Methodology, Sources and resources

What’s wrong with this source?

Errors in historical sources are one of the main reasons why family histories become inaccurate.

Identifying errors

The first step in dealing with errors in historical sources is to identify them. There are three main types:

An error in the recording or transcription of information, such as a typographic error or spelling variation.

Death certificate, NSW Australia, naming Thomas Flanagan and children Mary, Frank, Elizabeth, Bridget, Katherine, Jane, Alice
A simple error – Katherine spelled with a K instead of a C

An error of comprehension or misunderstanding, such as when a name is misheard or the information for one person is transferred to the record of another.

Birth certificate for Catherine Agnes Flanagan, NSW Australia, demonstrating error in the name and birthplace of her mother
Perhaps a typo or perhaps it was misheard – Mother’s surname entered as Wolan instead of Dolan. A second error in the spelling of Leitrim, likely due to the recorder being unfamiliar with the place.
Birth certificate for Henry Albert Hend, NSW Australia, demonstrating error in father’s name
The name recorded for the father is actually the child’s name.
Death certificate, NSW Australia, for Thomas Flanagan, died 1928, with an error in his place of birth
Thomas’ wife’s place of birth has mistakenly been recorded as his place of birth.

Deliberate alteration or omission of information.

Extract of death certificate, NSW Australia, for Christina Malchow, died 1893, with details of children omitted
A deliberate action to omit information about a woman’s children.

The causes of errors are numerous, but they are more likely to occur when the informant:

  • cannot read and/or cannot check what was recorded
  • has an accent that is difficult for the recorder to understand, or
  • does not have the correct information.

It is important to remember that all sources can have errors. However, there are some general statements that can help you evaluate the likelihood of errors.

  • Original sources tend to have less errors, because they are the first version of a source. Errors tend to creep in as other sources are derived from the original.
  • Contemporary sources tend to have less errors, because they are closer to the event and are more likely to have been created by someone who participated in the event or were at least part of the society in which the event occurred.
  • Official sources tend to have less errors because they often follow regulated formats and content, and may have been created by an experienced record maker.

Things to be wary of

Errors in sources may not always be obvious. It is best to assume that each source has errors until proven otherwise.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine where the error lies. For example, when two sources contain different information it can be difficult to determine which one contains the error.

Be careful not to dismiss inconsistencies or explain away an error, unless you have evidence to back up your explanation. This is particularly important for changes in names and locations.

My tips for dealing with errors

  1. Check that source again
  2. Analyse the source and the information more thoroughly – see my other articles about analysing sources
  3. Check different versions of that same source
  4. Compare the information in that source to other sources about same person
  5. Compare the information in those sources to other sources about the family
  6. See what other researchers say about that family.

Of course, the error may not lie in the source but instead be the result of your research method or your analysis.

More information

Come to my lecture, Fixing Errors in Your Family Tree, for the Society of Australian Genealogists on 29 January for more discussion and tips on this topic. 

Read my other articles about research methodology and sources, by clicking on the blog post category to the right of this article.

Carol Baxter’s book, Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname? provides useful explanations for distortions in surnames, which may also help you understand other errors in sources.

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