "bad"). "Good sources" can be irrelevant to our question or contain incorrect information. You don't want to paint all sources of any type as good or bad.

Evaluate your sources, instead.

We now have three key pieces to consider, and that's a good starting place. You can take these concepts further, so there is much more to learn about evidence evaluation than what I cover in this post.

Three keys to evidence evaluation

The three pieces I want to focus on are information, evidence, and questions. I don't really want to talk about "sources" in depth.

"Sources" are part of the evidence evaluation process, but since we're just dipping our toe in, I think that's actually a more advanced piece. Additionally, most people do get started with evidence evaluation because they want to know "is this source correct" or "is this a good source." By getting away from talking about sources, I think it helps get you over the bump of thinking that's the important question.

As a genealogist, you need to focus on evidence, not sources. Sources are sort of like the shipping box for the items you ordered. It has a crucial function but what you really care about is what's inside.

Yes, a damaged shipping box affects the items just as a source can affect evidence, but the damaged box doesn't mean your items are damaged, either. You don't just toss the entire box unopened because a corner got squashed in transit. Don't toss a source because it's "damaged." The evidence inside might be just what you need.

If you think about a shipping box and contents, this kinda highlights how evidence evaluation works. You open up the box and see what's inside. You saw the condition of the box (was it in bad shape, indicating possible issues with the contents?). Now you can see how the items are packed. Uh, oh! They didn't add any packing; your items might be damaged. So what do you do?

You check each item to see if it will still do what you need it to do.

That's what you do with evidence evaluation. Who cares about the box (once you get it). Will the information help with what you need. In other words, will the information help with the question you want answered?

The information might not answer the question but don't "send it back" if you can still use it!

That information is evidence.

You evaluate boxes shipped to your house, and this really is how evidence evaluation works in general. 

  • Some sources look great, undamaged box, appears well packed. You open it up and find they sent the wrong thing; the information isn't related to the question you need answered. 
  • You get another shipment, and the box looks just as good; you open it and see potential damage. You look closer; you don't just send it back without evaluating the state of the contents.

Looking Closer at Evidence

Evidence evaluation is how you consider the state of the box to help you decide how closely to examine the contents for damage. Issues with the container (the source) indicate careful evaluation of the contents (the evidence) is necessary. You need to be aware of potential problems with any source/information and then decide if the information you found has those issues.

You already do the reverse of this. If you believe the source is good, you don't check the information as carefully, just as when you receive an undamaged box, you don't minutely examine the items (if they appear fine) for damage. If only evidence evaluation was as obvious as checking your shipped items!

Using the shipped box example, evidence evaluation is like developing your eye into a magnifying glass. Genealogy is more complex than getting items in the mail. It doesn't make sense to microscopically examine a shipping box; a cursory examination is enough. In genealogy, we do want to look closer at our sources and then the information they contain. Evidence evaluation is how you will make your cursory glance far more detailed than it currently is

With practice, evidence evaluation becomes only slightly more difficult than evaluating items shipped to you. When you get started, it might seem extremely difficult. Just keep practicing. It's worth it!

You want to write down the results of your evidence evaluation. When you get pretty experienced, this will fit right into your notes or report.
Until you do this naturally and easily, just write everything down when you evaluate your source. A lot of the point of evaluating evidence is for your future use of the evidence.
While you're gaining experience, you can't be sure your future self will pick up on all the issues you see in the present. So write it down to make it easier.
If you aren't keeping notes or writing reports to yourself, get out a piece of paper (real or digital) and just write down what you think, what you see, and any questions you have for yourself.
This post will help you learn to take genealogy notes if you're not sure what to include.

This post has introduced you to source evaluation. The follow-up post introduces the main questions from three categories of evaluation questions. Get the Source Evaluation Workbook to go more in-depth and learn all the questions you should ask yourself (from all five categories). The Workbook now also comes with our e-guide to digital note-taking!

Because source evaluation is a big topic, I've split this post up. You'll now find the information about what questions to ask (i.e. how to actually start evaluating the evidence you find), in the follow-up post. Learn about the questions for evaluating genealogical evidence, here.

how to tell if a genealogy source is correct his this genealogy information right