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The Finding-Knowing Gap

By Daniel Hubbard | February 5, 2012

Across my office on a bookshelf, I have a book called The Knowing-Doing Gap. Not surprisingly, it is about the difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. It is a book about management, not about genealogy but I was reminded of it the other day. What reminded me was a thought or two about a gap, not between knowing and doing, but between finding and knowing. Often we find information and confuse that for actually knowing.

Don’t get me wrong. Finding is important but it is not the same as knowing. If you never find the first bit of information you will never know but just because something has been found doesn’t mean that anything is known.

You can find a name. Is the name correct or garbled? Is it the name the person always went by? Is it even the right person? Do you know?

You can find a date. What calendar was used? Did anyone have a reason to lie—making themselves younger or older perhaps? Is the date really linked to the person you’re researching or just someone with the same name? Do you know?

You can find a place. Is it still on the map? Did it ever actually exist? Did it exist at the right time? Do you know?

You can find information in many ways. How trustworthy is it? Does it conflict with what you have already found? Does it mesh with what you’ve found to give that new meaning? Do you know?

Information can be found.  Knowing arrives slowly and will involve throwing away some things that have been found and reinterpreting much of the rest. Knowing involves assembling, pondering, rearranging, leaving out, looking again, weighing, balancing, disproving, reconsidering, doubting. Different people can be found.

Knowing might involve realizing they are the same person. Different dates can be found. Knowing might involve realizing that they are all wrong.

Finding and Knowing

I’ve been researching someone’s family story. Once and only once have I found a record where the woman’s surname is what it should be if she really was briefly married. I found a son with the correct name. I’ve found a man with the name as in the story living in the right area before the son was born. Afterwards he disappears. Just like in the story. Nevertheless, I’ve also found the woman living in the household of her father not long before the supposed marriage. Her father had a farmhand. His surname was the same as her son’s would be. This man also disappears. Which man was the father? I have found but I do not know.

A bit over a year ago I was asked to investigate the family history of some brothers. I was given the names of a pair of Swedish brothers, their birth years and the approximate years that the immigrated to the United States. Their surname didn’t seem completely Swedish to me the way it was spelled, so I tried changing it. One brother’s given names seemed to be in the wrong order for a Swede so I reversed them. Their spelling seemed more German than Swedish, so I changed how I spelled his given names as well. I found a ship’s list with a man listed by his initials and surname. They matched my assumptions but I still did not know. His age was not very close to the correct man’s age, at least the age that he gave later in life. I traced this emigrant back to the family of his parents in Sweden. There I found him with the given names as I thought they ought to have been and the supposed brother as well. However, the name of the father did not match the surname I had for the sons. In one record a helpful minister had penciled in the new surname above the entry for one of the sons. It was the spelling that I assumed at the beginning. I found the emigration record for the other brother. He was using his father’s surname when he left. He was headed for the same small American town as his brother. Once he got to America he started using his brother’s surname. The only discrepancy that was left was a simple matter of one man lying about his age in a country where no one could prove him wrong. I have run out of reasons to doubt. I’m as sure as I can be. This time I haven’t just found, I know.


Finding is an event. Knowing is a state. States can change. As the saying goes, “you never really know.”

This Month’s Poll

This month’s poll—How is it going with finding and knowing?

I’m not even finding anything!
Finding lots but what does it mean?
I think I found something but which pile did I put it in?
I really think that lately I’ve come to know something new.


Results from Last Month’s Poll

Here are the results from last month’s poll. There is general optimism out there, at least among people who felt like answering the poll. It was nice to see that pessimism was the clear loser but there are plenty of confused genealogists out there and a not insignificant number who admit to being on a quest for a cheeseburger.

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