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Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Analyzing and Reviewing Published Sources,” OnBoard 3 (May 1997): 16.

A fair examination of any publication begins with a question: What is the purpose of this work? By the time we finish our evaluation, we should be able to answer another question: How well is that purpose fulfilled?

Between these points, the evaluation of a published work considers a number of factors intrinsic to a book’s reliability for genealogical use.

Original Source Materials

Books that transcribe reference material are judged on their faithfulness to the original and the appropriateness of the amplification added by the editor. If the original source is a diary, for example, our review would consider:

  • Relativity. How much value does its content have to genealogists? Did the diarist gossip daily about kith, kin, neighbors, and enemies—recording a wealth of personal detail? Or, is the diary a mere daily weather report? The latter can be useful to the creative family historian, but the prospective buyer of this book needs to know whether he will receive juicy plums or dry seeds.
  • Editorial contribution. Did the editor thoroughly research individuals mentioned by the diarist, to insure that names are interpreted correctly? Is identification added (in proper editorial form) at the first mention of each person? Did the editor point out inherent contradictions or errors of fact?
  • Enhancements. Is there an index, a quality binding, or acid-free paper? Has the editor added photographs, maps, or other illuminating material?

Derivative Materials

Abstracted source materials are a hybrid. Some traditionalists view them as “primary sources,” even when significantly altered by processing. More precisely, abstracts are derivative works that may or may not retain the same value as the original. Consider, for example:

  • Documentation. Is there a proper source citation for each record? Is there a thorough preface, in which the compiler discusses the nature of this group of materials and any inherent problems?
  • Accuracy. How careful has the compiler been? Sample documents may have to be ordered for spot-checking, if the originals are not at our disposal. Certainly, we would not want to give a glowing review to a book, only to have more-thorough users and reviewers point out careless mistakes.

Compiled histories and genealogies must be judged by even more complex standards, the most important of which are generally considered to be:

  • Arrangement of data. The numbering system and the text format should conform to recognized standards. Did the author use the NGSQ System or the Register System? Did she concoct one of her own that took you four hours and fifty-seven minutes to comprehend? Your readers deserve to know.
  • Explanation of mechanics. Does the preface explain the methods used in compiling or organizing the book’s materials? Does it forewarn the reader of deficiencies that the author recognizes in his own work?
  • Documentation. Is there a specific reference citation for each statement of fact that is not public knowledge? Is there a mere list of sources at the end of each section (or at the end of the whole), with no guidance as to which specific information came from which source? Today’s discriminating genealogist considers this point important.
  • Interpretation. Did the compiler accurately interpret and represent the facts appearing in the records he or she cites?
  • Completeness. Does the author systematically give full names, dates, and places? Are all lines of descent traced or did the author follow only the narrow line that produced him or her? Such points tremendously affect the usefulness of the material.
  • Chronology. Are lines of descent validly reconstructed? Spot-check several. “Generation skipping” and “generation merging” are common problems. Genealogists who aver marriages at uncommonly young ages or first marriages unusually late in life shoulder an extra burden of proof. Has the author proved it?
  • Pre-American ancestry. Is the link adequately proved between the immigrant and the individual abroad who is alleged to be the same? Does the book boast a “family coat of arms” for a line that cannot be traced out of an American colony?
  • Perspective. Has the author portrayed individuals with realism and sensitivity? Or, are you led to believe that every member of the family is rich, beautiful, pious, industrious, and of noble stock? Has the author put the raw genealogical data into proper historical perspective? Are you merely told that someone’s great-grandfather appeared on the 1880 census with $850 in property—or has the writer taken the trouble to determine (and report) how that level of property-owning fit the community pattern?
  • Readability. Does the text read like a collection of strung-together note cards? Or has the writer consciously followed the principles of good writing that the world seems to expect from everything except government publications? A good family history strives for readability and follows all customary rules of grammar and essay construction.

Book reviewing is a service and a skill as old as the publishing process itself. To test, to teach, to stimulate — that is its purpose, and yours as a careful reviewer.


Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.