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Overheard on the Message Boards: When the Book is Wrong
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 03, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: In researching my family, I've discovered that a highly-regarded book (published in 1985) contains some misinformation. The book is widely viewed by other researchers as being definitive and the inforamtion has been included on countless family web sites. Although it includes lots of colorful details about the family, the book does not list many sources. What do you do when you find that published sources, which others accept as proof, are wrong? I think I've found enough evidence to alert other researchers to the fact that there are good and valid reasons to suspect the book. -- Carol Ann

A: Oh to be in a perfect world where all of our genealogical research netted only the right people and the right dates. I have a feeling that if such a world exists, genealogy wouldn't be as much fun as it is. It is the not knowing and the analyzing that I find so much fun.

Your problem reminds me a lot of the salmon who swim upstream. You are about to go against a very strong current, in this case the tide of public opinion. Genealogists don't like to find out their information is wrong. Worse yet, it sounds like this book has been around (and accepted) for some time. Pointing out that there are errors in it will probably upset those who have used it as their only source of information. You are basically pointing out that their information is wrong.

Tread softly and carry a documented family group sheet.

Verify, Verify, Verify

Let me commend you on verifying what you have found in the published book. Such a book should be used in just the way you have, as a tool to guide you to other more reliable sources. It sounds like you discovered errors in a effort to verify information.

Because we are human, errors creep into everything we do. I usually catch my errors after I have posted an article to the Internet or worse, after a book has come out in print. Despite the attention of myself and others this just happens. I also know that I appreciate it when individuals bring to my attention the error.

I can say that you are not the first person to have this happen. A colleague of mine spent countless hours pouring through unindexed court records only to discover that the long accepted truth of having two generations of men named John Smith turned out to be incorrect. It was instead three separate generations of men with the same name, that had somehow been combined into two . Of course when she pointed out the error to others researching that family she was not exactly welcomed with open arms.

Weighing the Evidence

Sharing the discrepancies you have found can be tricky. You will want to be sure that you have all your T's crossed and your I's dotted. Make sure that the records you are using are not open to variant interpretations. I suggest this so that when people disagree with your findings — and they will — you'll be able to show them that your proof leaves no other possibility.

Your message did not indicate just what type of errors you had found. If they are errors with dates, this could be because the compiler of the book listed a filing date instead of an actual event date. I have seen that happen before and it is usually only off by a couple of days. If the book has the wrong individuals marrying each other or the event dates are way off that is another matter.

You should certainly continue to compile your research as you are doing now, using the book as a guide or as to what other records you should be able to find your ancestors in. As you go along, you should be making the appropriate changes to the information found in the book.

Remember that even records that appear to be original may have potential errors. Census records, for example, are an original record, but they are often full of errors. If nobody was home, an enumerator could interview a neighbor to gather information on a family. So be sure that whatever records you are finding that disagree with the book in question are reliable and can be used to defend your conclusions.

Defending Yourself

You mentioned that you want to begin warning individuals about the problems with the book in question. Remember that those who find it accurate will take exception to your comments. You will need to show how your research has found inaccuracies and then be able to back up those inaccuracies with reliable and original records. Still, you will probably find those who continue to disagree with you about the book.

While it is good that you make others aware of the problems you have found with the book, you don't want to summarily dismiss the book either because it contains valuable clues. How you bring this subject up will also make a difference in how your news is received. Mentioning that your research has turned up some discrepancies is a much better approach to stating flat out that the book is just wrong.

In Conclusion

It is good that you have decided to verify information that comes from secondary sources and it is likely you will find other books that will differ from your personal research. Let those you are corresponding with about that line know what you have found, but do it in a non-confrontational manner and remember that some of the book was right.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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 the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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