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Dec 2, 2022

Is It Unverified Data and Will It Always be Unverified?

Warning: this article contains personal opinions.

I have been fascinated with the comments posted online concerning “unverified information on the Internet” and comments about linking to family trees without verification. I agree with some of the comments and disagree with some others. I thought I would add my two cents’ worth.

First of all, I believe in verification of every bit of information I obtain. I don’t care if a fact came from the Internet, from a book, or even from an original record. I still want to verify every bit of information I read. (Most original records are correct but you will find occasional errors even in the original records.) I always look to see who reported the information or who wrote the book I am reading. Even if I recognize the author as being a leading genealogy expert, I still want to verify the claim independently. I don’t believe anyone! 

So you think I would be against unsourced, unverified information on the Internet? Wrong!

When I am looking for genealogy information about my ancestors, I want to see EVERYTHING. I want to see the sourced information, the unsourced information, the verbal claims from someone’s Aunt Lydia, and even the guesswork. Since I don’t know where my great-great-granddad was born, I want to see every hint and every bit of guesswork. I want to know what everyone else is thinking. I am hoping that someone, somewhere has an idea that I have haven’t thought of so far. Sure, when I read someone else’s guesswork or facts, I’ll check them out and I will ask questions, but I still want all the hints.

The proof is always up to me, regardless of where I found the claimed information.

Yes, I constantly look at unsourced databases and I look for clues every time I see an ancestor of mine mentioned, especially if that claim is different from what I believe to be factual. A couple of times the “facts” that I determined in past years have later been proven wrong when new evidence was shown to me, evidence that I was later able to verify.

NOTE: I “lost” more than 100 ancestors one evening when I was able to verify a new claim I found in an online database. It contradicted something I previously believed to be true. Using the new claim as a hint, I followed a new path of investigation and found that the new “fact” was, indeed, correct. The information I previously believed to be correct had a significant error: two men of the same name lived in the same small town, something I didn’t know previously. I had researched the ancestry of the wrong man!

I would never have recognized that error and been able to later determine the truth if I hadn’t looked at an unsourced claim that was different from what I believed to be the truth.

I am a big fan of group collaboration. Some people call that “crowd sourcing.” Such crowd sourcing will often be wrong, but it almost always includes some clues that I have not seen or thought of previously. Those can be valuable clues.

Bring on the Internet databases! I want to see Ancestry.com’s user-contributed family trees.  I want to see the I.G.I.  I want to see the Ancestral File. I want to see OneGreatFamily.com’s database. I want to see FamilySearch. I want to see the handwritten notes of every professional and amateur genealogist who shares ancestry with me. I want to see more of every bit of conjecture that I can find. 

What I do see is an education problem. A lot of newcomers will believe “I saw it on the Internet so it must be true.” That is a problem. In fact, it is a huge problem but we will not solve it by sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that nobody else has information that can be trusted or even worth evaluating. The ostrich approach doesn’t work very well for ostriches, it certainly does not work well for genealogists who seek the truth.

What we need is a warning label similar to that found on cigarettes and alcohol. “Warning: the information contained here may include erroneous data.” That disclaimer should be in a big, bold font on the top of every genealogy web site, followed by a hyperlink to an article about why we want to verify every scrap of information we obtain.

We also should encourage our newcomers to document their sources and to include that documentation when posting information online. Of course, this is not a one-time effort. Newcomers appear all the time. We are watching a parade of newcomers. Some will drop out, some will slow down, and others will follow the parade route for years. Our challenge is to educate all of them early in the parade.

However, I still never automatically discard something simply because it is unsourced. I never look down my nose at any online genealogy database, regardless of the source of information. I do, however, maintain a healthy skepticism.

Do source citations “prove” anything? I would suggest they do not. Instead, I believe source citations are useful only as a courtesy to others that say, “Here is where I found the information I believe to be correct. You should check this citation and others for yourself.”

A source citation simply is an example of being polite, trying to help others save time and effort. We still want others to verify the same information defined in the source citation. The genealogists who read the source citations can also offer valuable feedback: if 10 or 50 or 500 other genealogists look at these same source citation that I did and they all came to the same conclusion that I did, that’s valuable feedback for me. Then again, if they all looked at the same source citation that I did and many of them came to a DIFFERENT conclusion, that’s even MORE valuable feedback! Please let me know of any errors you find in my work!

Side comment: all genealogy works contain errors, even those works created by the best genealogists in the world. For verification, ask any expert genealogist. I bet they will tell you the same.

Finally, how are we ever going to improve the crowd sourced databases if we constantly encourage people to ignore them? Every time I read a comment from someone that belittles unsourced and unverified information, I want to grab that person and shake him or her vigorously. Pay attention! There are gold nuggets out there in the tons of sand!

As in Wikipedia and dozens of other online sources, the information in genealogy databases can only be improved if many people look at each fact and each person contributes his or her knowledge and expertise. The more people who look at the information and verify it independently, the higher the accuracy.

Going back to my example of great-great-granddad’s unknown origins: if dozens of people look at the record in the public database, there is an excellent chance that someone will have the correct information and will enter it, alomg ith information where he or she found the info. As a result, we all will benefit.

In contrast, if we tell people to ignore the undocumented, unsourced databases and to never look at the information therein, the misconceptions and guesswork will never be corrected by later researchers. In fact, the misconceptions and errors will probably then continue to be published and propagated, year after year. We all lose.

So please, please, enter the genealogy information you have into online databases. Also, please look at what others have entered. If you see something you think is wrong, please, please enter a correction or append a contradictory view. If you have a source citation or other evidence that is not shown in the existing online record, please enter the information you have. If you do that and if I do that and if every other genealogist does that forever and ever, over a period of years we will all benefit. Crowd sourced genealogy databases can become valuable, but only if we all take the time and effort to contribute whatever information we have. 

The information you contribute can help another person. Maybe dozens of others.

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