By Daniel Hubbard | January 30, 2011
So you’ve found some new genealogical evidence. Time to put it into your database and start the next hunt. Or is it?
What if someone handed you a new and strange physical object and said, “Here. This is for you. I think you’ll need it.” You probably wouldn’t just make a note “Received interesting object” and then set it aside and ignore it. You would twist it and turn it. You would look at it from every angle. You might poke and prod as well, trying to figure out what it was and how it might be used. Just in the process of being observant you would notice things about it without even being really conscious of them—color, weight, material and size, and probably much more. You would look for writing or symbols that might tip you off as to what it is. You would try to figure out if there was any structure to it, any pattern that might be a clue to its function.
A new bit of evidence is no different from that unidentified object except that when we find new evidence, we by definition, have a use for it. If we didn’t have some idea that it is, or at least might be, useful we wouldn’t think of it as evidence. That sounds like an advantage. When handed the mystery object we have no idea what to do with it, which does not seem very promising. With evidence we have a head start.
On he other hand, we imagined that a person would really examine that mystery object. Not knowing anything to start with is actually a big advantage if it gets us to really look at it. In contrast since we have a use in mind for our bit of evidence there is the danger that we won’t be sufficiently curious. We think identifying it and recording it is enough. We need to look at a piece of evidence from many angles as well. So often we are forced to view our ancestors through the lens of what was normal in their place an time. The information needed to see beyond what is to be expected is often unknown to us. Every new bit of evidence gives the possibility to go beyond what is simply expected to be true.
- Can it answer another question?
- Does it limit possibilities?
- Does it improve an estimate?
- Does it lead to a question?
- Is it in any way unusual?
- Does it falsify a hypothesis?
- Does it shed light on other issues?
- Is anything hiding “between the lines?”
- Does it say something not just about the people but the place?
- Does it bring up new questions?
- To what history might it connect?
- Where has it gotten me?
- Where might it take me?
There is one thing I notice about my list. There is something odd about those points, something that is perhaps part of the reason that evidence often just gets recorded and not twisted and turned. As I wrote them, my intention was only to make the points short and succinct. There was something else, a side effect, that I did not intend. In my points it is the evidence that is active. It is easy to word things that way, easy to think that way. Evidence “does,” it “answers,” it “leads.” Of course, it does nothing of the sort. Anyone who does research must think about the evidence. It is the researcher that is active. Evidence doesn’t do anything on its own. It doesn’t show us anything. We must figure out the uses, all the uses, for it by looking at it from all angles.
A Topical Update
I meant to end this post with my list. Then I had a few thoughts on the list itself. Now I’ve run into a video that demonstrates both the twisting and turning of this post and something about how our world changes. I wrote a post a year and a half ago with the point that the future and the past aren’t what they once were. Our ancestors past and future looked much like their present. Today, change comes much too fast for us to consider the past to be like the present or for us to expect the future to be like the present. It is a very different mindset.
I suggested this experiment. Gather up some outdated things from your youth and show them to some small children. My examples were a vinyl record and a rotary phone. Here is the experiment actually being performed. Notice how the children, who have no idea what these things are, often twist them and turn them and look at them from every angle. They even try to combine a few of them. (Don’t worry about the French title, it is subtitled in English.)Twitter It!