Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Genealogy and the Internet

There is a standing joke: "I read it on the internet, it must be true!" The reality, of course, is that you cannot trust anything you read on the Internet, right? Well that is not exactly true either. What you cannot trust on the Internet are things said by ordinary people who may sound factual (and think they are) but are just expressing their opinion. Then there are those who, from the beginning, are intent on being fraudulent.

What about genealogy research, can you trust what you find on the Internet? With genealogy you will basically find three different types of information. One type is the historic document. I would call this a "vital record." This may be a census page, cemetery listing, military roll, etc. Typically this is reliable information, assuming it was taken directly from the original source. A second type is the historic volume. This is a book or article about the history of a place, individual or family. With this type of document, you are relying on the research of someone, and author or publisher. Once again, a reputable historic volume will usually contain accurate, sourced information (but not always, as you will see below). Here are a couple of examples from the many sources that I have used in my own research:
1. Cook County Vital Records, which I found on Ancestry.Com offers data directly from the source. Of course, it is always possible for the vital record itself to be in error but that problem would exist regardless of the internet.
2. Colonial Connecticut Records available from the University of Connecticut library. Once again, these historic documents are as accurate as the day they were written. 
These kinds of information are the backbone of most family research and are the best way to prove your ancestry. There are also family websites with very good, sourced, data. If the family website seems reputable, the data is probably accurate. The family website, however is where you can also find the third type of data. This is data that is un-sourced or information that has been proven incorrect but continues to be found on these sites. Information that is not sourced does not always mean that the data is inaccurate but it does require further verification. It should also be noted that websites are not always updated. Sometimes that are static . . . in other words, a person may have created a web page, filled it with information and then never updated it again. They may have good intentions but for one reason or another, are not actively updating information. If they added data that was incorrect and never changed it, that bad data will still be there. Like family websites, queries can be another source of suspect information. Once again, the accuracy is hard to gauge and you cannot always get a hold of the person who asked the question or furnished an answer. I have seen information in queries that was submitted over 10 years ago and is still out there. Query information can be a great starting point but requires further investigation.

The real dilemma with the Internet, is that information never goes away and it tends to get passed around and shared. So bad data can end up in many places. When this happens, people often think that the information must be correct because so many websites include it. Here are just a couple of examples of erroneous information that is taken as fact. In these two, others have tried to set the record straight:
1. My earliest American ancestor, Thomas Holcombe came from Devon or Wales. For years, he was reported to be the son of Gilbert Holcombe of Branscombe (and thus with some royal pedigree and traceable back many more generations). More recently, this ancestral connection has been rebuked and it now seems almost certain that Thomas is not the son of Gilbert. You will find, however, that many personal websites still list this connection as if it were fact. In addition, older genealogical texts and other historic texts list this as well. So in this particular case, you cannot even rely on books that have been around for a while and assumed accurate. The Holcombe Family website has set the record straight and explains the doubts about a connection from Thomas to Gilbert. They still list the connection but also talk about the fact that it may not be correct. I think that is a reasonable strategy.
2. An ancestor named John Griffin has always been said to be the brother of Edward Griffin and of the Pengruffwnd family of  Penbrookshire, Wales. Recently, a Griffin descendant made a painstaking evaluation of these connections and came to the conclusion that John and Edward were not brothers and not Pengruffwnds. The original source was a family genealogist from the early 1900's. He made some educated guesses and jumped to a few conclusions that were plausible and seemed to make sense at the time. This information was then repeated in a number of publications and over time excepted as factual. But alas, the information was just wrong. If you are interested in the details of this case, read about it here . . . it is a fascinating story of detective work.
So as you can see, even information that was thought to be accurate and that has been widely accepted can be proven wrong. One advantage of the internet is that new information can be presented, almost immediately, to the masses. So in the case of John Griffin, for example, the internet provided a vehicle to correct years of misinformation.

So my advice, when researching, whether online or in more traditional ways, is to make sure that sources exist and also try and verify information from another angle. Look at all of the entries you can find on an individual and see if there are any contradictions. You will find that many sites list the same information and are just copied from others (especially family websites). If you cannot find any contradictions, then the information is probably correct (or excepted as correct) but as in the examples above, there is no guarantee. You never know when new information may be uncovered that will change your family history. Be on the lookout for that information and be prepared to accept it. After all, while it may be cool to say you have some ancient royalty in your blood, if that is not correct, then you are not being true to yourself and your own history. Experience will also help, as you become more and more familiar with your own family history and your individual ancestors, you will start to uncover collaborating evidence and it will be easier to tell the difference between good and bad information.

The internet is a real boon to genealogy and family research, especially for us amateur sleuths but it also opens the door to mis-information or conflicting information. You must beware and be diligent, as with anything found online, check it carefully. With your own data, be prepared to make changes, correct mistakes and set the record straight. Good luck and happy hunting . . .

Additional Reading:
1940 Census - Once in a Lifetime
The Flow of Information
Two Years of Blogging About Genealogy

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