Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Am I A Bad Researcher Because I Cite "Indexes?"

I've been reading the new Thomas W. Jones book, Mastering Genealogical Proof.  The author states (on page 9):

"Finding aids, indexes, and search engines usually are not genealogical sources.  Their purpose, like that of a book's index, is to lead us to the useful information, not provide it."

On page 26 (item 6. in Table 1), Jones says:

"...When a source, database, or index suggests a source is relevant to our search...we try to locate the source.  If it is available, we examine it. We are not satisfied with references to sources, because they usually provide fewer, if not less accurate, information items than the source itself."

Please read the complete context of the statements in the book.

There has been an extended discussion in the DearMYRTLE's Genealogy Community on Google+  about this issue.  I posted on 14 July 2013 the following in the community:

"...tt matters, obviously, whether an index is a name index in a book, a list of names in a publication or on a website, or a searchable database without images."

And discussion ensued, with excellent points for and against using indexes as sources while pursuing genealogy and family history research.

True confession:  I cite "indexes" found in books, periodicals, web pages, and online databases when that is where I obtain my information about names, events, dates, places, relationships, etc.  

A common definition of "index" is:

"Alphabetically arranged list of items (such as names or terms) given at the end of a printed text with page numbers on which the item can be found."

That describes the typical book "index" very well - where you look in the back of a book to see the page(s) where a name or term is used.  

In genealogy research, we often use the term "index" to mean a list of items within a document, publication or database, and as something that we can search for specific terms.  Examples might include a list of births, marriages or deaths found in a book or on a microfilm, or in a searchable set of entries in an online database,

Perhaps the term "index" is not used correctly when applied to databases like the "California Death Index," the "Social Security Death Index," or the Find A Grave website.  Information in those "indexes" was transcribed or abstracted from some original record created by a public or private entity.  These "indexes" often don't exist in a published A to Z form - they are entries in a linked database that enables users to search them for specific search terms.

In those typical online genealogical databases, the "indexed information" is what I find - whatever an "indexer" put into a relational database field.  I did not find the original record that the "indexed" information was obtained from.  The "indexed" information may not include everything that is included in the original record.

We are told to cite what you find, rather than citing the "source of the source," so I'm citing the "index" entry.  If an image of a document is available, then I cite the image, which is usually a more authoritative source. 

Are the "index" entries accurate?  My experience is that vital records "indexes" are very accurate (but not 100%), and that some user-contributed "indexes" are not always accurate.  But they do provide information that can be found in a more original form with further effort.

My practice, for my ancestral families, is to dig deeper when I find the "indexed" information and try to find, and obtain a copy of, the original source, or to obtain a vital records certificate from an agency.  When I find a better, seemingly more authoritative, source, I add that source citation to the Event in my database, and keep the "index" item also. I'd like to think that this practice fits Jones' description of what a researcher should do in pursuit of genealogical proof.  

However, for my one-name studies, I usually do not dig deeper because of the time and expense that may be involved.  These are not my "people" but they may be distant cousins that other researchers may be searching for.  My one-name studies are in my family tree database as a finding aid for other researchers who might find a connection to my Seaver, Richman, Dill, Carringer, Auble and Vaux families.  Therefore, I have thousands of source citations to online genealogy "index" collections and published vital record books in the interest of providing finding aids for myself and other researchers.

During the MGP Hangouts on Air and in comments on the Google+ community, several persons noted that what Thomas W. Jones wrote in his book applied to "genealogical proof" arguments that support "conclusions," and not necessarily to "working files" for a researcher that lead to a hypothesis and eventual conclusion for a name, event or relationship.  Mr. Jones' book is geared to the prospective or current professional researcher who does client research, writes peer-reviewed periodical articles and books, etc.  

We each do things differently, and we don't have to do things exactly like other researchers do.  It often depends upon the level of education and experience of the researcher.  For me, the most important thing is to "cite the source you used so that you can evaluate the accuracy of the source and can find that source again."  The next most important thing is to "use the source you find to find original source information if at all possible."  

Let me be clear:  I am an advocate of the Genealogical Proof Standard, and try to apply it when I have a research challenge and conflicting evidence, but I don't use it for every person and Event.  I appreciate the research and documentation standards that have been developed over the last 20 years to promote source citations, proof arguments, etc., including the Evidence Explained and Mastering Genealogical Proof books.  I am a researcher on two tracks - my own family history and genealogy, and the one-name studies for certain surnames.  I use indexes and online databases as sources in an effort to get the most return on my time and money investment.  I am very much a "conclusion-based" researcher rather than an "evidenced-based" researcher.  I use family tree software because the program features organize the collected information in a form that minimizes errors, duplication and paper, and provide a way to create standard genealogy reports and charts.  

What do my readers think?  Am I a bad researcher because I cite "indexes?"  

