Devon Noel Lee
Track Genealogy Evidence Analysis Using RootsMagic 8
Whenever you transition from being a beginning genealogist to an experienced one, you’ll learn that not all documentation about your ancestor is created equal. As such, we need to be careful in what we say we know to be true about a relative and their relationships.
Thankfully RootsMagic has a way to help you consider and manage the proof you have for your ancestors.
Let me share the evidence analysis tool available on RootsMagic so that you can stop and think about the research you have completed and manage the decisions you have made.
Sound Genealogical Conclusions Requires Analysis
According to the professionals at Legacy Tree Genealogists, “The purpose of genealogy is to reach defensible conclusions about our ancestors. This is done through proper analysis of the evidence. When we consider the sources, the information, and the evidence, we can reach conclusions which are reliable.”
In short, as you discover documents and artifacts about an ancestor, evaluate the source and the information on the source in terms of how it answers a specific research question.
The best genealogy research questions, as discussed in this blog post and this video, pertain to relationships, events in an ancestor’s life, or biographical details that differentiate one person from another.
Before tracking the quality of a piece of information, we must understand how experienced genealogists classify data. Rating each use of our citations follows the method developed by Elizabeth Shown Mills called the "Process Map for Evidence Analysis."
The map reveals why RootsMagic does not offer access to the evidence analysis tool from the primary source tab. It’s important to understand that the accuracy of each source is not universally valid.
We must evaluate specific detail within the source at the fact level. And that’s why RootsMagic has the evidence analysis questions in those forms, as you see here.
Understanding Genealogy Sources
To understand the nature of source evaluation, let’s use this example of Magdalena Fladt listed on a census record.
Before we can analyze anything this census record says about Magdalena, we must first understand the type of source we have.
We either have an original source or a source derived from an original source.
In this case, the physical article or an image of a census record, birth certificates,
gravestones, passenger list, tax records, and city directories fall into the original category.
By contrast, a derivative source is either an index to an original record, which made and still makes searching for an original record easier. Or it’s a collection of abstracted information from an original. For instance, these contain data extracted from wills in Mercer County, Pennsylvania.
Notice how this information is derived from a marriage record and a will book. So it’s not the ‘original.’
Watch this video to where to add the evaluation to RootsMagic.
Tracking the Quality of a Source in RootsMagic
Before you continue reading, if you haven't added a source to the fact, check out my videos on source citations.
Since the 1910 Census for Magdalena Fladt is an original record, we can mark that observation in RootsMagic.
To do that,
Click on the 1910 Residence Fact.
Then click on the fountain pen icon to access the sources related to the 1910 Residence.
Click on the relevant citation, in this case, the 1910 US Federal Census.
In the Quality Section, click on the box beside “Source.”
You can now choose from the following options.
Don’t Know - If unsure, leave this default setting as the chosen option.
Why would you care whether the record is the original or a derived source?
If you have spent ANY time using online genealogy research websites, you have discovered why knowing whether you have access to an original record or a derivative of that original matters.
When someone takes information from the original and puts it into a derived format, errors can creep in. Therefore, if you start debating with another genealogist over the spelling of your ancestor’s name, age, or other details, it’s best to know if you’re looking at original or compiled records.
The other reason we want to know the difference is that quality genealogy relies on looking at and using original records as much as possible. Sometimes, derivatives are replacements for original documents because that’s all that remains of a particular collection. However, original sources often have additional details not contained in the derivative format.
Evaluating Information - Primary vs. Secondary
Next, we need to evaluate the information about events, relationships, or biographical details found in or on the sources. Our job is to determine who provided the information and how reliable that informant might be. As we do that, each piece of information on a document will fall into one of the following categories:
Primary information comes from a witness to an event or someone responsible for recording it, who recorded or reported the information close to the time of the event.
A birth record created at a hospital recording the day and time of an infant’s arrival falls into this category. First, the doctor or nurse provides that information. Then a hospital employee creates the document soon after.
Secondary information is a statement by someone who did not witness the event, or an informant records the information after the event happened.
If my aunt creates a family tree this year and adds my child’s birthdate to the record, her information is secondary. For one thing, the chart is made long after my child’s birth. For another thing, my aunt was not in the delivery room to witness the event first-hand.
