Do we really need to assess all the published resources we use in our genealogical research? It obviously takes time and effort to consider even the ten categories we are using for this experiment in “scoring” genealogies, not to mention that assigning numbers to subjective criteria is tricky. In the end, however, the exercise does give us a way to compare the enormously disparate genealogical sources we use. Our two test subjects – The Phelps Family of America and The Bulkeley Genealogy – are similar, yet they scored very differently. From a maximum score of 100, The Phelps Family eked out a 40, while The Bulkeley Genealogy nearly topped the chart with 90.
A great deal of the difference in these two works obviously derives from the gap between the experience of Donald Lines Jacobus and that of the amateur Phelps family authors. That does not mean, however, that one book is entirely better than the other for your research. If Phelps has correct information on your particular family, it is useful to you.
The trick is separating useful information from stuff that may lead you down the garden path. Our analysis of Phelps showed that the entire section on English ancestry has to be ignored. How many times have we all (at least when we began our genealogy journeys) taken a book off the shelf and photocopied its wonderful English and royal ancestry without a second thought!
If Phelps has correct information on your particular family, it is useful to you.
The ten categories used in this experiment – Author(s), Peer review, Format, Scope, Citations, Completeness, Age and methodology, Restraint, Analysis and Access – are intentionally general. They are inexact, often overlap and are definitely open to differing interpretations, but they provide a tool to help us focus on what we should be looking for – or perhaps more importantly, looking out for – when we use our sources.
- Become familiar with “good” genealogy, check citations and sources within a work, and read the introduction/preface for insight on how the work was collected and on the author’s goals. Keep up by reading current genealogical publications, attending seminars and conferences, and taking advantage of webinars and online learning.
- Become familiar with “bad” genealogy, and learn the “red flags,” such as undocumented and excessive claims, limited facts, and sources.
- Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. The worst book may have something of value for a careful and discerning researcher.
- Write down these ten categories (or make your own list) and refer to them every time you open a new research source (plus go back and look at the ones you have already used). Compare your scores.