Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Who, What, When, Where, Why and How
Journalism students are taught an effective news article must answer six questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Family researchers can apply these six questions to evidence analysis. Evidence is obtained from the information in genealogical sources. All evidence is not equal and not always accurate. We need to weigh the evidence in order to reach valid conclusions. For example:
1. WHO created the source? A witness to the event or someone who heard about it second hand? Birth and death records since 1906 name the person supplying the information. Census records, on the other hand, provide no clues to who answered the questions. Were the names, ages, birth places, etc., provided by the household head, by a child or other resident in the home, or by a neighbor just trying to be helpful?
2. WHAT information does the source provide? Death information on a death record is likely accurate, but the deceased's birth date and place and parents' data may have been supplied by a spouse relying on memory at a stressful time or someone not even related. Firsthand knowledge is primary information and carries more weight than second hand or secondary information but either may be incorrect.
3. WHEN was the source created? At the time of the event or many years later? A marriage license or certificate is an original source. A marriage record from the 1700s in a family Bible published in 1854 is a derivative source. Entered after the fact, whether copied, abstracted or transcribed, it will carry less weight than an original.
4. WHERE did you find the source? Is it a public record still archived in the courthouse where it was originally filed? Was it found in an ancestor's papers with no clues to origination or validity? If a copy, could it have been tampered with?
5. WHY was the source created? Public records were created for many reasons in accordance with laws of the time - none of the reasons genealogical. Did the subject have anything to gain by not reporting the truth? Ages on a marriage record or a military enlistment may have been exaggerated to comply with the law. Many early DAR records are inaccurate as applicants wanted membership so badly they falsified facts and even claimed veterans who never had children were their ancestors.
6. HOW does the information agree or conflict with information from other sources? Direct evidence answers a question without the need for other evidence. Indirect evidence is circumstantial and needs the support of other evidence. View every source in the context of all other sources accumulated. If information conflicts, the conflict must be resolved in order to reach a valid conclusion.
As you analyze your data you will be able to make good decisions about its value and the accuracy of the information it contains. It's not necessary to write the answers to the above questions, but writing your conclusions will help to clarify your thinking and reveal any inconsistencies.
Evidence analysis may reveal information easily overlooked in casual reading of a record. Remember the key to solving "brick wall" problems is often in evidence you already have.
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5 September 2011