With that said, recognize two things:
A document may have multiple pieces of information that are not all primary or secondary.
Primary information is generally considered more accurate than secondary information. However, that’s not always the case. Therefore, when determining whether something is primary or secondary information, we are not focused on the accuracy of the information.
Tracking the Quality of Information in RootsMagic
Let’s return to the example of the 1910 Census record.
Who was the informant?
We don’t know.
The 1940 census record attempted to identify the informant, but we do not know who provided the information in 1910.
Is the record created close to the time of the event taking place?
That depends on which piece of information you’re concerned with.
Does the informant have first-hand knowledge of the event?
Again, the answer depends on the question asked.
Since the answers are dependent on the question you ask, now we can fully understand why RootsMagic has the evaluation of sources at the fact level.
Regarding whether Magdalena Fladt lived in Franklin, Ohio, in 1910, this is primary information. Either the census enumerator or one of Magdalena's family members attested that she lived in a home in this location at this time. The enumerator created the record shortly after the visit.
However, when and where Magdalena was born is secondary information because the enumerator wrote the fact 23 years after her birth. Furthermore, we don’t know the informant's identity.
Therefore, in RootsMagic, we can indicate that the residence information is primary for the 1910 Census citation. We would mark the 1910 census as secondary on the citation for her birthdate.
In the comments section, how would you label the information about when Magdalena’s parent’s immigration dates, their relationship with each other, and their occupations? Primary or secondary?
Let me know in the comments section. What your fellow genealogists think might surprise you, so don’t be shy to respond.
↪️ Before you continue reading,
check out our free family history guides by clicking the image below.
Evaluating Research Answers
Finally, RootsMagic allows us to finish the evidence evaluation process by tracking or assessing how information on a source answers a research question. The choices are direct, indirect, or negative.
Direct Evidence - the information on a source answers your research question by itself.
Indirect Evidence - the information on a source only answers your research question with additional details.
Negative Evidence - This source lacks information that it should contain.
For instance, in the 1910 Census record,
The 1910 residence location is directly stated.
Magdalena’s name is indirectly stated because the word “Lena” is a nickname for the name Magdalena.
The census record indirectly states her birth year since it records her age. We can then infer the birth year by subtracting her age from the census year.
If Magdalena had a sibling aged 13 who does not appear in this document, that would represent negative evidence. Researchers would expect a 13-year-old to appear in this document. Negative evidence doesn’t have any connotation other than we expected siblings to appear, but they do not. Further research might reveal what happened.
To learn more about analyzing your sources, check out this blog post from my colleagues at Family Locket or watch this video by my friend James Tanner.
Implementing the Quality Analysis Intro Your Database
Know that you know HOW to stop and evaluate your evidence and where you can track your decisions, you might have a few more questions. The first one is:
How do you utilize this genealogy software feature in an established tree?
I have a motto that you need to memorize,
“Start with what you have and improve as you go.”
The next time you add information to your RootsMagic database, make sure each fact for someone in your tree has a source. Then, ensure you have analyzed and recorded your decisions for each reference.
Do not stop researching entirely to add the evaluations. Just do better with each person you research.
Consider reviewing what you have in your database, starting with yourself and working back through your ancestors. Think of that process as a Genealogy Do Better.
If at any time you would like the assistance of an experienced heir hunter or forensic genealogist, check out our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.
Do the evaluation decisions show up in any reports or charts?
As far as I can tell, your evaluations do not appear on the narrative, family group sheet, or research notes reports. Thus, I understand that the analysis is a tool used within the database.
Additionally, your analysis will not transfer to other family tree platforms like Ancestry, FamilySearch, etc.
With that being said, should you bother using this feature?
As with everything, it all depends on a variety of factors.
Generally, I would use this feature in three instances, but you will see how they are interconnected.
Suppose I’m new to genealogy research. This feature will help you think through the analysis process whenever you add a source to the database.
If you’re working on a genealogy research report. The evaluation process will help you see if you rely on too many secondary and indirect sources.
Suppose you’re working on a genealogy brick wall. Again, evaluate your sources to see what you’re relying on to make your conclusions.
I hope that helps you decide how often you will implement this analytical tool into your usage of the RootsMagic database.
If you have more questions about either evaluating evidence or features on RootsMagic, drop them into the comments section.
Continue Learning About RootsMagic
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