Defining “Personal Knowledge”

I saw a database of genealogical information today that puzzled me a bit. It was a collection of vital statistics for those living in a certain county in North Carolina. All of the information had been contributed by researchers who were required to give a “source” for the information they were sharing. Many listed records as sources: family Bibles, tombstones, military pensions, etc. But many other researchers claimed “personal knowledge” as their sole “source”.

The puzzling part is that these researchers obviously could not have personal knowledge of some of these events, many of which took place prior to 1900. For someone to have personal knowledge of an event, it is generally considered that said person witnessed the event. I know several of these researchers personally, and know without a doubt that not a one was born before the 1920s, let alone were they alive when the generations previous to that lived. How then could these modern-day researchers have been personal witnesses to the events stored within this database?

Now, I have been guilty of using the “personal knowledge” fallback when I should have used an actual source. For instance, I know that my mother was born on June 25, 1948, but I did not personally witness that event; it would therefore be more correct for me, in retelling how I came about acquiring this knowledge, to state that my mother told me her birth date. The problem then becomes that while my mother was a personal witness to her own birth, it’s highly unlikely that she carries any memories of the day, and so her source for the information was likely her mother. While we can assume that my grandmother would know when her own child was born, this illustrates a problem we encounter when information is removed from the source by hearsay or some other method: the farther away from the actual “witness” we go, the more ears into which something is repeated, then the less reliable the information in question becomes.

In our modern-day quest to rebuild the lives of our ancestors, it is exceedingly important for us to attach the appropriate source to each tiny bit of information, no matter how small. If we truly have personal knowledge of an event, then we should say so, but we should also add more: where the event took place, other witnesses, any detail that might enrich the record for future readers of our work. And if our knowledge comes from some other place, then we should also say that. Doing so will allow others to verify our work, thus making it more credible, but it is also adheres to a level of honesty that is the hallmark of modern genealogists.

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