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Do Your Documents Have a Shady Past?

By Daniel Hubbard | October 21, 2009

Historical documents are complex things. Far more complex than we might first expect. Each document exists as at least two separate things—first as a physical object, and second as a collection of information, independent of any physical form. In two earlier posts (Don’t Believe It! and Genealogy Without Documentation Is…), I’ve discussed a few things about understanding documents. One important thing to consider is that each document has a past.

Every physical document has its own unique history. That implies that there may be reasons to be interested in a document’s past. Knowing that past can help you decide what level of trust you can place on a document. In questioning a document we might ask how it was created. For example, a family Bible might record births, marriages and deaths. Those are all very interesting but before looking at those, ask what is the history of this family Bible. There may be some information within the Bible about its being presented to its first owner. If so, there may be a date that it was presented. If there isn’t a presentation date, look for a publication date and use that as an earliest possible presentation date. Now, is that date before or after the earliest entries on the pages for births, marriages and deaths? If it is after any of those dates, information was entered after the fact. How long after the fact determines, at least in part, how trustworthy the information is. A block of entries all in the same handwriting and the same ink can be a clue that the Bible was updated all at once with many events.

In general, there are many questions to ask about a document. Here are a two more examples:

Might your slightly odd Aunt Maude have tried to remove a few things from the family Bible when she had it?

I have actually witnessed an attempt to correct errors in a deed with whiteout. Rarely would an alteration be that obvious but don’t think it never happens.

After questioning a document’s past, you may begin to doubt it or decide that its past is not particularly suspect. The results of your questioning can give you a starting point for deciding how much emphasis to put on a document. Knowing that is especially important when you find the inevitable conflicts. Some of these questions can be answered right away; others require additional documents to put the current document in context. Understanding a document is often a “bootstrapping” process—that is, a process of pulling one’s research up by it’s own bootstraps. As research progresses, it is sometimes necessary to think again about a document’s history and put it back on the witness stand for further questioning. More interrogation later.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “Do Your Documents Have a Shady Past?”

  1. Going to the Source | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog Says:
    November 24th, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    […] Do Your Documents Have a Shady Past? […]

  2. Shredding Documents, Part 1 | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog Says:
    December 5th, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    […] Do Your Documents Have a Shady Past? […]