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Puzzles and Panoramas

By Daniel Hubbard | March 24, 2013

jigsawOne of the most common analogies for what genealogists do involves jigsaw puzzles. We say that we find the pieces and carefully fit them together to prove facts about people’s lives and the relationships between ancestors. Sometimes we even throw in the nasty little fact that the pieces that we find might not all belong to our puzzle. They are red herrings that don’t belong. It is as if many puzzles had their pieces dumped together into one enormous box. We can have educated guesses that the pieces we want will be found mostly in one specific corner of the box and toward the bottom. Some though will be in other places and some pieces that we find in “our corner” will be to a different puzzle altogether.

Those images may help people to imagine what is involved in research but I don’t think that they are quite right. Puzzle pieces fit together because pieces contain tabs that fit into blanks on other pieces. Genealogy rarely works that way. A family with births in 1760, ’62, ’64, ’68, ’70 and ’72 might be said to have a blank that could accept the tab provided by an adult found in later records. An adult who bore the same surname, came from the same place and was born in 1766. Even then, it isn’t proven just because it fits. It is a hypothesis.

A Better Analogy

Perhaps there is a better analogy—putting together a panorama from snapshots. To take a collection of photographic prints and assemble them into a panorama requires recognizing where different photos overlap. That is, for two snapshots to go together and properly align, there has to be a significant amount of information that is the same on both. How do we know that two documents concern the same person? Is the name being the same enough? Almost never. Usually more information is needed. Locations need to be the same or at least close, ages have to be what is expected, army units need to match, land ownership needs to coincide… There has to be enough overlap to say that the two documents go together. It is the overlap that counts, not that the information missing from one document is filled in by the other. The overlap helps to reinforce the correctness of the overlapping information and the rest is new information might some day help to connect with a new document that has yet to be discovered.

There is another thing that I like about this analogy. For a jigsaw puzzle to be completed, every piece needs to fit perfectly. A panorama built up from separate photographs is never perfect. There will be slight misalignments, differences in exposure, variations in color balance and other small problems. These problems are inevitable. The photographs can obviously fit together and yet look not quite right. These are the kinds of problems that are almost always faced when assembling a family history. Looking at the big picture shows that it fits but where document joins document perfection is rarely achieved. Ages can be wrong, names altered and occupations suddenly changed. Such things can and should be explained, but they will never go away.

A panorama put together from overlapping photographs

A panorama put together from overlapping photographs

Back in the days when I took photographs with film, I took a few panoramas by gradually snapping picture after picture as I slowly moved the camera through the landscape. Sometimes there was the suspicion that they weren’t going to overlap properly. Then I would take extra pictures to try to fill in the suspected gaps. Sometimes I might think that I had subtly changed perspective during the process and might need to take another batch of pictures, just to make sure.

Once they were developed, it was time to spread the photographs out on the table and try to figure out how they might be pieced together. Sometimes the perspective would be too different and photos that looked like they might overlap only showed a strange and warped countryside, as if viewed reflected in a carnival mirror. Then it was time to hope that a different choice of pictures would overlap well and extend the panorama in a way that pleased the eye instead of baffling the brain.

Sometimes genealogy gives me that same feeling. It almost looks right but the people and relationships that make up the genealogical landscape are warped just like the faulty panorama. Documents seem to overlap, but really don’t and the reconstructed landscape of ancestors and relatives heads off in a direction it never really went. Change some documents, get better overlap, and you can take away the carnival mirror.

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