Robert Charles Anderson of The Great Migration Project and famed New England Genealogist did a lecture on The Elements of Genealogical Analysis at NGS in Las Vegas (May 8-11, 2013).
My notes from the lecture are extensive and detailed as he is a wealth of information. But I wanted to extract one small point he made here because it was a big “ah ha moment” for me. He opens the lecture with a discussion of his, self-made definitions of “source” and “record.” A distinction that may seem obvious, but quickly gets confusing when trying to apply it to genealogy.
Here’s a perfect example of a challenge of distinction he mentions which has haunted me for years. Let’s say I’ve been busy taking pictures of headstones in a cemetery. I hurry home to download (or as I have in the past, ordered and received prints) my pictures, add the information to the tree, then try to source each fact. I now have the following for each tombstone:
- The information on the tombstone, which may be multiple dates, names, relationships, a maiden name, and extraneous facts
- The tombstone itself
- The name of the cemetery
- The location of the cemetery
What’s the source? What’s the record? What’s the location? What’s the repository? I bet if I asked five people, I would get five different answers.
What’s a Source?
Mr. Anderson defines a source as “a coherent group of records created by a single jurisdiction or a single author for a defined purpose.” Okay, a “source” is a group of records. Interesting. According to Anderson it is a coherent (similar) collection of records by one author. That makes sense. A single census is typically regarded as a source. So in the case of the cemetery, all of the tombstones with all of their information is considered one big source. So “Sacred Heart Cemetery tombstones” would be a source.
Then What’s a Record?
Mr. Anderson defines a record as “a portion of a source that refers to a single event.” Ah ha! So, then with our cemetery example, each fact (birth, marriage, death, military service, children’s birth dates, etc.) are records.
For example, my grandparents’ (Bernard & Elizabeth Smarsh) headstone has four records.
- Elizabeth’s birth date – September 9, 1897
- Elizabeth’s death date – September 26, 1867
- Bernard’s birth date – December 24, 1896 (Christmas eve!)
- Bernard’s death date – November 6, 1973
- I think a fair argument could be made for a fifth record and that would be the marriage relationship between Bernard & Elizabeth even though a marriage date isn’t given.
I would enter each of these discrete facts into the family tree separately with their own source citation.
Sourcing is an interesting challenge facing genealogists. It’s absolutely critical to the success and longevity of any tree. How, indeed, will the next generations know to trust our work if it is not properly sourced? It is our responsibility then to rise to the challenge and clearly make the distinction between record and source for every fact in our research.