By Daniel Hubbard | October 21, 2012
The title for this post is stolen with pride. I’ve been reading Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), by the director Errol Morris. I knew I had to read the book after hearing several interviews with him that touched on his almost maniacal pursuit of the correct order of a pair of photographs.
These aren’t just any photographs. They are of a place that had been named “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War. Taken in 1855, they are among the first photographs of a war zone. The small valley between siege lines is a wasteland. The landscape is simply strewn with Russian cannonballs. About 250 are visible in each picture. A road that runs down the valley is littered with them. That is, in one of the pictures the road is littered with cannonballs but not in the other.
What set the author off on his quest were two sentences written by Susan Sontag. Those sentences claimed that the photographer, Roger Fenton, had tampered with his subject matter. He had taken the first photograph (without any cannonballs on the road) and then he “oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself” before taking the second picture. Two questions came to Morris’s mind, and if we think analytically, should come to our minds as well.
- How did she know that Fenton oversaw any scattering? There is no one in the pictures at all, let alone someone doing any scattering.
- How did she know which photograph came first? It was 1855, the film was not on a roll. There is no strip of negatives to make the order clear.
What became clear was that there was no evidence at all concerning which photograph was first. Fenton wrote about taking them in a letter but said nothing about moving cannonballs. There have been many opinions. Some claim one came first, others claim the opposite. Everyone’s opinion boiled down to estimates of Fenton’s character and hypotheses about his motivations with some added uncertainty because in those days, cannonballs were collected by armies for reuse. Fenton might not have done anything but wait while soldiers moved them.
Thinking about the Practical
The details of the investigation give one a lot to think about. First come some practical considerations. When presented with a mysterious item, is there external evidence? In this case a letter allowed timing the photographs to between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm on April 23, 1855 but it says nothing of their order or why the obvious difference between them. It doesn’t even clear up a difference of opinion about which direction the camera was facing, toward Russian lines or British.
Another consideration with a historical mystery involves a place, does the place still exist in a meaningful way and if so, can it tell us anything? In this case, no one knew, but eventually the spot was located because, except for vegetation returning, it is unchanged. Fenton was facing the Russian lines. With time and direction known, it was thought that shadows might allow the photographs to be ordered. They didn’t, though something else in the photographs did.
Meditating on Mysteries
It isn’t just an interesting investigation into a small mystery that is going on here. There is quite a bit about what evidence actually means and how we try to understand it. Without documentation that states the order, that is, without external evidence, could internal evidence, evidence within the photographs themselves, be used to solve the mystery?
For that matter, when a photograph or, more often in genealogy, a document presents a mystery, how do we balance evidence internal to the artifact and external evidence that might be brought to bear? I’m reminded of a cartoon from years ago in which a set of supposed Hitler diaries were discovered. Effort was lavished on them to place them in historical context using other documentary evidence until it was noticed that they were written on official Dukes of Hazzard stationary. Internal evidence often proves very useful.
How do we use possible motivations? Estimates of motivations may allow us to form hypotheses but without actual evidence, they are no more than possibilities. In the case of these two photographs, it seemed to me that small changes to estimates of motives resulted in totally different conclusions—not what one wants when trying to solve a mystery. Mathematicians have a term for situations in which small changes produce radically different results and that term says it all. They call such situations chaos.
How does a photograph’s or document’s very clear, if restricted, glimpse of history become integrated into a more complete story? Morris mused on the view given by a single historical photograph and wrote, “It is as if we have reached into the past and created a little peephole.” What we see may not be all that extensive, but what is there is vivid. How do we fill in the gaps between those few vivid glimpses?
One of the main themes of the discussion of the Fenton photographs is that a documentary photograph should not be posed or staged. It should be a record of what was before the camera without interference. Yet the second part of this theme is that it isn’t so simple. The photographer still chooses where to aim the camera, when to open the shutter and what is framed within the picture and what is excluded. Historical documents are not so different. Someone decided what to record, what to exclude and when to record the information. I love old land records, the kind where the clerk recorded little facts about the people involved, often how they were related. Later ones, after a change that excluded such information, can seem sterile in comparison. Everyone mentioned in the record can have the same surname but they were recorded as if they were total strangers. I want to go back in time and shake the clerk until he tells me not just the names but who the people actually were—not just information but knowledge.
