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It’s 10 p.m. Do You Know Where You Are Researching?

By Daniel Hubbard | August 3, 2014

When I lived in France and before I had kids, I had a large map of Europe that I mounted on a sheet of corrugated cardboard. I had it hanging on the wall and every time I visited a new place, I stuck a pin into that spot. To add a bit of information, I changed pin colors every year so that I could see not just where I had been but when I had been there. Most of the time, the exact year that I had been somewhere didn’t really matter but there were times when it did. The pin for Lucerne showed that I had been there before the famous 14th century covered bridge, the Kapellbrücke, burned. It has since been restored but having walked it before the fire does mean something to me.

These days much of my traveling is in the form of seeing places through their documents. I means I get to travel just about every day and not just to different places but to different times as well. If I still had that map of Europe and a map of North America as well, I could now be adding pins for places I’ve researched. That brings up the question of what does it mean to have researched in a place?

1794_map_of_the_world_pinsFor example. I’ve researched in German records. Logically, that means I’ve researched in records that were produced in Germany. Yet many of the “German” records that I have used were not produced in a place that was within the jurisdiction of Germany at the time because there was no such jurisdiction. Germany might have existed as a concept but it did not exist as a nation-state. One might then think that it is a matter of language. A “German” record would then be a record from Central Europe that was written in German. Many, including Austrians and Swiss, would disagree with that.

I’ve researched in records produced within the Austrian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which one could argue was the same place except that they were under two rather different different organizations. I’ve researched in records that came from the Austrian part and the Hungarian part. Does that count as two places? Most people today would say “yes” but though some of those “Hungarian” records were in Hungarian, others were in German, which probably still doesn’t make them Austrian records. It certainly wouldn’t make them German records even if they were written in German. Because they were created under Austrian, or Hungarian or Austro-Hungarian law they must belong to one of those places. Make sense? Also, some of those “Hungarian” records were written in neither Hungarian nor German but were in Latin instead. Did I mention that many of those records came from places that are no longer within the boarders of Hungary? Where would I put those pins?

I research extremely often in Swedish records. I have also researched in Norwegian records. Those places are close but they are clearly two places—except that during most of the 19th century they were sort of one place, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, which still functioned as two places from the point of view of their record keeping. I suppose I could put a pin in each in good conscience.

I’ve researched in the records of the United Kingdom quite a bit, but one normally thinks of those “united” parts as separate when it comes to the records. Researching in Scotland isn’t the same as researching in England, for example. Then there is Ireland, which people sometimes forget was, in its entirety, part of the United Kingdom within living memory. We often need to talk about the “United Kingdom including Ireland” even though back at the time being referred to, there is no question that Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. So, do I put in pins for all the countries that were in the United Kingdom in the 19th century? Does researching in records from northern Ireland count as a different place if they were created before there was a jurisdiction called Northern Ireland? Is that a fifth pin? If a record was created in one place but accessed under the jurisdiction of another place, does that count as two places or only one?

I’ve researched in Canadian records. Of course many of them were created when the word “Canada” might have meant something but before 1867 it didn’t mean what it means today. Was I researching in New Brunswick, Quebec/Lower Canada/Canada East and Ontario/Upper Canada/Canada West as separate places, which they were or as parts of Canada, which they are now? How many pins do I put in my map?

Then there is the United States. How many places is it? Before 1776 it was clearly several places. It wasn’t just 13 places either. If I put a pin into Massachusetts, does that cover the state, the colony, and the original Massachusetts Bay Colony, and for that matter, Plymouth Colony? I’ve researched in records produced in all those versions of, and ingredients in, “Massachusetts.”

Then there is the question of the colors for my pins, I might color them by the year that I first researched in those records. I might also color them based on the time period that I had researched. Both color systems would have some useful meaning. Places change with time, jurisdictions that hold the records change with time. It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where you are researching?



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