“If there are two words that would seem to define professional genealogy, then records and reliability would be them”
To the outside it might appear that when we are commissioned to undertake some research, then we simply dust off the relevant record set, compile the necessary information into a report and present it to the client. In reality, it is more complicated than that. Locating the records is only part of the process. Online databases have certainly made research faster and provided us with access to so much more information. But how do you know the information is correct? This concern over reliability is what keeps anyone using historical records on their toes.
“In Irish research we are limited in what sources we have access to because of the loss of so many records in the 1922 Public Record Office Fire”
Civil registration was only available for the entire population from 1864 and we have no full surviving census before 1901. With so few surviving sources we must be extra knowledgeable in the limitations of each record set. One example is the relation between the 1901 and 1911 censuses. It’s not unusual for someone to appear to have aged more than ten years in the intervening years. If we are using the census as a guide to trace a birth record, then which one should we trust? The answer is 1911, because the introduction of the old age pension in 1908 made people much more diligent in reporting their real age. There are many more discrepancies between the two censuses which can lead to confusion.
The Public Record Office of Ireland was destroyed by fire in 1922 image source RTE Ireland
“The rise of DNA testing is also showing us that sometimes the person listed as the father on a birth record might not have been”
Civil registration records are also fraught with errors. They might contain misspellings, incorrect dates or even the wrong names. Fines over the late registration of dates sometimes led to parents providing a wrong date of birth in order to escape a fine. In one case I came across an individual who was officially born a week after being baptised. The rise of DNA testing is also showing us that sometimes the person listed as the father on a birth record might not have been.
“The truth is that all records are prone to human error and other circumstances which might impact their reliability”
As professional genealogists, our job is to be aware of these potential errors and weigh up the evidence carefully before reaching our conclusions. Where possible we should cross reference against other contemporary sources. It is not enough for us to know what records exist but to be able to inform those who commission us to conduct research for them just how reliable those records are.
Written by David Ryan