Genealogy Articles

Beginner’s Guide: Document! Document! Document!

April 4, 2016

Do you know that real estate adage, “Location! Location! Location!”? Apparently everything in real estate rests on one point: location. In family history research, we should have an adage too: “Document! Document! Document!” Everything in your family tree really does come down to the documentation that you have to back up a claim.

I start this post with the admission that documentation and/or evidence citation is a struggle for me. I research with pen and notepad beside me, nearly illegible scribbles going every direction, and I get so excited over finding new information and adding into my digital tree that citing my sources becomes an afterthought. You’d think that after college and graduate school, it should be something of a second-nature to me, but really it’s like going to the dentist… one of those things that I just cannot get excited about it. However, the importance of having properly sourced records and information outweighs my desire to do it. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way and I’m currently in the process of “re-doing” my own family tree. Somewhere along the way I was so excited by finding something new, that I added in information that wasn’t sourced in my main digitally-based tree. Perhaps it’s in one of my binders or folders, or maybe it came from a library visit or an article I found online, and the information was likely correct, but there is no evidence to back it up. I remember an episode of that show, MythBusters, where they joked that “the only difference between science and playing around, is to write it down!” The same concept applies to family history – the only difference between fact and family folklore is writing down the evidence and the source you obtained it from. There is a world of difference between knowing you have a copy of your great-grandmother’s obituary, and knowing that it was printed in The Chronicle on July 6, 1903.

You may be someone who works well with a research log, a research checklist, a source summary, or even just writing your source on the back of a printed page. Choose a method that fits your needs and works best for you. You’ll be more likely to complete the task of documenting if you’re more invested in the way that you document. It may seem like a task to make sure that you have the documentation for every piece of information (and it is!), but it will eliminate so much confusion and/or questions later in your research. Remember, none of us has perfect research or documentation. We’re all just trying to piece together our own 1,000 + piece puzzles without a picture to work from, but with the right documentation, your research will slowly become the picture.


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