"Keeping Your Sources Straight"
Most of us can remember the time when we first got bitten by the genealogy bug. The internet did it for me. It started when I innocently put my surname into various search engines. Fascinating results! Next, I tried different family surnames. Hey, that was fun. When I found a long lost cousin, that was it. She had a lot of family information that I eagerly downloaded and I was hooked. This description may be familiar to you. Many new genealogists told me that it happened to them in just that way.
From there, my extended family grew. Emails flew back and forth. Information was exchanged. I surfed the web and discovered new leads. The online databases grew; and I gathered more information. Does all this sound familiar?
Then, I learned more about the serious pursuit of genealogy. That was when I discovered my errors. Before that I was fat and happy, with my family group sheets filled up. Now, I knew I had pages of undocumented information. Worse than that, I didn't have a clue of what came from where. It took a lot of digging through piles of paper and a lot of backtracking to get it all straight.
I am still learning about sources and documentation. I will always have something new to learn in that area. That is where real genealogists spend most of their time- finding sources, and documenting them.
I have a new perspective now. When I write new information into my family history, I ask myself "What will my descendants make of this 100 years from now? Will they take it as fact, or see it as possible fiction?" Try on that thought, and you will look at your documentation in a new light.
You will need to learn how to cite and evaluate your sources. Citing & Verifying Sources by Illya D'Addezio, at http://www.genealogytoday.com/guide/thepast/citing.html has some good tips and links for that. Make the resolution to learn how to cite sources before gathering any more information.
But, in the mean time I have a few fast tips to help you on your way.
This is especially important when you have family trees and information sent to you by different branches of the family. Keep each separate until you have developed your own organizational plan for sorting out the reams of paper you will be piling up.
You may carefully write down the web page where you found your bit of data, but where did they find that information? Your cousin sends you a wonderful family tree, but where did he or she get the information? The same goes for a book. We often take what we find in books as fact, but that is not always so. Where did the author get that fact? From a family story or from records like birth certificates?
When a relative sends information, ask where they got it. You can make this a friendly request by first sharing your sources. Copy or scan the actual documents. And, send them by snail mail or email.
I have a source binder for each surname. In the front, I have a numbered list of my sources, including copies of emails and web pages. After that, I file the actual document, or copy, in corresponding numbered plastic sheaths. When I do a family group sheet, I put the appropriate source number(s) for each name and event. The more numbers I have for an event, the more reliable the information. Your documents will often have more than one surname in them. That is where copies come in, one copy for each surname mentioned.
You may know your own birth date, but your descendants 100 years from now will love to have a copy of your birth certificate.
Remember, your great, great grandchildren will thank you for your efforts.