The National Genealogical Society welcomes the new and expanded opportunities to exchange genealogical information through the USGenWeb Project and applauds all those who are working to construct the state and county pages. Eventually, each county in the United States will have a page where a researcher can post queries and request "look-ups" by volunteers in their personal libraries. Most state and some county pages will also have data files of genealogical information.
As more and more genealogical information becomes available on line and is used by more and more people, it is appropriate to remind each other of the proper use of this information.
Genealogists, in constructing lineages and family histories, should use the "best evidence available" to them. For example, the "best evidence" for the date and place of a child's birth is the original birth certificate. Normally, the "best evidence available" to the researcher is a photographic reproduction of that certificate furnished by a vital records office.
Another example: In his will, a man often named his wife and children, providing evidence for a father-son or a father-daughter relationship. In this case, the "best evidence" is the original will signed by the testator. When the original will has not survived, the "best evidence available" is the will copied into a will book by the court clerk. This is an official document, but that does not guarantee that no errors were made in the copying process.
Any time an original document is transcribed, there is the possibility that the transcriber made an error. Each time the document is recopied, more errors may be made.
When a document is abstracted (i.e., when certain items of information are selected from the document), there are additional opportunities for error. Mistakes may be made in copying the abstracted information, and the abstractor may fail to capture all the relevant information.
This is not to say that all books of transcribed or abstracted records are poorly done and full of errors. Many have been prepared with great care and skill. The point is simply that the possibility for error is inherent in the transcribing and abstracting processes.
Finally, when an individual, in response to a query or a "look-up" request, copies information from a book into an e-mail message, there is one more opportunity for mistakes to be made.
Does this mean that genealogical information obtained on line is useless? Not at all. It can be very useful. It can lead the researcher to the original record, or the best available copy of that record, that is needed to prove a genealogical fact or relationship.
To make on-line genealogical information as useful as possible, the person who provides that information must do his part. He should provide details about the book from which he obtained the information and, when it is available, the source used by the book's compiler.
A researcher is seeking a marriage record in Platte County, Missouri, for Isaac Wilson, whose wife's name was Jane. The person who locates that information in a book of Platte County marriages might report it as follows:
I have found a marriage record for Isaac Wilson and Jane Ashby, married 26 May 1848, in Platte County, Missouri, by Shelton J. Lowe, MG, Baptist. Transcribed from Platte County Marriage Book A, p. 160, Platte County Courthouse, Platte City, Missouri. Source: Nadine Hodges, comp., PLATTE COUNTY, MISSOURI, MARRIAGE RECORDS, 1839-1855 (Independence, Mo., 1966), p. 30.
With this information, the researcher can then follow one of several courses. He can visit the courthouse to look at this record. He can write to the courthouse to see if a photocopy of the record can be made. He can view the marriage book on microfilm at the LDS Family History Library or one of its family history centers.
In this case, the person who responded to the query or did the "look-up" provided a valuable service. She enabled the researcher to find his ancestor's original marriage record, to verify the marriage date, and to verify that the wife's name was Ashby before her marriage. If these marriage record transcriptions had been less carefully prepared, the original record might have shown that the wife's name before marriage was actually Ashley instead of Ashby.
If both providers and users follow these guidelines, the USGenWeb Project will fulfill its potential as an unprecedented medium for the exchange of genealogical information.