So, what IS good documentation?
Let’s say that Ancestry.com shows you a hint from someone else’s family tree. Should you accept it? The first thing to look at is whether the other person’s family tree shows “Sources” and “Records.” If a family tree doesn’t have either, I wouldn’t even select it for review. If it does have sources or records, I’d visit the family tree and review those records before accepting any of their information into my tree.
For example, you are trying to substantiate a birth date for an ancestor. You already have several census records that suggest the person was born in either 1875 or 1876. The fact that the calculated birth year varies from one census record to the next makes the census records less valuable for determining birth date. If I had a birth certificate or an abstracted list of births from the person’s birth place, it would be better evidence. Each record and source should be evaluated this way in terms of the reliablity of its information.
The second part of good documentation is recording what the record is and where you found it by creating citations. Citations are like road maps to help you get back to the source and a specific record. For professional genealogists, citations have a set format that uses agreed-upon rules so that any other genealogist can find and view the record.
And why is this important?
In science and medicine, the outcome of any research is in question unless it can be duplicated and the results turn out the same. This is also true in genealogy. If you have proof (an iffy proposition at best) that someone is another person’s child, for example, you should be able to point another researcher to the location of that proof or it isn’t worth your time.
Many years ago, when I was just starting to research my family tree, I found a document that had an exact birth date for my grandmother. Of course, I didn’t record the name of the record or where I found it, I just entered that birth date into my family tree. Many years and many hours later, I’m still searching for that document, and my grandmother’s birth date is still in question. How much time and energy I could have saved myself by creating a citation that would lead me to the record again.
Live and learn.