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Whither the Source?

By Daniel Hubbard | December 15, 2013

Sources give us information. That information is the same no matter who looks at it. A researcher might miss something but that missed information is there whether we see it or not. Other times information only becomes meaningful when placed in context. The source has the information but the knowledge needed to interpret it needs to be found elsewhere. The researcher starts to leave their own imprint upon the information by building up that context.

The researcher also imposes different uses on the source. In a way, there is nothing unusual about that. The same record can be put to many different uses outside of genealogy. A birth certificate can be used to prove the right to an inheritance (a relationship), prove that one is old enough to drive (birth date) or demonstrate one’s right to a citizenship (birth place or parentage).

In genealogy, the researcher may impose something else upon a source—a direction. Does a birth record prove the identity of the child or of the parents? The way we use a source tends to have a direction that is not implicit in the source itself.  We might record that birth with the parents if it is needed as part of the proof of their identities or it can be directed the other way and indicate the identity of a child.

When we use a source to make a connection, we anchor part of the source in what we already know. Enough information matches that we can be reasonably sure of how the source fits with our previous research. Sometimes everything will fit and the source serves to reenforce what we already knew. Other times facets of the source may point beyond. They might point to a parent, child, spouse or college that was unknown. They might point to an occupation, a place or a time. As we learn more, that bit that once pointed beyond is surrounded and the direction of our work disappears. Did we find the wife’s identity by finding his married daughter in her father’s will or did her maiden name in her marriage record lead us to the will? Which path did we take? In which direction did we point our sources?

We tend to think that once we “know” something, the route that we took to get there is irrelevant. If it later turns out that we are not so sure of what we thought we knew, then the route we took to get there might be a good thing to know as we either try to reassure ourselves or to find our error.

Our route can have more subtle effects as well. How we see an ancestor just might depend on the path we took as we learned about him or her. Was our first impression one of shock over a headline splashed in a newspaper or one of pity as we uncovered the events that eventually caused us to look for and find that headline?

The directions we impose upon our sources can matter.


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