Online Genealogy Research – Perils and Potentials


When I started researching our family history, online research was really just beginning to be a viable resource. The outlets were mostly through a few independent sites that I typically found via clicking travels down long and winding roads….some of those resources still exist of course (Cyndi’s List still being a strong presence). One of my major sources in the beginning was forums and newsgroups which connected me to other genealogists in locations far afield from me, and the generosity of fellow researchers hasn’t changed. I still find it amazing that there are so many of us out there, willing to share personal archives or even do a little local legwork and to help further another researcher’s quest. I hope that never changes. The possibilities out there are endless, and valuable.

Since then those first resources have grown exponentially, and others have joined the ranks. More and more countries are taking on the challenge of digitizing original documents, and sites like http://www.ancestry.com, of which I am a member, provide a huge watershed of this information that is constantly updating. There are so many brick walls of research that have been broken down by what is now available on line.

The perils, of course, are in running too far down the road with information that is not corroborated with direct evidence and primary sources.

For example, I share my trees online for a few reasons. It enables easier access to other members of my family to see how the history is being filled in, but it also creates opportunities to find relatives that I might not have known about, and who have also been digging deep into our common roots. I have had my eyes opened to my own family’s stories that I had feared were lost as we continue to say goodbye to family from our older generations, and have been so grateful to find these new connections.

That said, the number of times I have seen that someone has pulled from my information thinking that we are connected when we are not is a bit sad to see. I have often sent emails to folks that have believed they are connected to our line, to share information to help steer them in the right direction. As an example, if I can see that their branch settled in a geographical location that is not connected to our branch, I will do my best to share with them the info I have so that they do not spend time working on a fruitless research line.

But it does surprise me when I see this happen. Not all of the information I have gathered shows up on a shared tree, but enough does with respect to names, locations, and time periods. Enough, at least, to give a quick visual confirmation if the possibility of connection is truly there.

I’ve also gotten a few emails from folks that feel they have information I need for my tree that they state is validated by a publication that they have found. Often this is a self published history. Sometimes these publications can truly be a wealth of information, but if they do not cite primary sources, please tread carefully!

Solid, corroborated genealogy research requires an understanding of some key concepts.

First you have direct evidence and indirect evidence. Direct evidence is a specific document that proves a specific set of data. For example, a birth certificate will provide date of birth, location of birth, and parent’s names. Indirect evidence (or circumstantial evidence) is information that can allow for an interpretation. For example, some census reports will provide age in years rather than a birthdate. You cannot simply take that age, subtract it from the year of the census and consider that a solid date of birth, however it may allow you to narrow down a time period during which a person was born. (Of course, bear in mind that a person’s birthdate often changes significantly on consecutive census reports as the information is not always given directly by the individual in question to the census taker.)

Further, there are also the concepts of primary sources and secondary sources. Examples of primary sources: vital records and eyewitness testimony taken recent to the time of the event. Examples of secondary sources: information that has been compiled or copied from other sources, or interviews about events long after the occurrence.

The value of indirect evidence and secondary sources should not be underestimated, but time should be taken to corroborate this information with direct evidence and primary sources. Taking the time to make these validations early on will save a lot of heartache later.

Typically my first steps with a new client is all about indirect evidence and secondary sources, but they give me a starting point to begin looking for that solid corroboration. And after all, you have to start somewhere!

There are many places out there to get a solid grasp of what the standards are for genealogical research – your local family history library is a great place to start, but online resources such as http://www.rootsweb.com and http://www.ancestry.com (just to name a few) are also great places to look for information to help you sort through the tangled roots.

2 responses to “Online Genealogy Research – Perils and Potentials

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