As you begin to trace your own roots, you may not know or understand the standards professional genealogists follow everyday, but that should not exclude you from ensuring the integrity of the findings you share with family members or in online communities. Considering three of the basic principles below will help those who come after you and may even lead you more accurate discoveries.
It is a great temptation to be curious about what others may have on your ancestor in an online family tree. Remember the saying, "Curiosity killed the cat?" The same holds true if you delve too deeply in a family tree without documented sources. You may end up more confused if you do this with no idea who your end-of-the-line ancestor is. Many newbies accept information as factual and adopt the wrong person as an ancestor. Then when they attempt to document the person they think should come next in line, they run into the proverbial "brick wall."
The correct way to take advantage of an online tree is to first research as thoroughly as you can to learn more about the missing ancestor before you even turn to someone else's family tree. Some find that confusing: "How do you research someone you do not know?" You can research an ancestor even if you do not know his or name. Just begin with the children. Much of the time records that document the generation before mention parents. If an ancestor had six children, you have six avenues to locate resources where parents may be mentioned. If that ancestor has a sibling with children, well, you can do the math! Records types to look for would include death certificates, obituaries, funeral home records, church records, the census, wills and probate and marriage records.
Many beginners stop researching an ancestor after one or two discoveries. If you look for a wide range of sources throughout the lifetime of an ancestor, you can develop a more accurate picture of their life and who they were related to. For example, searching for your ancestors on each available census can reveal a snapshot of their family every ten years. If that same ancestor was enumerated on a state census, your chances to learn more are even greater. Using the federal census, you may discover infants who died young, parents or grandparents who lived in the same house, or neighbors who married into the family.
Citing your sources helps other people interested in your findings to be able to follow in your footsteps to access the same records you used. Are not all family historians looking for that "one person" who will take an interest in the family's history and carry on where they leave off? You have the power to make things easier for them.
Complete and accurate citation of sources allows others to replicate the steps taken to reach the conclusion. (Inability to replicate the research casts doubt on the conclusion.), The Genealogical Proof Standard
Is your genealogy made up of oral history or stories that you have never documented? Memories dim over time. Facts can be forgotten or misunderstood. If you have a huge research challenge that you have not been able to overcome, and you are basing your research off of "things your mom or dad said," then perhaps it is time to test your theories by documenting each part of the story that you can. Chances are you will actually learn more to add to the story, or you may discover that bits of it are not true after all.