Genealogists need to be constantly mindful of the quality and reliability of the sources they are using. [1. For concise explanations of source evaluation, see Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 8-16; Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009), 15-38; and Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Ancestry.com, 2014), 81.] In today’s world, digitization of original records and printed works is making higher-quality, more reliable genealogical source materials ever more widely available and ever more convenient to access.
I was recently reminded of this when I drafted an upcoming column for Minnesota Genealogist, the quarterly journal of the Minnesota Genealogical Society. [2. The column will appear in Minnesota Genealogist, vol. 45, no. 4.] For the column, I summarized research I originally conducted about ten years ago. In revisiting the research, I found that I had relied on derivative sources in a number of instances. Happily, a large number of the sources I originally used could be easily and conveniently upgraded, from home.
What do I mean by upgraded? Upgrading sources means replacing more error-prone sources with less error-prone ones. Sometimes it simply means moving upstream, as close as possible to the original record, for example, consulting an original will instead of a published abstract. Other times, upgrading means replacing second-hand information about an event with first-hand information, or substituting contemporary accounts for accounts recorded fifty or a hundred years later. (Of course, any evidence needs to be correlated with all other evidence in order to determine the most plausible and accurate account of past events, in the light of all the sources and information available. Robert Charles Anderson provides wonderful examples of this process in his recent book Elements of Genealogical Analysis [3. Robert Charles Anderson, Elements of Genealogical Analysis: How to Maximize Your Research Using the Great Migration Study Project Method (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014). See particularly chapters 1 and 2, “Source Analysis” and “Record Analysis.”]).
Here’s one example from my recent rework: ten years ago I consulted and cited a USGenWeb transcription from a book called Progressive Men of Western Colorado. I had not seen the book, I had seen the transcribed excerpt published on the Internet. Because I had seen only the USGenWeb transcription, my citation was “Routt County CO Archives Biographies: Whetstone, John Adam,” The USGenWeb Archives Project – Colorado (ftp://ftp/rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/co/routt/bios/whetston431gbs.txt : accessed 13 July 2006), citing Progressive Men of Western Colorado (Chicago:: A. W.. Bowen & Co., 1905). This citation shows that I was citing a derivative of the original authored work.
Since the book was published in the U.S. prior to 1923, it is now in the public domain. Both Google Books and Internet Archive offer digitized versions. In revisiting the research I was able to consult and cite Internet Archive’s digital facsimile. My citation became “John Adam Whetstone,” Progressive Men of Western Colorado (Chicago: A. W. Bowen & Co., 1905), 444-445; digitized book, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/progressivemenof00awborich : accessed 8 December 2014). Although in this case I didn’t find any errors in the USGenWeb transcription I originally consulted, I still upgraded my research by reading and citing the original book.
Other examples of upgrading sources include replacing information received from other researchers with information from original sources. This is worth doing even if the researcher providing the information is very experienced, with a record of high-quality work.