This month I attended a one-day seminar in Calgary, given by the Alberta Family Histories Society. The speaker was Dave Obee, an award-winning journalist and author, who has been doing genealogical work for decades. He gave four engaging one-hour talks on topics of genealogical interest. Rather than detail each one I would like to point out some useful tidbits that I took away and some general themes that he returned to repeatedly.

Firstly, in your search for information, every record is suspect. For example, immigration and census documents, although recorded and kept by some official body, contain data provided to them by a human who may not have provided the correct information. I have talked to you before about how errors can creep into records and indexes inadvertently, but I never fully appreciated the possibility that the information may not have been provided truthfully in the first place. Sure, grandpa may have forgotten the exact date of his arrival when talking to the census enumerator decades later, but there are also valid reasons why he may have given the immigration agent false information when he arrived! For instance, something I didn’t realize was that the restrictive and discriminatory policies of the government encouraged desperate immigrants to fudge their information, such as Eastern Europeans claiming to be farmers or laborers, despite the fact they may have had a trade or profession, simply because that was the only way they could get into the country.

Secondly, use every applicable index and document when searching for information. Different indexes are created by different people. Those available at (which I have mentioned in past columns) are created by dedicated volunteers who cross-check each other’s work, whereas indexes are created by people in another country being paid to transcribe names that are foreign to them. As well, trying to corroborate information using more than one document can help point you in the direction of truth, and figuring out why those sources may not agree can really make the story more interesting!

Thirdly, understand the limitations of any index, database, or record. Is the index based on only a few of the types of information available in the original document? If so, look for other indexes that use other categories. Does the database cover only certain years? Again, look for other sources to examine the period of interest. The goal is always to find the original document of course, but even then, what does the information really mean? For example, a vital thing I learned was that censuses can be of two types: de jure (according to law) or de facto (according to fact). The former is the type used in Canada, whereas the latter is the kind used in Britain. The last one (de facto) is easiest to understand: everybody in the house when the enumerator arrives is named. On the other hand, de jure censuses involve interpretation of who is supposed to be living there. Somebody might be away temporarily, yet listed with their family at home. Apparently in some censuses ‘temporarily’ meant up to 25 years! The interpretation involved with de jure censuses can lead to a person or family showing up in more than one place on a single census, and of course it is physically impossible to be in more than one place at the same time, so how are you to know the true facts? I think the only answer is more research.

So, keep your wits about you and examine every source carefully. Wishing you happy searching, I will point you at Dave Obee’s website, which offers useful links to use in your quest for your ancestors.

This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.


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