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The Recipe is in the Details – Are You Ready?
By James W. Petty, AG, CG

Editors Note: This is the second part of a series. Part 1 can be found here.

Mmm. Chocolate Cake. I love Chocolate Cake. Grandma used to make what was called “Wacky Cake”, a chocolate sheet cake with a moist rich chocolate center…”It was to die for”. German Chocolate Cake.”Ja!” Dark Triple Chocolate Cake. “Be still my heart”. Even those little round “cakettes” (I suppose you could call them). How does that song go? “Someday they’ll find me all stretched out on my bed, with a handful of Pringles potato chips, and a Ding Dong by my head.”

Yes, I do love chocolate cake; but I don’t know how to make it. Oh, I love to cook; but for some reason, (perhaps it was a natural survival instinct), I never learned to make cake. If I had, you could tip me over and roll me down the street.

But now you ask “What does this have to do with being ready to do your genealogy and making a record worthy of all acceptation? Most people do genealogy like I might make chocolate cake. Let’s see, first I picture a chocolate cake in my mind. The initial ingredient. chocolate, of course. Probably lots of it. Some oil, some sugar, some flour. Salt? Do I need salt? I’m not sure, after all this is cake; why would I need salt? Eggs, what about eggs? Do I need one or ten? Do I need to separate them? You know, lay them out on the counter, two inches apart. Not too much butter, I don’t want to get fat. Let’s see. I’m forgetting something. Oh yes, liquid. Do I use water or milk? I’m experienced enough about cooking scrambled eggs to know you use water. But in cake??? Boy, I love chocolate, but this doesn’t sound delicious.

Ask yourself, “Is this a recipe worthy of all acceptation?” Would you want a piece of this cake for yourself, much less, offer it to the Lord when he comes? Now genealogy is way more important than the cake that is going to be served that day. We have been asked. no, commanded, to prepare a record of our ancestors worthy of all acceptation, to present to the Lord when he comes to his temple. And with such a record, as with chocolate cake, the success of the recipe is in the details.

What is a record worthy of all acceptation?

A record worthy of all acceptation means a genealogy that gives a correct and truthful interpretation of family history as found in existing records. Family genealogy is published today in a variety of media. It may be presented as a family history book, or placed on an Internet web-page; it can fill a space of data entry as a pedigree, or appear as a lineage for a society or association. Genealogy facts may be the framework for legal or probate casework; and information about the origins of a family can be the foundation of medical and scientific discoveries. Genealogies are studied and reviewed by a vast number and variety of readers, be it for secular or religious reasons, all of whom are hoping to find correct and useful information. This desired goal is needed for a record worthy of all acceptation.

Unfortunately, due to poor record keeping systems, false information by nefarious individuals, or simply the inadequate skills and education of those collecting and recording data, the vast majority of genealogies fall far short of the mark, resulting in a general loss of historical accuracy and family memory. Such a loss multiplies with each generation and in just one or two generations the true record of whole families can be lost to the memory of society.

Trusted and Verifiable Research Results

Millions of family lines translate into billions of records. When doing research to establish an accurate family tree, there is only one rule that genealogy researchers need to remember as they gather the names of ancestors:

“Accurately identify and cite the sources for the information you record.”

There, class is over. That’s all you need to know. Yet somehow, this message doesn’t seem to get across. Genealogy information passes from book to paper, or from mouth to ear like a form of gossip; titillating to hear, but no one can quite remember where it came from. With each telling and each recording, the “story gets better”; imaginary details are added, and the trail back to the original source and truth gets dimmer and dimmer.

Many years ago I coined what I call ” Petty’s Paradigm on Prevaricated Pedigrees .” Simply put:

Petty’s Paradigm on Prevaricated Pedigrees

If you have an idea, It’s a possibility;

If you write it down, It becomes a probability;

If published, It becomes a Fact;

And if quoted, It becomes Gospel Truth.

For the real truth about family trees to be discovered, determined and preserved, research details must be documented and cited. The practice of documenting research and citing resources, or “sourcing” as some prefer to call it, is a concept that has existed in scholarly research for centuries. Our eighth grade teachers tried to drill it into our minds as a “bibliography” when we first learned to write themes and research papers. Today, genealogy events (names, dates, and places) must be documented and cited, so there is a specific description detailing the name of the record, the type of record it is, and where the record can be found with sufficient clarity that someone else can access it if need be. Documenting your genealogy makes it possible for those who come afterward to trust and verify the research results and continue the research without having to start all over.

