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Give Your Documents the Third Degree

By Daniel Hubbard | October 25, 2009

When questioning your documents, there are more questions to ask than just if your Aunt Maude might have “corrected” a few things in the family Bible.

Did the author have any first hand knowledge? Did the author have any reason for bias?

Calendar changes and different ways of recording dates can make this a trickier question than you think.

Family Bibles, baptismal registers, etc. work this way. The order and appearance of those entries can give you clues about when the entries were made.

Were their legal maneuverings? Did anyone have anything out of the ordinary to gain or lose by its creation?

Perhaps it is a photographic or digitized version, a handwritten or typed copy (transcript), a summary of the original (an abstract), or just a select part of the original (an extract)? Don’t think that just because you are looking at a microfilm of obviously old records that they are as old as they seem. If documents were aging, a clerk may have copied them by hand. Did he get everything right?

Note that in truly garbled documents, it is possible to find references to documents or occurrences from after the supposed date of the document. Take that as a very good clue that you are dealing with a document with a questionable history.

If not, then one person needed to write down correctly what someone else was saying—every step in the process of creating a document is a place where errors can occur.

Only a literate informant could have looked at the finished document and detected errors.

Those were a few ideas for what you might want to know about a document. You can probably come up with further questions, some general and some specific to the document you happen to be staring at. The answers to the questions may not come easily and part of the art of family history is deciding which questions to ask, when you know enough to ask them and what the answers mean to your investigation.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Give Your Documents the Third Degree”

  1. Going to the Source | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog Says:
    December 1st, 2009 at 12:40 am

    [...] Give Your Documents the Third Degree [...]

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