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Kimberly Powell

Remember the Telephone Game?

By December 22, 2008

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Most of you probably played it as a child. You would whisper a short sentence into someone's ear, and they would then turn and whisper it to the person seated on their other side. By the time the message had passed through a dozen people it was so different from the original it had everyone giggling hysterically.

At this point you're probably thinking, "Oh yeah, I remember that game. But what does it have to do with genealogy?" I only mention it to make a point.

Most of us use information gleaned from published sources - from county histories to computerized databases - to connect the links in our family tree. They are a great resource, widely available, and often accurate. It is important to remember, however, that published sources are secondary sources of information, because they are one or more steps removed from the original records. Their quality and completely varies as widely as their content. Some online databases, for example, may have content that is three or more times removed from the original records (e.g. a computerized index, created from a published county history full of facts and stories collected by various authors from a variety of original and published sources), which greatly increases the likelihood of errors and omissions - much the same way that a sentence generally changes a little from person to person during the telephone game.

The Guinness Book of World Records, lists the first whisper in the current record-holding "telephone game" as "They inherited the earth and then the army came and scorched it." The final words passed on were "Mayfield College."

Published sources, compiled works and other derivative sources, especially the Internet variety, are full of helpful facts about our ancestors. When new information is found, we're justifiably excited, and tempted to immediately add the new details to our family tree (which is OK as long as you include the source of your information). Before moving on with your research, however - especially research based on these new facts - be sure to investigate the reliability of the original source. As time permits, you should also be sure to verify any facts found on your family through research in original records.

Comments
May 2, 2006 at 12:34 pm
(1) gadget says:

I have just found this with a pedigree in family search. The incorrect data has been copied across to three seperate trees. It is now also incorrect on other pedigree sites. A little common sense and even the briefest check against another source would immetiately show it to be false.
Don’t collect other people’s mistakes, treat everything as a reserch guide unless it is a source document.

May 2, 2006 at 4:38 pm
(2) Lauraine Syrnick says:

My G. Grandfather came to Canada and along with 3 of his brothers settled in Manitoba. The local history book has a write up on each of these men (the 4 brothers). All differ in their stories &in my G. Grandfather’s case, family history was written by one of his daughters who neglected to even mention his second marriage. Family History written by siblings can vary in truth. Siblings do not recall events in the same manner or even time frame.

Many older records show only christening dates and it is not unusual in the 1700′s in UK to get several children christened at once. Exacting information cannot always be found and registrars also made errors -saw a marriage for a “Croak” which shud have read “Croal” in vital stats. Now this primary source of marriage certificate would carry a large error. Not all “source” documents are true.

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