Most of us have a rough idea of some of our family history before we even start the process of formal research, and generally this information comes from the recollections of a parent or close relative. Researching your family isn’t all about complicated charts and records: this kind of information is at the very heart of genealogy.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that remembered information isn’t always accurate. The best thing to do is to take information you’ve learned through listening to your relatives’ recollections of the past, and using it to fined records that support the story.
The Right Questions
The thing is, all records are memories to some extent, whether they were written down when the memory was fresh or long after it was first known. That being the case, we can ask the same questions of every record we collect, to apply the same logic to each and determine its legitimacy.
When you’re happy that the information came from an unbiased person who had no reason to deliberately misrepresent the facts, answer the following questions for each piece of information. The more times you answer yes, the more likely the information will agree with the actual facts.
- Was the memory of something recent, or was the record made while it was fresh?
- Was the person present at the event, or did he or she know of it firsthand?
- If the information came to them from someone else, was it about them or an immediate relative, such as a parent, sibling, or child?
- Was the information remembered from the person’s childhood?
Basically, this relies on two things: firstly, the more quickly a memory is recalled, and the more closely it affects that person, the more likely it is to be factually correct. Secondly, information from our childhoods may not be recent, but as they’re recalled frequently, they can be just as reliable as newer memories.
It’s easy to see how these questions apply when looking at something like a death certificate. The date, time and cause of death are from the doctor’s recent memory and professional knowledge, so these facts have a high reliability.
But family information about the person who died will vary in reliability, depending on how close they were to them. Things like date of birth, the parents’ names and places of birth are likely to be quite reliable, if provided by one of the parents, for example. But it will be less reliable if it’s provided by a younger relative or a friend.
Memory is the foundation of most of the information you’ll be collecting as you create your family tree. And understanding the differences between the reliability of your collected memories is key to building a solid research foundation. So make sure you take the time to identify your source, and their proximity to the facts, as much as you can to work out fact from fiction!