Friday, October 24, 2014

Facebook: A Valid Source to Cite or Not?

Recently the "The In-Depth Genealogist" published an article by Christine Woodcock titled "That Online Tree is NOT a Source!"1 While I agree with most of her article I do disagree with the last sentence in the following paragraph where she wrote [underlining is mine]:
"I’ll tell you what is NOT a source: Someone else’s research. Someone else’s tree. Someone else’s educated guess or deductive reasoning. Neither is information received in an e-mail, from a message board, mailing list or Facebook group."

I find that the last sentence is overly broad since, at least to me, it treats all information received over those media as invalid sources that cannot be cited. Although I do hope that the sentence applies to received information stated previously in the paragraph. Even a simple change to "Neither is the same information received..." would link that statement to the previous sentences as to what is not are sources to cite and I would, in principal, agree with the paragraph.

Earlier she had written "A source is a record of the event, documented at the time of the event with information given by a witness to the event." What makes the mode of communication that is sent by e-mail or posted online any less valid than placing an announcement in a newspaper or writing and photocopying a letter for sending by postal mail? Given that in today's modern world many family announcements are made by e-mail or Facebook why wouldn't an announcement distributed by any of those mediums be not considered a source? As discussed on the Evidence Explained forums, Facebook is accepted as a source for information and can be cited (

What needs to be evaluated, just like with any other document that is received, is who provided the information and when it was create in terms of proximity to the event. If the information being sent or posted is concerning an event from a bygone era or is a repeat of something said elsewhere then, as a good researcher, you should locate the document or post that is being talked about and cite that instead. Unless that too points to another document or post ... follow the chain until you get to the true source of the information.

Yet what about if I am an actual witness to an event and I post the information online or sent it out in an e-mail? Can and should someone else cite what I have stated as a source? I know I have received or seen those announcements of births, marriages, and deaths via e-mail and Facebook posts. Knowing the person that has posted the information and the fact it was posted the same or next day after the event, in my mind, has the same weight as receiving a letter in the mail announcing what has happened. I just make sure I save the information as a screen shot or in a text file just in case someone asks me to show my source for the recorded fact.

I do agree that hearsay information passed over those means of communication should not be cited. At best they should be treated as possible clues and follow up questions need to be asked such as "Where did you find that information?" and "Can you share the source of your information?"

As always: read, analyze, and think when using any potential source of information.

1. Retrieved 24 Oct 2014 at 11:41 am EDT

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