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Proving and Citing

We now come to the two most difficult things for a beginning genealogist. In fact these are the deadly failures of many more experienced genealogists.

The first is proof. Prove everything before going back another generation. Otherwise you may discover that you have spent much time developing a magnificent family tree of great value to someone else. The rule of thumb is that you should have three independent sources before accepting anything as fact, although you will quickly learn to judge the reliability of sources. This is because

  • A family story is very, very unreliable
  • A family tree found on the internet is quite unreliable
  • Great aunt Minnie's recollections of her childhood may be unreliable
  • A date of birth given on a tombstone may not be reliable
  • The age of an adult given on a census may be reliable but be sceptical.

Consistent age from several censuses is reliable. The date of a christening found in a church register is usually reliable but a date of birth in the same record may not be. A civil registration certificate is quite reliable and on its own can be regarded as proof.

What happens if you don't find the evidence you are looking for?

First, remember the rule - Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Ministers sometimes forgot to put the entry in the record book. The person recording the information may have mis-heard the name and written down something else, a problem that often occurred when there was an unfamiliar accent. Becoming very creative about spelling may help you find the doucment you're looking for.

The second is citation, otherwise known as documentation. For every fact you should note where you got it, so that someone else can go there to check your data. And of course you will want to return to that source too. You will be surprised how often you will want to re-check something a year or so later.

This rule particularly applies to information gathered from the Internet. Remember:
The Internet is a wide sea, but very shallow.

Unfortunately genealogies supplied on the internet rarely cite sources, so most of the information supplied on the Internet is only a starting point for your own research. The information is an interesting idea, worth slightly less than family legends, but requires you to verify the facts before it becomes valuable data.

An excellent resource book is Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills, available through the OGS Store.

A useful online reference for writing clear accurate citations is Citation Styles Online!

Nothing is true until you have proven it true and cited your sources so that others can check your facts.

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