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Research Methods in Genealogy

Cette page disponible en franšais !

The most important skill for any genealogist is to cultivate skepticism. Specifically, the world is full of genealogical misinformation. Since the advent of the internet, there is more misinformation than ever! The internet today is undisciplined. It rewards speed, it seldom cares about accuracy.

Most genealogical information that is found on the internet is to some extent incomplete. It has been summarized, transcribed, quoted, and often typed carelessly. Remember, there are no "spell checkers" that can tell you if the names and dates you typed into your new web page are correct! Moreover, as databases, files, and text are copied again and again, the mistakes pile up. The information becomes more and more incomplete, as well as more inaccurate, as it becomes progressively removed from its original context.

What can you do to protect the accuracy of your work? First, every genealogist needs to work on a PERSONAL RESEARCH DISCIPLINE. You should always be alert for ways to improve you own standards. At the barest minimum, you have to teach yourself always to list your sources, both in your own notes and in any reports, databases, or web pages that you pass on to others. If the sources are listed prominently, it will be easier for someone else to evaluate your work and to embark on their own investigations. In the particular case of databases and web pages that may be seen by thousands of other people, it is especially important to include enough critical analysis in your notes so that others will understand your assumptions and your own reservations about the accuracy of the information you have compiled.

As you add material to your database, try to confirm everything from the best available sources. That means you need to locate and examine REAL DOCUMENTS! The Vaud GenWeb site emphasizes the use of original records not only because they are easily available and because they are interesting to read, but also because there is no other way to construct a sound genealogy. Examining the original records also allows you to assess for yourself how accurate the information may be. Was the pastor sloppy? Are there gaps in the original records? Are pages missing, entries recorded out of sequence? Does the pastor make frequent obvious mistakes? Could some of the names and dates be read a different way? Unless you look for yourself, you will never know!

You will probably not be able to determine these things unless you look at the PRIMARY SOURCES. This term means records that were created at the time the events took place, by eyewitnesses or participants. Most of the microfilmed parish registers from Canton Vaud can be regarded as primary sources, though we suspect some are copies. Even original documents may be in error. Secondary sources, that is, records compiled from primary sources, should be evaluated carefully, and used mainly to help you locate the primary sources. Secondary sources may also be extremely valuable in helping you to understand how to interpret unfamiliar records, but you should always make it clear in your notes when you base your conclusions on secondary sources.

Whenever you have an opportunity, you can improve the quality of internet genealogy by publishing your own material that you have painstakingly compiled from primary sources. The internet needs more original research!

Coordinator for this site is John W. McCoy
French translation by Anne Bohy
This page last updated Tuesday, 02-Feb-2010 15:12:25 MST