old books with overlay "What makes a good genealogy source?"

What makes a good source… beginner version

Previously, I discussed my desire to challenge the way we invite folks to “Look for Cousins.” My consultant mantra is “Prove It.” There is one word of caution when challenging budding family historians to attach sources to their trees.

What makes a good source?

Much is written about what is a good source and what isn’t. The short version is: a good source is an original document, recorded as close to the time of an event and reported by the individuals who know the details of said event first hand.

Marriage record for Charles Pusecker and Elizabeth Hoffman in Franklin County Ohio.
“Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-1974” database Family Search, (accessed: 12 December 2011), Entry for Charles Pusecoier, 30 September 1879; Citing 285148;145

The actual marriage record that lists the names of the bride and groom, the date they were married and as much of the location as possible is a good source.

It is still a good source even if the informant was the minister who married them and is providing the information to the county recording office within a year of the event. The minister was there and often kept a record of who they married and when. That record may not have survived, and sometimes they’ll report some discrepancies to the recording office.

Regardless, this record is more valuable than an index to a marriage record or a recording of a marriage in a family history book by someone 30 years after an event which by their 3rd cousin three times removed.

Handwritten family tree for the Thomas Tillinghart Mulford family from Huron County, Ohio.
Thomas Tillinghart Mulford Family Tree created by Penny Geiszler while looking at Harriet Mulford Long’s Bible. Harriet and Penny are no longer living, and the bible’s whereabouts are unknown.

Aunt Ruth’s drawn family tree would be a bad record for any family besides herself and her children. There is value in her knowledge as a starting point for research; however, often the tree is wrong as Aunt Ruth misremembers information. Sometimes, these trees are the only source of children who died in infancy or at birth. They have value but do not regularly stand alone.

Draft record from 1917 for George Joseph Geiszler of Columbus, Ohio
Ancestry.com, World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Registration Location: Franklin County, Ohio; Roll: 1832029; Draft Board: 3.

Many online trees have the census, marriage, birth, and death records from states, provinces, and counties. Attach these to your tree, along with other sources (obits, military records, gravestone resources, naturalization, city directories, and more). Be careful of altering your tree information (marriage date, birthplace, etc.) until you have viewed the actual document.

Index to a birth record for Heinrich Zumstein of Ontario, Canada. #familysearch
A sample of an extraction record, meaning the information was obtained from an original record.

There are many indexes on FamilySearch that are from extraction projects or temple work submission files. These sources aren’t the original records created by the person who had first-hand knowledge of the event and sometimes is inaccurate.

Many of the extracted records are as accurate an original, but you can never be sure. In the above case, I would need to look at the German Church Book that is available as a Microfilm through the Family History Center.

1924 University of Iowa Diploma for Robert Victor Zumstein #familyhistory
Great Grandpa Zumstein’s diploma from the State University of Iowa in 1924

Finally, be sure to share your sources from your record collection. If you have a family history book that a relative created, but is not available online, create a citation in your online tree or genealogy software for that source. If you have marriage announcements, baby books, diplomas, or other documents in your family record collection, craft a source for that item and attach it to your family member’s profile.

The point is to look for sources and prove why you believe the relationships and vital information on a family tree are accurate. As much as possible, look for a variety of sources for an individual rather than just another person’s undocumented family tree. However, in some cases, one source might be the only recording of a person who is often overlooked.

Genealogy records with caption that says "What makes a good source?"

This overview of sources was meant to serve as an introduction to sources. If you want more depth, look at the FamilySearch Wiki article entitled Genealogy Proof Standard

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

6 Comments

  • Devon Lee

    Tony… good points. That's why I love that FamilySearch.org asks you the reason why you're attaching records to someone on the family tree. Few other sites/services do the same. Slowly the mindset can shift towards adding sources and evaluating what you find.

    When I work with someone new to genealogy, they're overwhelmed and easily discouraged. If I hammer them with Genealogy Proof Standards, proof argument, and so on, they will shut off like the light in a fridge. Instead, I'll ask them: "What record supports what you think you know about your family?" "What clues tell you this record is for the person on your tree?" If they say something like… "That's my grandmother Ophelia and her middle names is Louisa and she's in Texas. So, this record with her husband Donald must be right.." we leave that note, attach the source, and move on. It's a starting point. Eventually, they'll want to be more thorough and there will be plenty of wonderful genealogy educators to help them.

    In our community, we have to find ways to bring the gap between novices and experts and to do that, we need to keep things simple but open to further education.

    Thanks again for stopping by! You do a great job educating our community.

  • Tony Proctor

    I agree with Colleen: every source requires evaluation and interpretation. Even if a researcher only cited reliable records (which is not something I would condone) then if it's the wrong record (e.g. the wrong census family) then the reliability doesn't matter — it's still wrong. This is why I personally feel that simply citing sources, with no proof argument or other justification, is insufficient in more cases than many realise.

  • Devon Lee

    Thanks for your support Wendy. I think I'm around too many lawyers which is why I made that comment. I need a preponderance of evidence. However, sometimes one record is all someone has. There is a balance to sourcing.

  • Devon Lee

    Colleen, Good points about the informants for the records. Several times I went searching for a Thomas when the name was Joseph, and it was because the informant didn't really know all the facts. It's often hard to find a balance when introducing someone new to family history research to the concept of citing sources. On one hand, you don't want to overwhelm them. On the other hand, there is so much to teach. In marketing, we learned to keep things simple… and hopefully this post serves the purpose to conquer the learning curve of sources.

  • Colleen G. Brown Pasquale

    Devon, there are lots of places to find records & we do have to evaluate each one for its authenticity, depending who generated the information. For example a death certificate is only as accurate as the person who gives that information; such as the names of parents of the deceased. You gave some good tips here.

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