Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Conversation With My Daughter About Evaluating Sources

Yikes! Where has the past week gone? It’s spring break this week for my kids, which means I’ll be saying the same thing again in a week. We are leaving in 30 minutes for a couple of days in New York City with my brother, but I’m hoping I have time to jot a few thoughts down. (Can you jot thought down when you’re typing on a computer?)

My oldest child, Rachel, is ten. She’s in fifth grade. Recently she came home with the assignment to write her first “research paper.” Now – remember we are talking about fifth grade research papers here. That means the entire “paper” was supposed to be a few paragraphs long. They were required to use three sources, one of which had to be an actual book – as opposed to an online source. (I’ll try to resist the urge to become nostalgic reflecting on the fact that there were no such rules when I was in fifth grade or even high school since of course there was no internet to use.)

Rachel selected the topic of “The History of Irish Step.” Yeah, I know – I should have tried to persuade her to do some sort of genealogy topic, right? She chose this all on her own since she and I had gone a few weeks before to watch Riverdance in Springfield. (Again – trying to fight the urge to depart from my topic – but WOW! – it was fabulous.)

Her class had spent an hour or so at the computer lab and so Rachel had come home with several “articles” printed out from the internet that she had found. As we sat down to look at them, she soon discovered that the articles contained conflicting information. She was baffled. She figured out quickly that they couldn’t both be correct. So, HOW could this EVER happen? HOW could INCORRECT information get online? And HOW could she know which one was correct? And finally, wouldn’t the solution to this problem be to get a book from the library? Surely, it would be correct because nobody would PUBLISH something that was WRONG.

Oh, the genealogist in me was getting so excited about the conversation that was about to follow that I could hardly contain myself. It’s a conversation I have often at genealogy meetings and conferences with people beginning their research and I couldn’t believe I was going to get to have this heart to heart with my daughter at the tender age of ten.

I started out with discussing with her how information gets online. Anyone can put it there. Anyone. Here I am putting this online right now. Nobody is making sure I know what I’m talking about (a question you may have already asked yourself…) One of her sources was Wikipedia – the ultimate example of anyone putting anything online. (I’m not slamming Wikipedia – actually, I’m a big fan but it doesn’t mean I take it as gospel truth.)

This made her head spin and she suddenly became concerned not just about the conflicting information, but about ALL the information she had found. How did she know that ANY of it was true? Hooray! I wish every genealogist asked herself this very question when she found something online. She noticed that some of the “facts” were in every article. Those must be true then, right? They couldn’t all get it wrong.

Oh yes they most certainly could. Again, this is an argument I hear a lot. ALL the family charts say the father is this person. Therefore, he must be. This is nonsensical logic. All those charts could be very well be based on the same original chart that was wrong in the first place. They are just all repeating the same information. If you repeat incorrect information one hundred times, it doesn’t somehow become correct.

But, she reasoned, there’s still hope that a book will straighten it all out. Again, I had to burst her little bubble (poor kid). There are lots and lots of books out there with lots and lots of incorrect information. Nobody fact checked my book, for instance. In fact, only a very few of the magazines I write for fact check articles I submit either. (Once FamilyFun called to verify that my daughter really was the age I said she was in an article. This made me laugh since they were asking me – the original provider of the information – to verify that the information I provided was correct. Luckily, I hadn’t forgotten how old my daughter was in the few months since I had sent in the article.)

It’s enough to throw your hands up in despair, isn’t it? Well never fear. Just as there is no hope remaining, in enters ORIGINAL records. It’s at this point when my daughter gave me a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I didn’t even begin the discussion of original records that are WRONG. Instead I just said, “Don’t worry. It’s a fifth grade paper. Your teacher doesn’t expect you to dig through archives in Ireland to find original records of Irish Step. I’m sure Wikipedia will be just fine.”


  1. You hit the nail on the head again! I love it when "worlds collide."

  2. As a former 5th grade teacher, I enjoyed reading your post. I remember the first research paper my daughter had to do in the 5th Grade. Oh, I'm glad to be beyond all of that.

  3. Hmmm ... now I'm wondering if all my facts in my 5th-grade paper on "Hawaii" were correct.... I've tried having a similar discussion with both my daughters, and both of them rolled their eyes.

  4. What a great easy-to-understand message about facts and sources -

  5. Fabulous post as always! I read parts of it to Scott (who is currently grading research proposals), and when I read "I couldn’t believe I was going to get to have this heart to heart with my daughter at the tender age of ten.", he responded:
    "Well the parents of some of my students obviously never had that heart to heart with their children. Ever."

    These are seniors in college we're talking about here.