Just because something is written down doesn't mean that it's right. We need to evaluate the information that we're looking at. Here are 5 questions you should ask when you're evaluating genealogy information.
First: Sources or Information?
Let's start with a quick definition. Information is what a source says. A source is what you use to get information. You might think of it as the source is a vessel or a container for information. (You might want to read my post "Understanding Genealogy Sources" to see what sources are all about.)
Now let's get to the questions.
1. Do You Understand the Terms?
Do you really understand what that source is saying? Do you understand the words and phrases that are being used and do you understand how they are being used? For example, in a legal document, assuming that "infant" refers to a baby could lead you to some incorrect conclusions. "Infant" in a legal document often just means that that person wasn't yet legally an adult; for legal purposes, they were still an infant.
2. Are You Reading What's There?
Building a theory is a natural part of research. The problem is when we allow that theory to take over. Facts should build our theory; our theory shouldn't color how we interpret the facts.
Probably the most common example is assuming that children listed in a pre-1880 census are the children of the head of household (presuming the ages allow for that). The problem is that the pre-1880 federal censuses don't give relationships. They show who's living in the household, but it doesn't spell out how (or even if) they are related.
3. Who Gave the Information?
You've probably noticed that just because someone says something, it doesn't mean that they're right. It was true back in our ancestors' time, too. Knowing who gave the information can go a long way toward helping us evaluate its accuracy.
Did that person know what he or she was talking about? Could they have been an eyewitness or have first-hand knowledge of the event? Or were they passing along information they got second- or third-hand?
4. Is There a Reason to Lie?
We don't like to think of our ancestors as lying, but hey, they were human. Let's say that a veteran's widow needed to have been married for a certain length of time to be eligible for a military pension. If she missed it by a few months, might she fudge her marriage date a bit? Could a boy have lied about his age in order to get into the army (or a man lie about his age in order to avoid going into the army)?
5. Why Was the Record Created?
This is perhaps the most overlooked question, but it can have an impact on what we're evaluating. People tend to be more careful about the "important" information on a document. Think about those hotel or airline surveys you get after you travel. If you fill them out, you're probably more conscientious about being accurate in your rating of the hotel wifi than you were answering exactly how many times you've stayed with that brand hotel in the past 12 months. ("Was it 3 or was it 4? Doesn't matter. I'll put 3.")
The "must have" bits of information tend to be more carefully reported than the "nice to have" bits of information.
Are you trying to make sense of sources, evaluate evidence, and find more information? I've created a new course called "Beyond the Hints," designed to help you navigate your genealogy research with confidence. Click here for more information.