By Daniel Hubbard | January 12, 2014
As genealogists we mine records for information. Sometimes that is how we see records—as information mines. There is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Data about our ancestors is what we need to rediscover the past and we extract it from records.
It is important though to go beyond those specifics that the records give us about select people. Who else is mentioned in the record? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the record? Where did the information originate? How long after the fact was each bit of data recorded? Does the information mean what we think it does or have words shifted in meaning or were there special instructions to the creator of the record that would alter our appraisal if we knew them? We also have to think about the historical context of the record. Why was it made? What laws governed its creation?
There can be more to our interaction with a document that the simple extraction of data and analysis of context. Those are wholly rational activities. A document can stir emotions as well. Often we feel a sense of reverence for a record. A sense of awe will come over just about any genealogist who comes in contact with a long sought document. Even a scan of a document can have that effect if it suddenly solves a mystery.
There are times though when feelings of awe might be tempered by the context of the document. Slave manifests and prison camp death lists conjure up other feelings. This week, for some client research, I used a type of record that I had not used before—official late 19th century registers of Jewish births. I have not yet found specifically why these separate Jewish registers were kept but one can wonder. The timing, and the fact that I am reading the records in German, leaves me wondering as well about the use they might have been put a generation later. Yet, with whatever mixed feelings come with some documents, they still bear the names of ancestors. They still contain the voices of the past.