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Supporting Statements

By Daniel Hubbard | September 29, 2013

I was tempted to title this post something like “Feeling Geeky” but that didn’t seem to be specific enough. There are so many things in genealogy that one could write about when feeling geeky. This is just one of them but it is one of the most important.

Statements and Support

Every statement made in genealogy should have something to back it up. It might be a document, a book, a grave marker or any number of other possibilities. If we have a statement on the one hand and a piece of information on the other, we also need to make the connection between just that statement and just that piece of information.  That connection between the two is what we make when we add a source citation.

We often think about sources as having certain properties. Those properties can actually be properties of the extracted pieces of information or of the connection between our statement and that extracted information. Here are the three properties that one normally considers.

Form

A source is usually a physical object that can be classified as a whole. The property used to classify the source is its “form.” The form can be:

  1. Original- It might be an actual sheet of paper, two centuries old. It might be a photograph or digital scan of the same sheet of paper. Just about anything else done to the source makes it-
  2. Derivative- Perhaps the original source was copied by hand, translated or abstracted. To that, some people add-
  3. Authored- An authored work takes information from multiple sources and produces new statements. These are sometimes simply considered as being derivative.

Knowledge

Every piece of information that you can extract from a source was once the knowledge of a person. An important property of that information is the separation between that person and the information that they reported. That knowledge can be:

  1. Primary- the information was the informant’s firsthand knowledge. The informant knew the information from their own senses. Otherwise the knowledge is-
  2. Secondary- literally this means that someone who saw or heard the event told the informant whatever it was that the informant later had recorded. In practice, one often considers any knowledge that is not primary as secondary simply because there is often no way of knowing how many steps there were between the observer and the informant.

The classic example of the difference between the form of the source and the knowledge of the information comes from death certificates. The source may be original and the informant may have been present at the death, making that information primary, but the certificate probably also has a birth date reported by the informant. If the informant was an adult son or daughter, that knowledge must be secondary.

Support

There is a property that is specific to the connection between your statement and the information from the source. Once you link a piece of information to a statement that you are making, that information becomes evidence. That might sound odd but evidence is meaningless on its own. It has to be evidence for something to be evidence. Otherwise it is just information. How the evidence supports your statement is an important property. That support can be:

  1. Direct- One piece of information makes it clear why you believe your statement to be true. It supplies you with all you need to make your statement. If the evidence is relevant but insufficient then it is-
  2. Indirect- One piece of evidence only allows you to make your statement when combined with other evidence. One last type of evidence is-
  3. Negative- there is no information to extract from a source that ought to have that information if a hypothesis were true. You might have been told that a person lived the first forty years of his life in the town of South Somewhere. After searching relevant records that ought to record such a man—for example birth, marriage death, land, probate, census and tax—you find nothing that even contains a similar surname let alone the man in question. Your negative result is negative evidence for the South Somewhere hypothesis.

A piece of evidence carries all three of those properties with it. A source that has a form contains bits of information that derive from a type of knowledge and any bits of information that can be related to a statement become evidence that give a type of support to that statement.

That concludes the big three properties but there is something that I think might need to be added to that list because there is another property of information that I find to be useful in research.

Indication

One of the most important things about a piece of information is what is indicated about its origins. I’m tempted to say that the type of indication is a fourth property that should be tracked. That indication can be:

  1. Cites- The information comes with one or more citations that point to other sources. An authored or derivative source ought to tell the reader where the author found the information or what exactly had been abstracted. Unfortunately, many times there is no citation. In that case the next best thing is if it-
  2. States- There isn’t a full citation but there is enough of a statement made to point the reader in the right direction. An author might make a statement like “While searching in the South Somewhere courthouse I found the following among the probate records.” A clerk recording a meeting might make a statement about the following business having been brought forward from the previous year. A paper found as part of a pension application might contain a statement about a marriage record from Some Other County having been presented to show that the widow had married the soldier on a specific day. Other times things aren’t so clear. In that case the next best thing is if it-
  3. Implies- There is no statement about where the information originated but it is of a type that points in a certain direction. This often happens with older authored sources. A family might be listed in which all the daughters’ husbands are given without first names. That implies that the ultimate source for that information is probably a will or other probate document that lists the daughters by married name. The fourth possible value for this property is-
  4. Silent- You have clearly not reached the ultimate source of the information but there is no useful indication about what next step back in the chain might be. It might be that no indication was recorded. One all too often runs into useless indications, such as “A variety of records were used to create this invaluable resource.” I mentally add, “and the variety was so fabulously great that, as valuable as we claim this to be, we can’t be bothered to tell you what those records were.” Those might as well be silent. There is one last possible value for this property-
  5. Not applicable- you’ve got primary information from an original source. There may be more to find in different records, but you have followed this one set of indications to the end of the road.

There is an interesting bit of self reference in this property. If you make a statement, you have created something that someone else could use as a piece of information. Your statement becomes their information. Your citations, your link to the information that you used, becomes their indication for the next step back toward the ultimate source.

 

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