Recently a colleague and I were discussing a question received in regard to how to trust information found in the various online databases. The way the question was phrased it was almost as though the individual was asking how to trust any information.
It was as though the author of the message was hoping for some ironclad guarantee of what could be trusted in online databases. I found it interesting that the individual was concentrating on the online databases. While I would like a guarantee about the records and resources used, I have been researching long enough that I know that no such guarantee exists.
Practice up on your evaluation skills.
Are You Paying Attention?
The answer to his question is through evaluation. The only way to evaluate an entry in an online database is to understand the possible fallacies of that entry. But this is true of any resource, not just online databases.
For each record type a researcher uses there are positives and negatives. There are primary and secondary documents. Primary documents offer more reliability and accuracy, but only for the information to which they are primary. Few people stop to think about what on a given record is primary information and what is secondary.
A Look at the Records
For instance, a death record is a primary document for the date and place of death, however it is secondary for date and place of birth, names of parents and so forth. The census offers primary documentation that a family resided in a given place at the time the census taker was there. All other information is secondary at best. At the worst it is a guess by some neighbor.
These are just two examples. They are used to show that in order to trust any information in any record, database or published family history, it is important to have a working knowledge of the record type in question. This working knowledge is garnered as you spend time working with the records and educating yourself through books, Web sites, seminars, and conferences.
Experience is the True Teacher
In order to trust any resource you must understand what the possible dangers, or perhaps more applicable the limitations, of the record are. This understanding comes only through education and experience. The more you work with a given record type the more often you are to uncover discrepancies or obstacles to the records or the information found in the records.
In genealogy, as your experience grows so too will your ability to evaluate information found in a resource. You will be able to look at the record and know if you can accept the information listed as truth or if you must verify it further with additional research.
Unfortunately there is no simple "ruler" to which you can hold each answer you find online or in another record up to. It is through experience, the experience in research in general and the experience with the specific record type. As you spend more time researching you will become increasingly confident in your research practices and your evaluative abilities.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.