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Linda Woodward Geiger, CG, CGL, “Using the Compilations of Others,” OnBoard 7 (September 2001): 20–21.
A compilation is the composition of a set of data, generally collected from several sources. The compilation may take many forms, including published family histories, research reports, lineage applications, or regimental histories. Methods of distributing compilations are many and include books; CDs, articles in journals; and online sources such as family histories, and compiled marriage records. With increasing technology, more and more compilations are available. But, alas, many recent publications and Internet postings do not meet current compilation standards.

Compiled sources are very useful for the preliminary survey of available records for a particular family. However, all too often individuals do not go beyond the compilation in an endeavor to get as close to the original record as possible. Why? Professional genealogists often are walking a tight rope trying to balance current compilation standards against the resisted time and/or monetary limitations set by client commissions. Such restrictions often cause professionals to rely more heavily on compiled sources than they would in other circumstances. Beginning genealogists are often too engrossed in the collection of names without regard to the cliché that “just because it is in print, doesn’t make it so.” Some other professions that also use compilations in their research include historians and museum curators. They, too, must to apply a healthy evaluation process to the works they use.

Evaluate the Compilation

Although it is not always easy, it is extremely important for us to make a careful evaluation of each compilation we use. There are certain tests we can apply to assist us with our evaluation of derivative materials.

  • Who is the compiler? What is the person’s reputation?
  • Is the compilation clearly written and well organized? Where applicable, are standard numbering systems used?
  • Is the work well documented with appropriate end or footnotes?
  • If the compilation is well documented, what types of sources were used—Derivative sources, or Primary sources, or a healthy balance of both?
  • Has the compiler done a careful job of gleaning facts from original documents?
  • Does the compiler appear to have conducted an exhaustive search of available sources?
  • Has the work received positive reviews in scholarly journals?
  • Does the work appear in lists or announcements of fraudulent genealogies?

Bad compilations will neglect facts, contain inaccuracies, and will be poorly documented. One of the most problematic areas of compiled sources is error of omission. Fon instance, just because Jane is not listed as the daughter of Frank and Righteous Compilation, does not mean that she is not their daughter. Obviously the better compilations will comply with current standards, but even they need to be treated with a cautious awareness.

Using good compilations as an initial survey, we are provided with a base from which we can develop a strategy for additional investigation. The research plan will be used to seek out primary sources of value for the particular research project.

Reliable Sources

There is little question that the most reliable source of published compilations is scholarly journals such as NGSQ, TAG, NEHGR, and The Genealogist. Perhaps the primary reason for this is the editors. The editors give each manuscript careful consideration and send the manuscript out for peer review. Few self-published compilers put their work to the same test. Fortunately a few compilers have produced work exemplifying extensive, thorough research, and sound analysis and evaluation. When such works are well documented, the compilation is of tremendous value to genealogists and historians.

As certified persons we have the challenge of educating the public on appropriate evaluation and use of compiled sources.

All genealogists, professional and amateur alike, prepare compilations of data. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all resolved to follow the current compilation standards as described in the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual?

Potentially, erroneous information is contained in published genealogies, county histories, genealogical lineages (including electronic files), and an abundant number of websites. Yet all of these sources also have the potential to contain helpful information for our research. When combined with proper caution to verify the validity of the material, the use of these sources can be of tremendous value to the researcher.

Connections and clues are often discovered using compilations of others. We must not, however, forget to follow up the connections and clues by trying to get as close to the original records as possible and conducting our own exhaustive research.

Suggested Reading

Board for Certification of Genealogists. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000.

Crandall, Ralph J. “Compiled Genealogies: Re-evaluating the ‘Facts’.” Ancestry Magazine 18 (March/April 2000) downloaded 29 July 2001 from <http://www.ancestry.com/library/view/ancmag/2507.asp>,

Macy Jr., Harry. “Recognizing Scholarly Genealogy and Its Importance to Genealogists and Historians.” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 150 (January 1996): 7–28.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. “Skillbuilding: Good Genealogical Writing.” On Board 4: (May 1998): 16.

_____. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.

_____. “Skillbuilding: Analyzing and Reviewing Published Sources.” On Board 3: (May 1987): 16.

_____. “Working with Historical Evidence: Genealogical Principles and Standards.” The National Genealogical Society Quarterly 87 (September 1999) 165–84.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown and Gary B. Mills. “Editors’ Corner – Responsible Publishing: Peer Review Is Not Just for Journals.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 85 (September 1997): 163.


Linda Woodward Geiger, CGRS, 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.