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Beware the Dangers of Source Snobbery

Are some sources "better than" others? Are some records types always "5 star" quality? Are some always "1 star" or poor?

It's true that some genealogists believe that primary sources, such as official records or primary documents, are nearly always accurate and trustworthy. They believe that these types of sources are obviously reliable and don't need to be approached cautiously.

On the other hand, many also believe that secondary sources, such as online trees or oral histories, should only be used as a starting point for research. They exclude these sources from their research plans, thinking that they are not trustworthy beyond using them for clues or hints.

But beware. Judging a source automatically as good or questionable can limit the discovery of new information. And, speaking from experience, it can lead to missed opportunities for genealogical breakthroughs.

The biggest danger is that it can lead to a disregard for information that may actually be valuable. For example, online trees are routinely dismissed as unreliable, when in fact they often contain correct information. Similarly, sources like family Bibles, letters, oral histories, or photographs passed down through generations can provide invaluable insights even though they are not "official" records. These type sources often reveal relationships, traditions, and personal experiences that may not be found elsewhere.

It's easy to slip into the mindset that one kind of source is rarely reliable. We all do it from time to time. My biggest lesson on this subject is one I will never forget. Once, I saw a spouse listed on an online family tree. Out of about 50 trees of the same family, only the one listed this spouse. And I'd never seen the name anywhere in any record before. Plus, the location of the marriage seemed "off." I immediately voiced the opinion that the tree was wrong. A wise colleague who was at the computer with me challenged me by saying, "how do you know that is wrong? Did you fully evaluate the information? Don't fall victim to source snobbery. Go through the steps to see if it is right. You don't know until you check." Well, it turns out that the online tree was correct and that tiny bit of information opened up a whole new avenue of research. It's a lesson that has served me well.

So what to do? How do we avoid this and overcome it?

First, it is important to be aware of our biases and assumptions about sources so that we can better avoid the pitfalls. We need to remember that all types of sources can contribute. Even sources that are second or third hand knowledge or that display undocumented information can tell us information that is correct.

Secondly, it's important to know that mistakes can be found in any type of record. Even "official" records like deeds, church records, tax rolls, and wills can contain errors.

Rather than rejecting any source based on assumptions about its reliability, it is better to assess each source on its own merits. Each piece of information should be approached with an open mind. Researchers should not assume that any source is reliable or that it holds absolutely correct information. We should not blindly accept information just because it is from an official source. Nor should we dismiss any source without evaluating it first. We should treat all sources as if they are "only hints" that need verifying.

The bottom line is that there is no way to know if a source is reliable without going through the steps to evaluate or test what it says.

So, take a second look at those sources that may have been previously overlooked or dismissed. The answers may be there waiting.


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