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Up Close and Personal

By Daniel Hubbard | November 25, 2012

There are many, many ways to gauge the value of a genealogically interesting document. There are many terms as well—primary, secondary, original, derivative… What is often missed is that it is almost always impossible to use one of these terms for a whole document. Every statement made in a document is different. Some are in regard to things that just happened, others may be related to long ago events. Some may come from direct knowledge, others from inference.

In the end I generally think about evaluating each statement without using the standard terms but instead I think in terms of “proximity.”


One question to ask about a statement is “How long after the event was the statement made?” In other words, “How many ticks of the clock separate the event and the statement?” The longer the information sat unrecorded in someone’s memory, the greater the chance for error.


Another thing to think about is the “transmission distance.” Who is the immediate source of the information? Who recorded the information? How many people were involved in transmitting the information from eyes and ears to pen and paper? The fewer times the information was transmitted, the better.


Today we may have left behind something of the connection between distance and time. Communication is so fast that for most practical purposes it is instantaneous. Not so long ago, that was far from the case. The more steps it took to get from one place to another, the longer the time it took. When it would be a long journey to the county courthouse, the more likely it was for there to be good reasons to delay the trip and the longer the whole process required.

Information often covered distances by being repeated from person to person, so distance in space can imply not only separation in time but a longer chain of transmission involving more people. Some of the strangest tales ever told, were told by long distance travelers, who got them from someone along the way, who had once heard from a foreigner, who had been visited by a merchant…


The cultural differences that divide a witness to an event from the participants and the recorder of the event from the witness can add to the uncertainty of any statement. If there is a long transmission chain, any cultural difference anywhere along the chain can skew the final, written result. “Cultural” in this case can even shrink down to the level of whether or not a clerk in one town was familiar with the village of the witness. It is that pool of knowledge and beliefs that two people have in common. The larger that pool, the better they will understand one another. The less there is in that pool, the farther apart they are culturally and the great the risk of miscommunication.


Try as people might to be accurate, every time information is copied, there is a chance that something will go wrong. Information can be left out or misinterpreted when copying by hand. If a document was photocopied, photographed or microfilmed, a little dust and a little blur get the chance to turn “Frances walked rapidly” into “Francis talked vapidly.” The fewer copies that are between the version you have to examine and the first version created, the better.


By processing, I mean the intentional interpretation and blending of statements. In some ways processing is not good. It increases the distance from the original. An abstract might miss an important part of the sense of a statement. A translation can introduce errors. Several correct statements can be combined into one incorrect mess. There are almost an endless number of ways to go wrong. Sometimes the result is the genealogical equivalent of “processed cheese food spread.”

Yet not all processing is bad. It is what genealogists and historians do to gain understanding of the past. People and events can be reconstructed from many statements to give a more precise picture than even the most accurate statement could give. Inaccuracies in statements can be spotted and corrected by some skillful processing of all the relevant statements made in source materials. It is something like the surveyor who never stood at the top of the mountain but by taking many measurements from many locations can determine the height of the peak much more accurately than a mountaineer who stands at the summit.


There may be other criteria to ponder when accessing the proximity of a recorded statement to the event it describes. You can’t put an absolute proximity score on a statement but each type of proximity can give a useful point of view when thinking about the possible accuracy of a statement. So, how up close and personal are the statements that you have in your sources?

 And now for something completely different…

Just wanted to add that I’m excited to be able to announce that I will be speaking at the FGS conference in August of 2013. Hope to see you there!

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