In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris
August 15, 2008
13. Sharing Family History Research
If you are serious about developing a good, complete, and accurate record of your ancestry, you will probably spend quite a bit of time and effort in finding and verifying all of the pieces of information that you can collect from a wide variety of sources and compiling them into a coherent package. Of course, almost by definition, your family history is never complete - there will always be brick walls that you can't seem to get past at some point on nearly every ancestral line. However, at some point, you will feel that what you have accomplished represents a satisfying family history. You will have a sense of satisfaction and a sense of ownership of the information.
Yet, you will almost certainly have obtained some of the information through communications with other researchers or through their published records. In fact, that is almost always a better way to ensure that the data is accurate and has been interpreted correctly from the source records. If multiple people have verified the same pieces of data and this results in similar interpretations then it's more likely that it is correct. Also, in comparing notes with other people who share a part of your ancestry you are very likely to find that they have information that you had not found - and that you have information that they didn't have until you shared. So, during your research process, sharing and comparing information will result in a better and more complete compilation. But remember to try to independently verify any data that you obtain from someone else. You can't be sure that they have been as carefull as you have been in finding and checking information for accuracy and consistency.
Sometime along the way it's likely that other people with whom you have shared information will make it available as a part of their own family history through an on-line database or a publication - or by sharing it with other people with whom they correspond. You may have mixed feelings when you see this information - possibly with no citation that it originally came from you. For instance, I've had the experience of having someone share with me copies of records that they had found to be very significant in their own family research but that they had received from someone else - and finding that these records looked very familiar and contained notes in my own handwriting ... records that I had originally expended a good bit of effort to obtain. You may also find that others have published information that you had originally developed and shared - but they made significant errors in adapting it to their own ancestry. Or even that someone has grafted your data into their family tree simply on the basis of the name of an individual - when that individual really didn't fit their ancestry at all.
In such cases you will probably want to communicate with the people concerned and, often, they will appreciate the corrections and be happy to know and acknowledge where the information originally came from. But not always ... While this may upset you, there's not a lot that you can do to correct other people's mistakes - or to make them acknowledge the source of the information. Even if the data was derived from your compilation you have no vested right in it. Individual facts that are available from public records (even if it takes a lot of time and effort and digging to find them) are not subject to copyright. And your ancestors are also other people's ancestors - so you don't have exclusive rights to the information about them. While there has always been a good bit of concern by carefull and diligent family history researchers regarding inaccurate and incorrect material published by sloppy, careless researchers, you really can't fix all of their problems for them, even if they wanted you to do so. The best advice is that you should publish your own research results in the same places and with citations and notes that make it obvious that your work is accurate and can be relied upon as the best available. Ultimately, good research will tend to overwhelm the sloppy, careless work.
Mechanisms for Sharing Information
Over the 30+ years that I have been doing family history research, the mechanisms for communicating and sharing information have changed rather dramatically. Initially, all of my correspondence with other people was on paper through the mail. And any time that I communicated with someone regarding a part of my ancestry I would ask them if they knew of someone else who was working on specific related ancestral lines. Over a period of years this resulted in contacts with a "network" of people with whom I shared a part of our common ancestry. We sent each other copies of our own compilations and copies of records that we had obtained that were relevant to each other's research. I also subscribed to some publications that included research queries submitted by other readers - that resulted in further expanding my network of correspondents. This was a very slow process compared with current day communications.
Later, electronic mail took the place of letters - and electronic mailing lists and ListServs evolved for sharing information simultaneously with other researchers with common interests. By the late 1990s on-line databases and sharing of family history data in GEDCOM format through the World Wide Web evolved to the point of practical usefulness. Later, specialized web sites for genealogy research - and for publishing individual family histories evolved. By that time, some of the common problems mentioned above had become more obvious. The same mechanisms for rapidly communicating and publishing good research information were used as often for publishing sloppy, incorrect, and misleading information. And many new "researchers" became just borrowers of other people's research - publishing their own family trees without ever doing any research on their own - or even attempting to verify the accuracy of data that they published. Unfortunately, that is the situation as it exists today. While everyone uses the Internet for communications and for searching for family history information, it should always be used with caution - and the information obtained that way should always be viewed with a good deal of skepticism until independently verified.
Some Useful Web Sites
There are numerous on-line mechanisms for learning about genealogy and forums for communicating with other people on just about any topic related to genealogy. If you are researching any specific surname there is a message board for that name where you can read other people's queries and responses to them archived over a period of many years. If you are interested in a specific locality, such as an individual state or county, there is a message board associated with it. In addition, for nearly every county in the United States there is a "genweb" site - maintained by one or more volunteers, typically containing compilations of information regarding the history of the county and its residents - plus links to additional local resources. You can find any of these by starting at www.usgenweb.org and then clicking on a particular state. The state genweb site will include links to statewide information - and links to the individual county genweb sites. For some states, you can find databases that can be searched on-line for statewide information such as a statewide marriage and death index, military service, and public domain land sales. See, for instance, the Illinois State Archives databases at www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/archives/databases.html The Missouri Secretary of State maintains a database where you can find images of death certificates for 1910-1957 at www.sos.mo.gov/archives/resources/deathcertificates These are just examples of some of the on-line databases that I've used in my own research. There are many more that you can find with a little searching.
Sites to Use With Caution
In the next column, I'll address some on-line genealogy sites and services that need to be used with caution - in particular, the potential problems in using WorldConnect.
Previous Columns in this series
1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information
11. Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information
12. Biographies, Obituaries, Old Newspapers, and Family Lore
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