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Shredding Documents, Part 1

By Daniel Hubbard | December 5, 2009

Awhile back, in Do Your Documents Have a Shady Past, I mentioned that documents exist both as a collection of individual pieces of information and as a unified whole. That whole has a history of its own. After considering a document, or in fact, any source as a whole, all those separate items of information can be looked at in context.

It can be dangerous to only think of the information from one source as a single unit. You also need to look at each source piece by piece. There are many reasons to “shred” a document. Here is the first. Only by taking a document apart are you apt to notice all the little bits of information that are hiding within it. Without a specific goal to find and note each separate bit of information, your mind is naturally drawn to whatever you think of as the highlights. You may focus on what you want to find, and fail to notice all the other clues hiding in plain sight. Put another way, your biases go in and less information comes out. You see what obviously pertains to “the problem” and miss all the more subtle hints.

Imagine that you are looking at the will of a possible male ancestor. He has the right name and is in the right place at the right time and you find the son and even the grandchild from whom you descend listed. Yes, barring unusual circumstances, you’ve found your man. Better yet, he listed his wife, whose name you have never seen before. Now you have his son’s mother too!

Or do you? You’ve confirmed three generations of relationships and that is always exciting, and you’ve found that often elusive thing, the name of the wife. If you focus on those important things you may miss a few other things. If you shred that document and really look at each statement, you may see much more.

What if you become aware of references to some adult children, each old enough that they have several children of their own mentioned in the will and then a large number of children identified as minors? You may not care so much about those other children. It may be that the minor children are not even all named. With a casual (though excited) reading you might not pay much attention to unnamed children. Yet there are implications here. The author of the will is not a young man if his older children have many children each. He probably didn’t marry late in life, otherwise he wouldn’t have lived long enough to know a large number of his grandchildren. Where did all those minor children come from then? From a wife young enough to bear them is the trivial, though important answer. The more minor children there are, the younger the youngest is likely to be and the more recently his wife was still bearing children. By shredding the document you have noticed that even if you don’t know who all the children were, that there was a gap in the sequence of their births and that the spread in their ages is suspiciously large for only one mother.

You may be disappointed to realize that the “mother” you thought you had found, probably fills the role of “step-mother” in your family tree. Nevertheless, you have a much better hypothesis to work with and you have probably saved yourself effort you’d later consider wasted, tracking down the ancestry of a woman from whom you are not likely to descend.

So, that is the first reason to “shred” documents. It forces you to be aware of the details.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “Shredding Documents, Part 1”

  1. Shredding Documents, Part 2 | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 1:05 am

    […] Shredding Documents, Part 1 […]

  2. Shredding Documents, Part 3 | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog Says:
    January 7th, 2010 at 1:05 am

    […] Shredding Documents, Part 1 […]