The URL for this post is:  http://www.geneamusings.com/2013/07/am-i-bad-researcher-because-i-cite.html

Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I cite indexes, too, until I can get to the actual documents. Sometimes I never get to the actual documents because they are at a distance and/or I cannot write for copies. Most of my genealogy files are "working files" like yours. I consider them "in progress". If I am writing an article I would only include actual citations for actual documents, or work very hard to get to the documents or have someone pull copies for me. I have a long, long list of such documents waiting to be pulled! No, I don't consider you or I to be "bad researchers". A "bad researcher" is one who never cites where they find anything. An index or a bad citation trumps no citation any day.

Lisa said...

I agree...I cite indexes all the time. It's the start to finding out further information. I find it's best to have that than nothing at all. The GPS is needed for those people that hit our "brick wall" and help us in breaking it down. For our working files, the indexes work great!

Geolover said...

Sometimes only an index is available, such as in the case of a judgments or docket index for records that went up in flames in 1875 or 1910. One must use such things with great caution as to "same name = same person" and other pitfalls.

Bad researcher? You are setting priorities and limits. If you aimed for completeness and accuracy in the case of one-name studies, I am confident that you would not settle for indexes in "collections" type databases that are not associated with immediately accessible images. So you have decided to settle for possible vagueness and inaccuracy?

Elizabeth Shown Mills said...

Bad researcher? If so, Randy, then you're getting lots of encouragement from EE, which has several dozen citation examples for citing indexes and carries a whole section (2.12) covering some of the reasons *why* good researchers cite indexes. Bottom line: (a) we cite what we use; (b) it could be days or years before we are able to access the actual records to which the index entry points; and (c) many indexes, even those contemporary to the actual record, carry helpful information not in the record itself. "Bad research," I'd argue, would happen if we base a genealogical *conclusion* on an index entry without making an effort to consult the actual record and without significant supporting evidence.

Mel said...

I also cite indexes. In my area of research (Hawaii), sometimes indexes are all you have. For instance, their are next to zero original birth records available prior to 1910 for Hawaii. What you have are marriage register books, which are an index to the original records. I use that info. and I cite it because I'm not going to have anything else to work with.

There may also be a cost factor. I've pulled hundreds of entries from the California Death Index (My grandfather's side of the family was huge). I could never afford to order all the death certificates for all those people.

But, I cite indexes in other cases as well. To me, it's like the first step in the trail. I located this name, date, and place in an index. I put it in my database with a citation. I evaluate it as such. Later, I might have a chance to find a transcription of the record. I cite that too. Then someday, I might have access to the original. I cite that (of course!). If I get to the original and I realize that there was an error in the index, then I assess and correct my data at that point.

I agree with Heather. A bad researcher pulls information from wherever and never cites it, thus, never having that trail to refer back to or anything to compare the value of their findings with.

Cousin Russ said...


Great discussion.

Like you and the comments I read so far, I too Cite indexes, every time I find one.

What I understand is, that I can't / shouldn't use an Index when writing a conclusion statement.

My reason for this: I can't pass the first step in the GPS because I haven't found, nor looked at the document that the Index points to.

In a book, you have to turn to the Page, that the index suggests, before I can capture Information from that Container (book). So, I haven't met the reasonably exhaustive research. I didn't turn the page. OR I didn't find that or didn't go to the Find-A-Grave website, that an Index pointed me to.

All of that said, I have and will continue to Cite those index pages, but won't refer to that index at all in any summary statement. I WILL use the Container that the Index points to When writing that summary.

Oh, and just because I opened that book to the right page, captured the information that was contained, doesn't mean that I have completed step one, but I can / should include the information in that 2nd container in my summary.

I guess that I join the "Bad Researcher" club. Among some wonderful people.


Beverly Norman said...

I cite them too, Guilty!

Rosemary said...

Add me to the list of people who cite indices.

GeniAus said...

Looks like I'm in good company here

Midge Frazel said...

Recently, Ancestry.com released the Hale Index of CT cemeteries and I have finally found out what the pages that the Town of Groton so kindly shared with me. It had no source. Now that I know what index it was from, I can feel better about the information it contains.

Lisa S. Gorrell said...

I used citations from indexes in the book I wrote about my husband's family. There just wasn't enough money in the budget to pay for all of the birth, marriage and death certificates. Even though family told me the information, I felt I needed to have a source for each piece of information. So the index was confirming what the family told us.

SearchShack said...

Indexes have frequently pointed me to additional information and sometimes are all I can find and now that I'm citing everything (as many, wish I'd started that 20 years ago), I cite them as I try to use the great examples in Evidence Explained. Still learning about the methods of drawing drawing formal conclusions via many great Webinars being offered on this topic and the many fabulous genealogy writers who are sharing excellent information. Also love these educational debates as I get to read many different perspectives on the topic of genealogy.

GenXalogy said...

My name is Gen X Alogist, and it's been 36 hours since my last index citation.

(That's where you all get to say "Hi Gen!")

I routinely cite indexes. For a start, evidence which may be less reliable is still ahead on 'no evidence' in my book, also it helps me remember what I need to have a further look at, and there's just only so much time and money! Eg, I regularly cite our BDM index, 'cause at $42 a pop, I am NEVER going to be able to buy all the original documents.

See you all in Bad Researcher Hell. Looks like I'm going to have lots of company.