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I Found My Great Great Grandfather Online -- Now What!!???
(Verifying Records Found On Webpages)

Lorine McGinnis Schulze
http://olivetreegenealogy.com/index.shtml

You just found a church record for the marriage of your great great grandfather, or the record of your 4th great grandparents on a passenger list of a ship to the New World in 1777 - wow! But you have questions - how accurate is this information? How can you verify it?

All records have the potential for error once they have been transcribed. This results in the possibility of culmination of errors with each succeeding transcription. Deliberate altering of the records (such as adding details the transcriber believes are correct; changing the spelling of names etc) results in even more possibility of corruption.

Generations (Versions) of a Record

Each generation or version that a record goes through increases its chance of errors. Researchers should always try to use records as close to the original as possible. Let's go through an actual example:

Many of the records and databases on Olive Tree Genealogy http://olivetreegenealogy.com/index.shtml are transcribed from microfilm of the original. They can be considered a second generation level transcription. This means they have one chance of human error (assuming the original minister made no mistakes). If the original minister or clerk made errors then they have two changes of human error. These records may be considered as good as book published records in most cases.

Records transcribed for Olive Tree Genealogy from published versions (such as the Marriage Records of the Reformed Dutch Church in New Amsterdam/New York found at http://olivetreegenealogy.com/nn/church.shtml and used with permission of the NYGBR who published them in series), are third generation -- having been transcribed from the original to the NYGBR to Olive Tree. Records at 3rd generation level stand a greater chance of error. How useful they are depends on how reliable and accurate the working publication (in this case the NYGBR) is. In this case the NYGBR is considered a scholarly journal, is well regarded, and can be trusted.

The following example is based on an interpretation and explanation of the number of generations an early New York will can go through before it ends up on a webpage or mailing list on the Internet. (originally sent to the Dutch-Colonies mailing list on 10 June 2001)

An Example of Generations in Wills and Abstracts
  1. Generation 1 (original) The original will. Many have been microfilmed by the LDS church
  2. Generation 2 (2nd version/transcription) At the time of probate the will was copied into the book (or "liber") of wills. Microfilm of most of the early libers is available.
  3. Generation 3 (3rd version/transcription) In the 19th Century a copy of the original libers was made. Microfilm of these is available from the LDS church.
  4. Generation 4 (4th version/transcription) Abstracts were done and published as part of the Collections of the New York Historical Society. These are also available on CD-ROM
  5. Generation 5 (5th version/transcription) Those abstracts were either scanned or retyped and made available as on-line databases on webpages.
  6. Generation 6 (6th version/transcription) The Generation 5 on-line abstracts were posted on an e-mail list.
You can see how many times errors can be introduced or parts of the records lost along the way. This holds true for all online records.

So what can you, the researcher, do?
  1. Use original sources wherever possible.
  2. If you can't use the original source be sure to carefully notate where you found the information. Hopefully you will one day be able to consult the original to verify the transcript.
  3. Scrutinize your source - is it reliable? Has it been altered? Was it taken from an original, or was it taken from a source further removed from the original?
  4. Research your sources! Find out if there are better published records that are known to have fewer errors. Talk to those knowledgeable in the field, write emails and ask questions.
  5. Don't accept everything you see in print. Be a savvy researcher and protect yourself from errors in your family tree.

The question you should ask yourself every time you access a webpage with information is:

HOW MANY GENERATIONS AWAY IS THIS INFORMATION FROM THE ORIGINAL SOURCE?

The further removed it is, the more chance of error.

This article was written by Lorine McGinnis Schulze of The Olive Tree Genealogy at http://olivetreegenealogy.com/index.shtml" Permission to copy is granted as long as the article remains AS IS. No changes may be made to the article and all identifying information and website link must remain intact! This Permission to Copy notice must remain with the article

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