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Drinking a Filtered Brew

By Daniel Hubbard | July 29, 2012

In genealogy we deal with information. Not just any information but information about, and perhaps more importantly, by people. Sometimes people choose to record, sometimes they choose not to record. Sometimes people choose to pass information to the person making the record, sometimes they choose otherwise. Then we choose to look in one place for a record but not in another place. We might find what we want, we might find a false lead and we might find nothing and conclude that there is nothing to be found.

We have to realize that everything that we learn about our ancestors has passed through filters—some of them even filters of our own. That is an important fact. Filters, by definition, change what passes through them. Instead of learning facts A, B, C, and D, only fact B passes through. We don’t learn the other facts and fact B comes through missing some context. That isn’t right or wrong. It isn’t lying. It is the nature of information preservation but it is also something we need to think about. Filters are great if you want a nice cup of coffee. If you want to study coffee grounds, you might appreciate the coffee but it takes some work to learn about the grounds from a latte.

At every stage, there are people who filter. Someone requests the information. Before the event even occurs, there is the decision to record that type of event. Then there is the decision about what to record when the event occurs. In official records, those decisions are usually made long before the event takes place.

After the deciding what to record, someone decides what information to provide, someone filters the information as it is recorded, eventually someone may filter what not to preserve and later, someone filters as they search for it and decide whether or not to use it. Sometimes those roles are separate but often they are mixed.

Official Filters

Some things are considered important to record while most things are not. We generally don’t have trouble with this. We don’t conclude that our ancestors owned nothing but land because only land purchases were officially recorded. We don’t conclude that nothing happened in their lives except for birth, marriage and death because only those events were officially written down. Most of our ancestor’s lives never made it through the official filter. Most things were of no official interest.

The official records that we prefer to use to create the “bones” of our research should be factual. That is why we prefer them. Yet even after certain types of events are deemed interesting enough to record, they must pass through another filter—the “Sgt. Joe Friday” filter—”just the facts ma’am.” Perhaps, I should refine that to “just the relevant facts, ma’am.” There are plenty of facts that weren’t recorded because they weren’t considered truly relevant. A sale of land from a father to a son was usually recorded as if it was just two men with the same surname. On the occasions when that is not the case, when the clerk wrote “James Smith conveys to his eldest son David Smith…”, many a genealogist has wished they could send a thank you card back in time to the clerk who let that bit of information slip through the filter.

Then there is the “filter of the form.” The information needs to be recorded in a specific way and if your information does not fit the form, well, make it fit. The more unusual the situation, the more interesting things are, the less likely the facts are to fit nicely into the blanks on a form. Anyone who has ever lived abroad is soon made to realize that this is a totally unexpected thing for many a designer of forms. I can’t remember how many times a form required me to enter a state of residence from a fixed list of fifty when I wasn’t actually living in America. Where was the town Stockholm-Sweden in the state of Illinois? It only existed on my forms. What did our ancestors and clerks do when information simply didn’t fit the form? One option is to filter until it fit.

Filtering for Extremes

Other sorts of records aren’t usually strictly filtered long before the events occur. Diarists, biographers, letter writers and newspaper editors have very different filters from the clerk at the courthouse but they still filter.

There might be other filters in play before the scribe puts pen to paper. The propriety filter can leave out a child’s birthday when a problematic comparison to a marriage date might otherwise be made. It would be a strange obituary that did not pass through this filter. Rarely would one speak ill of the dead in such a public way, even if that meant leaving out some facts. County histories are famous for this filter. Sometimes things seem nicer if there are things that don’t pass through the filter.

Sometimes there is a sensationalism filter at work. Newspaper articles might very well leave out a mitigating circumstance if a story would tend to grab more readers interest without it. A gossipy diarist or letter writer might make things sound far worse or weird than they really were by leaving out the normal and run of the mill. Once written down, the sensational often passes easily through any filters relating to preservation.

Simplicity Filters

Even a headstone might pass through a filter. My great-grandmother is buried near my grandfather and the surname is the same so even a casual observer conclude that they were probably family and possibly mother and son. That would all be correct but it only works that way because my great-grandmother’s headstone is, in a sense, wrong. She had remarried and her surname was different when she died. The surname on her stone passed through a filter that required things to make obvious sense even when they, in principle, shouldn’t. The surname that matched her children passed through the filter, the surname that followed after got stuck among the coffee grounds. That has certainly happened in other cases as well. What gets preserved passes through a simplicity filter. It leads in roughly the right direction but it cuts some corners in doing so. It tries to make sense without all the messy details required of the full story.

People recorded the version they wanted recorded if they possibly could. Usually people are honest but omissions were made. We need to try our best to sort them out.

Cultural Filters

Some filters were simply cultural convention with no deep meaning unless we misunderstand the filter and mistakenly give it meaning that isn’t there. A father did not mention a son in his will. Were they estranged? Had the son died? Was the son a modern mistake who had never actually existed? Maybe, but maybe the son had already received his share an the father simply had no need to mention him. The custom often worked that way.

This is a filter that has as much to do with our culture as it does with theirs. Do you filter away what looks like a second living son because he has the same name as the first. Don’t do it if you are researching among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That would reflect our culture not theirs.


When researching, we need to think about what filters the data might have passed through. What might those filters mean for what lies behind what we read? What allowances do we need to make? Can we recognized what might have been removed? We also need to understand our own filters. Some we can eliminate some, like where we choose to to search, we can only consider, reduce and control.


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Topics: Research Mindset | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Drinking a Filtered Brew”

  1. Sheryl Says:
    July 30th, 2012 at 12:21 am

    This is a thought provoking article, thank you. Copyrighted images are a filter of today that prevents me from telling an accurate story of my ancestors. I would love to put a collection online of all the documents that might or might not be about my ancestor, so that a discussion could be had about what probably goes together. Historic (1800s) newspaper articles are often difficult to read, I can try to transcribe the image I see, but I would rather put the image in my ancestor’s collection.