Assessment

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.

Takeaways:

  1. 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.
  2. Become familiar with “bad” genealogy, and learn the “red flags,” such as undocumented and excessive claims, limited facts, and sources.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Have fun.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

22 thoughts on “Assessment

  1. It would be handy for us shadetree genealogists if more experienced, attentive people like yourself made such assessments available. Perhaps a spreadsheet on American Ancestors, or even as a field in the NEHGS catalog. You don’t have to do them all immediately, but write them down as you go along.

  2. Thank you so much for this “nuts and bolts” series of articles. I sincerely hope you can publish this through the NEHGS’ Portable Genealogists series. This would have helped me tremendously as a beginner genealogist so many years ago. As an intermediate genealogist, I have found this series fascinating and most importantly, useful.

  3. The comment that even a low scoring genealogy can still be useful is right on. Although the Phelps book has many errors, the entry concerning my great-grandfather, which as written strongly suggests that the author made personal contact with him, helped me establish where my great-grandmother was born, in the face of conflicting census and other documentation.

    1. I am very curious on that matter. Where did he re-tract the English ancestry and/or how much of it did he retract? (Which falls under further bibliographic research, also never ending.)

  4. I would suggest always confirming. I am a Bulkeley descendant. I used the book in 1982 and photocopied the lovely English royal ancestry, which I believed because of Jacobus being the senior author. Decades later I stumbled on his retraction of that ancestry. Similarly, my grandmother was a Denison. I came across an entry in the Denison Genealogy, also authored by DL Jacobus, for Atwood Williams being the father of my grandfather’s ancestor Isaac Williams. Descendants in NE Ohio believed Isaac was the son of another man, but had little believability in their other claims. Nevertheless, I discovered that they were right. A family contribution to the Denison genealogy was wrong.

    1. Aha! Great example. In my review I mentioned that Jacobus’ work had “stood the test of time, while being expanded by Jacobus and other after him.” Sounds innocuous enough until one of those expansions eliminates your line! Jacobus’ English work is clearly more reliable than the Phelps genealogy, which has been proved entirely wrong, but that never means that Jacobus or anybody else is perfect. Researcher beware, always.

    2. Opps! Following posted incorrectly above. More careful self-editing is required!

      Original comment: I am very curious on that matter. Where did he re-tract the English ancestry and/or how much of it did he retract? (Which falls under further bibliographic research, also never ending.)

  5. It is important not just to check to see if there are citations, but also to check at least some of the citations for content and accuracy. I have seen many source citations used to prove multiple facts, not all of which are included in the original source.

  6. Alicia, Like many others, I love and value all the skill and knowledge you share through your postings. I’m wondering if you might consider doing an article about how your work area is arranged and how it helps to facilitate your work. Maybe with a photo, or two? Many thanks, Diana Light, Irvine, CA

    1. Diana, that would make a very funny post, indeed, since organization, or at least the appearance of such, is not what my office is known for.

  7. Alicia,

    What a helpful series! All your postings are useful. As an example of a family genealogy that probably doesn’t score very well, I have a “Waggoner Family History,” first written in 1922, and revised in 1929. This book covers the immigrant Hans Wagner and his descendants, of which I am one. The first few sentences about Hans say, “We have been able to trace our family back to Hans Waggoner who landed in Charleston, South Carolina, about 1730. He was a man of sturdy character and industrious habits, and came from Germany or Holland; our traditions favor the former country, our characteristics, the latter. So, the Waggoners are probably of German stock.” Red flags! No sources! However, the book also includes a letter from the Bureau of Pensions, in 1922, in response to a letter from one of the authors of the 1922 version of the book. It gives Isaac Waggoner’s date and place of birth, says where he was living when serving in the Militia for several stints under specified officers. The letter says he was granted a pension, with the claim number, in 1836, and where he lived. It was signed by the Chief Clerk. In other words, Isaac’s military service is documented. This document means that the book is accepted by the DAR as a legitimate source for Hans’ son Isaac. That doesn’t make the entire book necessarily a great genealogy source. My impression on reading and rereading it, and looking at the family group sheets my father created from it for his own family book, is that the authors’ lines are traced in much more detail than other lines. I imagine that is fairly typical of family histories that cover 200 years, as this one does.

    Thank you so much for the helpful work you do!
    Doris

    1. Doris, Thank heavens for pension records! Most genealogies start out with the author’s immediate line and get expanded, sometimes willy-nilly to include others.

  8. Alicia, you are right on about published genealogies! I think it helps to view many sources of this ilk with a somewhat skeptical mind, but at the same time following up and trying to confirm leads that may be of value. In the case of genealogies that are known for their inaccuracies and, even their downright faults, it’s helpful to know that there may be information that might provide a lead, or a connection, to more helpful information somewhere.

    I think it is similar to the way that I try to urge my students and workshop attendees to view online “family trees,” as they pursue vital records and census records and so forth. Definitely view them while keeping an objective, skeptical mind, but realize that sometimes a tree might provide useful leads that can later be proven or disproven.

    1. Judith, yes. I am still searching for a good analogy. I mentioned panning for gold above and perhaps that is useful. One slurps up a chunk of dirt and then floats off the worthless stuff to find the nuggets in the pan.

  9. Alicia, could you comment on town or county history books? I recently learned that some books families paid to be recognized as a founding family, or prominent citizens. Perhaps they should not be taken at face value?

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