No one can argue that these photographs do not contain a great deal of information. Yet, it took a long investigation to turn that information into knowledge. Actually, isn’t that what is is all about—gathering information and gradually converting it to knowledge?
By Daniel Hubbard | October 14, 2012
A few weeks ago I was looking at a photograph with a client. It isn’t your ordinary snapshot. It measures about one foot by three feet. It is also about one hundred years old. It also had a problem. It has been rolled up in a cardboard tube for decades and is now both a photograph and a very brittle, tightly coiled spring. It is not easy to look at and there is always the fear that it will crack.
I asked a museum curator I know if there was anything that could be done to conserve it and added that I had taken step 1 with it. Step 1 being do nothing if you aren’t sure what you should do. She let me know that step 1 was correct and that step 2 would be to take it to an art conservator who has equipment for flattening.
Ancestors aren’t normally something thinks of conserving. We have plenty and to get twice as many, we just need to go back another generation. Conserving them also sounds as if it implies that they can be used up. That doesn’t really fit either. Obviously, “conserve” can mean other things as well. A conservator does not prevent a work of art from being “used up.” Instead a conservator works to repair and preserve something.
As genealogists we work to “repair” our ancestry. Identities have been lost and forgotten and we try to recover them and add information to them. We also try to preserve what we find. Ideally, we preserve it in a way that others can understand but we at least usually leave behind a box, filing cabinet or hard drive full of information that someone else could, in principle, understand with some effort.
This week I heard a wonderful quote. It was not meant to be about family history but every time I read it, I think “that’s it”—
…conservation is about negotiating the transition from past to future in such a way as to secure the transfer of maximum significance.
Solving a genealogical puzzle or discovering a story is always a great feeling. It means that a good deal of work brought results. Still, it is a much better feeling when the person who had the puzzle or learns of the story feels the significance of it.
Last week I found documents to confirm a family recollection. That recollection was probably more significant than it might be otherwise because it was the only recollection. There were no stories preserved, only one preserved statement. Confirming it meant something. It meant that something true of one person’s past had actually been handed down under difficult circumstances and remembered over a century later. It meant that the one connection to that past had hung on.
A modern person’s sense of significance gives a link from revelations about past to implications in the present. Presumably that sense of significance carries on into the future as well, which brings me to my closing quote—
In conclusion we would suggest that conservation has as much to do with conserving the future as with conserving the past. It is not, however, simply about preserving the potential for future exuberance, but about preserving the future as a realisation of the potential of the past.
Quotes taken from The Ethics of Conservation by Alan Holland and Kate Rawles.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | October 7, 2012
The other day I heard a book mentioned. The title was At Home in the Universe. There are two books by that title and I have no way of knowing which one had been mentioned but it struck me as an interesting title.
Home can mean many things, where you grew up, where you live now, where you spent the biggest chunk of your life. I remember a discussion in my college dorm that centered on the question, if your parents moved since you started school, were you going home for Christmas or just visiting your parents? Is home a place defined by you having lived there once or is it where your family is or does it no longer exist if the two no longer coincide?
The idea of home seems also seems to me to require that it is a place you can leave. You leave your parents’ house when you grow up and we usually think of that as leaving home. We also talk of our hometowns and even home states. Occasionally the idea of a home country is even used. Home planet is a stretch for most people. I’m too young to know firsthand but I have heard many times that it wasn’t until Apollo astronauts could turn their cameras back on the Earth and photograph it floating in space that the concept of home planet really occurred outside of science fiction. Even if only briefly, we could leave our planet and because we could leave, we could think of it as home. Perhaps that is why the title At Home in the Universe struck me. We clearly won’t be leaving the universe any time soon. We won’t get that perspective that seems to help define home once we are no longer there.
One can feel at home even when one is somewhere else or even feel like a stranger in one’s own house, that is, not feel “at home” even when one is home in the physical sense. If someone feels at home they understand their surroundings, they feel as comfortable with the people around them as they would with their own family. Once again, place and family come up in connection with home, even when it isn’t a person’s actual home.
