Monday, April 9, 2012

Sources and Cargo Ships

If you've attended many genealogy workshops or conferences, you've heard people talk about different kinds of sources, evidence and information. It can all sound a bit academic at times. If you want to get to the bottom of this, you will want to visit Elizabeth Shown Mills' new website, Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation and Source Usage (

I especially want aspiring genealogists to think about the difference between sources and information. As genealogists, we prospect for information about past lives and events that we weren't around to witness. We must rely on accounts or records created by those who were there. The sought-after information may be about birth dates, addresses, family relationships or life events. The information that we find may or not be accurate.

That's the information. Think of genealogical information as precious cargo transported to us by a source. A source -- be it a document, photograph, gravestone or other artifact -- is a vehicle that carries the information through time to us. A source is an information-transport vehicle. I like to compare a source to a cargo ship transporting raw material to a factory. The factory adds value by using energy to mix the raw materials and mold them into a marketable product.

In the genealogy industry, the genealogist is both factory and factory manager. The genealogist unloads raw information from sources, applies mental energy, and recombines the information as evidence that can support a marketable product: a genealogical conclusion.

Just as a steel factory manager worries about the quality of the ore he receives, a genealogist worries about the quality of information he or she receives. The steel factory manager needs to know where the ore was mined and how it was handled. Similarly, the genealogist wants to know about the provenance and quality of the information. Who provided it? Did the informant have primary knowledge of events? Could the informant be trusted? Was any of the information lost or altered during transit?

This is what genealogy is all about: finding and evaluating historical information and recombining it to answer a genealogical question. If you use good raw materials and process them with care, you will produce a valuable family history product.