Questioning your sources

How do we know that the information in a record is correct? I mean, we all go online or to archives and look up records. We celebrate when we find something that appears relevant our research. We copy it down and enter it into whatever mechanism we use to manage our research, and we go on to the next one. But what if some of the information contained is incorrect?

This was something my mother asked me recently. She became aware of it when we went to register my grandmother's death a couple of years ago. All the family information that went on that certificate was supplied by us: my gran's date of birth, details of her parents, details of my grandfather. Obviously, having studied our family for years, there was nothing they asked that I didn't know (and had the certificates to back it up). But what if we didn't have those records? What if we had to remember all these details with no documentation, at a stressful and upsetting time, no less? Or what if we never knew the answers to those questions in the first place?

This shows just one of the ways that inaccuracy in records can occur. There may not be checks and balances when completing an official record - the record reflects the information you give when you are completing it. And if you give incorrect information, either by accident or deliberately, that is what goes on the record.

I was reminded of this again when I was going through some old research this week. On an ancestor's (Alexander Allan) 1956 death registration his father was named as Alexander. In fact, it should have been William: evidenced by Alexander's marriage and birth records. But clearly when Alexander's son John went to register the death a mistake was made. Whether by John or the registrar, we'll never know. And this is not isolated: I have numerous examples of deaths informed by nieces and nephews, sons-in-law, neighbours even, who have provided incorrect information or been unable to supply the requested details.

There was another similar occurrence in research I carried out for a client, where an ancestor was born three years after the death of man reported as his father on later documentation. It is possible (if not probable) that he thought that man was his father - maybe he was always told this - but the dates don't support that position.

As I mentioned, this is only one way in which inaccuracy in records can occur. Throw illiteracy, and language and accent barriers into the mix, and it can only add to the problem. As an aside, the Allan family moved from just outside Aberdeen in the north east of Scotland, down to Galloway in the far south west in the late 19th century: a marked change in dialect and accent, as well as distance.

So where does this leave us? Birth, marriage and death records are described by some as a 'gold standard' in terms of research, but I've just shown that they can be wrong or misleading. Well, I think that all researchers should maintain a healthy dose of skepticism during research. Don't accept anything at face value, rather build up a body of evidence to support the information. How many times have you seen that piece of information? Who provided it each time. Is there another document that might be more reliable for that information?

Classic journalism has the 'two-source' rule: you don't publish until you have the story confirmed by two separate sources. I think that is the kind of approach that can also serve genealogists and family historians well. There is nothing that we can do about the incorrect information contained in records, but we can help our research by remembering that it exists, and try to verify information by locating more data to support it.