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Footnotes on my Footnotes

By Daniel Hubbard | February 12, 2012

Yesterday, I was reading National Geographic, which is an excellent thing to do when you have a cold and need to sit down and relax. Even better, it inspired a blog post I can fit in between sneezes. In the December 2011 issue, I noticed a wonderful diagram. It is  a diagram that explains an aspect of a document. It is the kind of diagram that I wish came with every source in genealogy.

The document in question isn’t a source but rather The King James Bible. The diagram stretches across three pages. All versions of the Bible (or parts thereof) that served as input for the King James version are shown feeding into it. All of their inputs are shown feeding into them and so on back to the originals in Hebrew and Greek. It is a simple enough diagram in a way, yet dozens of graceful, arching lines convey a great deal. Beyond how the information flowed, it shows the date and language of each version. It wasn’t just a matter of showing relationships but also of displaying data. Data that, for example, implies an act of translation each time a version in one language is used as input to a version in another. I wish that I could display it here but if you want to see it, you’ll have to look at the magazine. It isn’t much and yet it says so much.

Sometimes we deal with sources that have complex genealogies of their own. We might use a digitized version of a microfilm copy of an index prepared by hand in the 19th century from now missing records that had themselves been copied over by a clerk because the originals were disintegrating. Perhaps when they were copied over, two ledgers were combined into one. Perhaps the index we actually used was not even based on the original index but on a translation. Maybe the index was “corrected” by looking at other records.

Knowing the process behind each connection is important as well. Were dates adjusted for a different calendar? Were names transcribed as best as they could be read or were they adjusted based on standard spellings that might or might not be appropriate? Were locations given according to the names and boundaries of the day or have they been modernized? If so, were they modernized so long ago that they are no longer modern? Often we can ignore such questions. Unfortunately, the only way to know if we can is to ask such questions.

I want footnotes on my footnotes. I want to know what I can of all the inputs, even the ones that no longer exist. I want to know if the links are tenuous or robust. I want to know the chains of transformation that the information has experienced. I want to know the rationale when data is combined. I want to know the twists and turns to decide if there is anything that can be done to straighten them out.

Often we only see that we can download a digitized document, copy a frame of microfilm or write down what we see on aging paper. We don’t even glimpse the labyrinth contained within that aging leather binding. We’d be better off if we did.

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Topics: Genealogy | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Footnotes on my Footnotes”

  1. Notable Genealogy Blog Posts, 19 February 2012 « Planting the Seeds Says:
    February 19th, 2012 at 7:04 am

    […] Hubbard, “Footnotes on my Footnotes,”¬†Personal Past Meditations: A Genealogy Blog, posted 12 February 2012 […]

  2. Nikki LaRue Says:
    February 20th, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Dan, I found this post very informative. Not just because you bring up an extremely important point that sometimes gets forgotten in the dust of our research – knowing how and why the resource you’re using was created – but also because you bring up several important questions for creators of those sources to keep in mind, and to make known to those who will be utilizing that source. I’m working on an indexing project right now that is being placed on the GenWeb page for the specific county and the answers to those questions you raised should be posted with the index so the users know where that info came from and how the information was put into that format. Thanks for posting this!

  3. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    February 20th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Nikki, I’m so glad you found it helpful. If it makes your project just a hint better, everyone benefits.