Methodology, Sources and resources

How to use other people’s family history research

Are you reluctant to use family trees and family histories produced by other researchers?

It is not surprising if you feel that way. There is an abundance of poor quality trees and family histories around.

However, using other people’s research could advance your own research. So, how do we do this safely?

Why use other people’s research

Information from other people’s family trees or family histories can be extremely valuable.

They may have:

  • found sources that you did not find
  • have knowledge you do not have
  • visited places you could not
  • known people personally that you never met
  • have family mementos, photographs and records not found anywhere else
  • traced a line further back than you
  • thought of possibilities that did not occur to you.

Using other people’s research can save you time and get you information that you could not obtain on your own.

Wikitree is an online family tree where researchers collaborate to produce a single tree. It encourages sharing of information and collaborative problem solving.

Evaluating other people’s research

First, choose which research is worth using

You will not save any time if you use poor quality research.

When choosing which family trees and family histories to use, you should filter for usefulness and reliability as this will reduce the likelihood of errors in the research.  

It is advantageous to know as much as possible about the person who produced the research. Information about their experience, knowledge and approach to research helps us judge whether they are capable of quality research.

Find out more about the person who created a family tree on Ancestry by searching for their public profile

If you have the choice, it is usually better to avoid using research that does not contain source citations or has very few. Citations give clues about the reliability of the information and they help you track down the source for verification.

Research without citations may still be worth the effort if it was produced by an experienced and knowledgeable researcher, or provides useful information that you do not mind taking time to verify.

Early local histories often do not contain source citations, but they still provide useful information for family history research

Next, evaluate the source, the information and the evidence

I have written about source evaluation in other posts, for example Using Online Books in Family History.

Finally, corroborate or refute the conclusions

Other people’s research does not provide answers. It provides a list of sources and draft conclusions to test. This is probably the most important step when using other people’s research.

Track down and examine the sources that they used. You should also gather additional sources.

Citing other people’s research

If you extract information from someone’s research, such as a birth date and place, and verify it with appropriate sources, such as a birth certificate and baptism record, then you should cite those sources rather than the research. A researcher does not ‘own’ the information.

However, if you have not yet tracked down the sources from which the researcher obtained their information, maps, photos or diagrams, then you should cite their research as an interim measure.

If you use the researcher’s original work, such as a story they wrote or ideas that they expressed, then you do need to cite them.

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