June 13, 2002
Are you perhaps guilty of passing along misinformation? To a degree we all are. Often, such misinformation is the result of not getting a chance to use all the records needed to evaluate a family connection. Other times it is from a lack of understanding of the types of records that are available to us.
Just What is the Internet
To genealogists, the Internet is much like a library. We can go to it and look for resources and records on our family history. However, for some reason, when it comes to finding things in this library of digital records, sometimes we forget to follow traditional research methods. Instead we simply take the information found online and then give it to others in passing via e-mail and bulletin boards.
Researching on the Internet, with the exception of records such as the 1900 Census which are truly digitized copies of the originals, is like pulling a book off the shelf in a library. The information should be verified in other sources, preferably original documents such as vital records.
Unfortunately, many people are not doing this. Instead they are finding information on the Internet and then they are sending it along to others. Those who communicate via mailing lists and bulletin boards are doing it in a small fashion. However, there are those who have been collecting GEDCOM files from one place and uploading them to another without even taking the time to see what kinds of information they are passing along.
This was brought vividly to my attention recently when a colleague wanted to share some information on a particular line. She e-mailed the uploader of the tree information offering what she knew. The person e-mailed her back wondering why she was bothering her with a surname she didn't know anything about. My colleague pointed out that the surname appeared in the GEDCOM file the individual had uploaded she never heard back from the person.
How to Use the Internet
The Internet is simply another tool for genealogists. What it does is allow us to come in contact with individuals all over the world, some of whom may have information of use in our research. Through online subscriptions, we also are getting access to some wonderful records.
As genealogists, however, we owe it to ourselves and future researchers to verify the information we are finding online. We need to know how the information came to be on the Internet. Did they scan the original document and show us that image? Generally when you are working in published family histories, that is not the case. Instead the books have been scanned, run through an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program and then made available online.
Any time you are looking at something other than a digitized image of the original work, whether it be a census page or a book, you need to open your mind to the possibility that additional errors crept in. This is not to say you shouldn't use the databases but that you should remember to back up that research with verifying research elsewhere whenever possible.
Much of what I do on a day to day basis begins with the Internet. Without it I couldn't do the research that I do. However, once I begin my research online, I then turn to microfilmed records. If I had the time and opportunity I would be hitting county courthouses for each of the trees I compile. Sometimes it will take months or years before I will be able to venture to the courthouses or other specialized repositories that will aid me with the location of the original records.
Until that time, I am honest is the records that I do use. I make it a point to cite the sources so that future researchers can tell where I got the information and how I came to draw the conclusions that I did.
Continue to use the Internet in your quest for your family history. The Internet itself is a wonderful resource. How we use the information found on the Internet and whether or not we go beyond the Internet is where the problems come up. Don't be satisfied with what you find on the Internet. Go beyond. Delve into those records. Touch that piece of history. Bring those families to life once more. Then share your information with others.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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