At Home in Time
What about time? You obviously can’t feel at home if you are there at the wrong time. The difference between visiting a childhood home on the day before it is torn down and on the day after, is the difference between being home and not being home. The latitude and longitude are the same. The experience is totally different. If we could go back in time and visit the same childhood home but accidentally set the dials of our time machine a century too early, before the house was built, before even the land was cleared, would we have visited home? It might be interesting but for most people it would not feel like home.
Family history is perhaps, a method for feeling at home in time. We come to know our ancestors. Suddenly dropped from the sky in a previous century, we would have family to visit just like someone dropped down in a distant place might have a cousin to look up. I don’t think I’m likely to suddenly find myself transported back in time but family historians are more conscious than most of having not just ancestors but family two or three centuries ago. Family is part of what makes a home a home. In some cases we might even know where a house stood or have a photo of a building that hasn’t existed for a hundred years or more. Place is part of what makes a home a home.
So, genealogists, welcome home.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 30, 2012
One sailor says to another as they looked out on the ocean, “That’s a lot a water.” The other one replied, “Yep, and that’s just the top of it.”
Sometimes we’re awed by the top of the water. We forget that there is more to it than that. To understand the surface, we need to investigate what lies below.
Do we understand a document just from the document itself? Context changes that understanding. What is the connection of the document to the world that it attempts to record? Meaning cannot be read only at the surface.
Ocean of Documents
A document allows us to drop down into an event from long ago. That is a quite amazing thing when you stop to think about it. We genealogists get a view, sometimes a quite detailed view, of something that happened decades or even centuries ago.
On the other hand, is that view enough? We drop into those events without context. The document does not tell us what happened afterwards and may not say much of anything about what happened before. It uses words that we may think that we understand when actually we don’t. The document doesn’t come with a perpetual dictionary that informs the future reader of what the words written in the reader’s past mean in language that the reader, at the moment of reading, can understand. It does not come with information about the cultural trappings that surrounded the people who produced the document or experienced the event that it describes.
A Family in the Deep
This week I began to investigate a family that just did not make sense. There was little to go on but there was an elderly woman labeled “mother” and “widow” in the 1880 census who might be a bridge to the family’s past. Yet when looking for her son in her household in the preceding decades, there was nothing. A cemetery transcription gave me her date of death. A probate journal named a person I hadn’t encountered before as her next-of-kin. Considering that the son I knew about was not named the next-of-kin, it would seem that I had another son. That man lived long enough to leave behind a death certificate that named his parents. The first name of his mother was a match.
Now I had the name of a brother and the father and still, I could not find any trace of this family. Unindexed probate records eventually yielded up a list of the mother’s surviving children. Name after name never turned up associated with those parents. Finally, a pattern emerged. Children with the right names and roughly the right ages appeared here and there in the same area of rural Pennsylvania in the 1850 census. None of them shared their surname with the head of the household. Is it the right pattern? I can’t say for sure without more work, but it seems like I may have found the scattered remnants of a family, with children spread out like shrapnel across the countryside. I also found a woman who might be their mother.
So I have a few sheets of the 1850 census. What they say is one thing, but what do they mean? If I’m right, the children’s mother must have been a widow for a very long time when she died. The scattered children probably mean something more. Just below the surface is the word “poverty.” It seems their mother couldn’t afford to keep them. Outside those documents, below the surface where they sit, is the fact that a woman in the mid 19th century who was left with neither a husband nor an inheritance was going to be poor in all likelihood. In this case, too poor to care for her children. She had to spread them out among people who could care for them. Perhaps some were people who needed an older child who could be a servant.
One of the children I’ve found was living with a woman in her seventies. There might have been some family relationship between them but there is certainly something behind a word found on that census page. After that woman’s name is a word that implies what that child was doing. She was almost certainly some sort of servant because after the head of household’s name is the word “insane.” That magic past language to current language dictionary that didn’t come with the document would, most likely, tell me that the word I should read was “senile.” Either way, it points downward to many things that lie below the surface.
When our documents just float upon the surface, we need to try to understand all that water on which they float. Sometimes it might be shallow, other times it might be surprisingly deep. It always give something to think about.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 23, 2012
Last week I wrote about “the two deaths.” This week it has occurred to me that I could try to turn that on its head. If the concept of two deaths can make sense, what about the idea of two births? The first birth, like the first death, would be physical. The second death is “memory death,” a person is not just physically dead but becomes forgotten. It is a kind of death that, by definition, leaves no record behind.