Early family group records filed at the Family History Library provided a small box at the bottom of the sheet for “source information.” The most common source cited was “family records”. This is like describing ingredients to make a chocolate cake as “stuff from the pantry.” Some researchers may think that defining family sources as “family bible”, “letters from cousins”, and “cemetery inscriptions” might be sufficient, but general terms such as these are like defining cake ingredients as chocolate, flour, and oil. Even worse is when the source cited is someone else’s undocumented information, which is like saying “the stuff someone put in my cupboard.” Wow, that doesn’t even sound safe to eat.

Documenting Genealogy Events

Documenting a genealogy event means finding an accurate record or selection of records that define the event. Historical documents used to establish genealogy exist because a human being recorded information. However, all people make mistakes, and it is often necessary or even wise, to combine several sources to determine an event that is as close to accurate as possible.

An ancestor’s birth may have occurred prior to when government vital records were kept. Consequently, birthdates may be drawn from a family Bible, a death certificate, a newspaper birth announcement, a church christening record, a census record, a military pension file, a tombstone inscription, school records, driver’s licenses, and dozens of additional possibilities. Each one of these record-types was made for a specific reason, which reason can affect the validity of the information. Ten researchers could find ten different sources with ten different sets of information about the same event. Each one of those accounts is valuable information if it is considered within the context of the time, place, and people involved. Generally speaking, resources closest to the event, and reflecting the testimony of a witness to the event, primary sources, are the most correct and sought after.

Citing Your Documents

Once a document has been found, and a copy made, the most important thing a researcher can do is to cite (or record) the reference data about that source. Citing or sourcing your documents adds credibility to the research you produce. This information should be recorded on the document itself, so if the record copy or abstract notes are ever separated from the family record, the source can still be identified, and also added to the family group record to which that information applies. Commonly, the information that should be included in a citation is:

  • Name of the record
  • Author’s name
  • Source description
  • Publication information
  • Location of record
  • Catalog number for record

Greater detail can be given for source identification, but the goal is to define the source and direct the reader to where the verifying record can be found.

The following are examples of simple (imaginary) citations:

  1. Smith County, Arkansas; Recorder of Deeds, Deed Record 1846-1853, Volume 4, pg. 358. (William Jones to Bob Smith). (FHL#642,889)
  2. William Gunnison, History of Courtney County, North Dakota , 1866-1979. (Willow Springs Press: Bismarck, ND. 1979)263. (FHL#978.446, H2g)
  3. William B. Cherry Family Bible (American Bible Society: Baltimore, MD 1864). Bible in possession of Anna Leigh Cooper, Smithfield, Iowa in 2009.

For detailed instruction on citing record sources, we recommend:

  1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained. (Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Publishing Co. 2007) 885 pp., ISBN: 978-8063-1781-6
  2. Board for Certification of Genealogists, BCG Standards Manual. (Orem, UT: Ancestry Publishing. 2000) 125 pp., ISBN: 0-916489-92-2

Why Document and Cite?

Documenting your research and citing sources trains a genealogist to be more accurate in their studies. Such training creates good habits and produces better results. Without such habits a genealogy author may fall victim to the temptation to “convince” his readers that his research findings are justified by using incorrect or even false documentation. I recently studied a published family history that appeared to be well researched, and documented. But on closer examination I discovered that one source pertaining to an individual mentioned in the history, was false. The author identified the ancestor as being listed in the 1830 Census of Clinton County, Illinois, when in fact the ancestor appeared in the 1830 Census of neighboring St. Clair County, Illinois. This may seem like a small issue, but I found that the source and citation were referred to in on-line correspondence of researchers who hadn’t confirmed the source themselves, and were now passing false information on to others. Remember “Petty’s Paradigm”, when something is published it becomes fact, and when it is quoted it becomes gospel truth. To the unsuspecting this inaccurate and false information can take on a life of its own; and to me, who checked the sources, it meant all of the information in the published history was now suspect. If the author could do this with one person, he may have done it with others. In some ways it would have been better to have never published the book. The ingredients to this chocolate cake weren’t right, and it didn’t taste like it should have.

Are you ready?

Preparing a record to be worthy of all acceptation is really a simple matter of taking the time and interest to make it properly, so all who see or use it can accept it as an accurate and truthful document. When we make the effort to produce our records with this care and interest, we discover that the people for whom we do this work become that much more dear to us. We learn to love them, our hearts turn to them; and in turn that love speaks out through the records we have made. It is the love for our fathers speaking through our efforts to make such a record that makes ours “a record worthy of acceptation”. The recipe is in the details; and when the details have been properly applied, the result is delicious to all.

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