Memory Birth and Death
One kind of second birth might parallel “memory birth.” When a person does something that makes them memorable, they would experience “memory birth.” I’m not sure the concept works. Everyone alive exists in someone’s memory, it is more a matter of degree, of how many minds contain a person in their memory. There is no equivalent to the sharp transition from remembered, if just barely, to totally forgotten.
An Immigrant’s Second Birth
If “memory birth” doesn’t really work, what might be a second birth in a genealogical sense? By chance, I’ve been researching many recent immigrants over the last few weeks. Ships, with their bellies full, slowly made their way across the ocean and delivered their newborns at Castle Garden, Ellis Island, Grosse Ile or one of the other maternity wards that dotted North America’s coasts. The immigrants arrived in a strange place that they could not, at first, comprehend. The people around them made sounds that they could not understand in a cacophony of mysterious language. Here is a genealogical second birth.
We almost talk this way already. Immigrants don’t start life but they do start a “new life.” An immigrant might say that they feel like a “new person” after entering a new land and they almost certainly are. Immigrating changes you. I’ve done it, without the trauma that often lies behind but with the equivalent of the infamous green card interview. Even after returning to America, where I am not an immigrant, I am certainly different.
A person might decide to emigrate and experience a second birth because the condition of their first birth made a second birth seem to be an attractive opportunity. Lately, I’ve been looking at people whose ethnic group made life difficult where they were. Another person faced the stigma of illegitimacy. When your first birth hands you problems, a second birth becomes necessary.
So, you boarded a ship, crossed the ocean and emerged in a new land, hoping to find a new life. You arrived in a strange place without having been prepared for what you would find by a world bound together by telecommunications and mass entertainment. Maybe a few letters from relatives or friends’ relatives helped to prepare you but probably not much more than that and your own hopes.
Some stayed where they arrived. Others spread out across the continent and ended up in places like the Chicago of the 1890s. Could anything prepare a poor farmer for a city that had gone from virtually uninhabited swamp, to smoldering ruin to the fifth largest city in the world in a single lifetime? Probably not. It was a new life in a new world. It must have been like experiencing a second birth.
The family historian tries to save their ancestors from the second death. The second birth is something that was a mixture of their choice and their conditions. We can only discover it and explore the before and the after.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | September 16, 2012
The other day I ran across a new concept that I’ve thought about many times before. I suppose the right way to put it is that I heard it put in a new way. I also heard it in French and that always seems to make a thought sound profound. (Unless, of course, French is your native language, and then the sound is, I assume, mundane.)
“Le temps entre les deux morts”—the time between the two deaths. The first death is physical death. The second comes when we fade from all memory. It seems to me that a common theme of tragedy involves the second death arriving before the first. Even a second death that comes shortly after the first gives a sense of melancholy.
Our mission as family historians, should we chose to accept it, it to prevent that second death if it hasn’t yet occurred, or try to bring our ancestors back, Lazarus-like, if their second death has already come to pass.
We all have some knowledge of that second death. Perhaps your mother knew that her mother used to tell a story about her great-great-great-grandmother that had been passed down over the generations. Yet your mother didn’t remember the name attached to the story, or what the story was about or even how many generations back it took place. All that is left is the memory that there was a story.
It was bound to happen at some point. no story can live on forever. Eventually it fades or by accident disappears. That ancestor in the now forgotten story has now died the second death. At the time of her physical death, her name was placed upon a physical stone that was placed upon her grave. After a few centuries it may be buried, or broken or simply worn beyond reading. Now a stone without a name exists also in memory’s cemetery, that very unphysical graveyard that we carry within our recollection.
The physical stones are what they are but the mental markers we can fix. Our job is to get out the research tools, find the path that leads back to the unkempt and abandoned section, get out our mallets and chisels and carve the names back onto those stones.
I might even propose that there is another death in between the two in question. A person can be remembered but the connection forgotten. We all have names that float in our heads, we might even know something about them but we have no idea why and perhaps we don’t care. When those people are ancestors, they have died just a little bit more. The family historian tries to cure that form of death as well.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | September 9, 2012
Coincidence n 1 : … 2 : the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection.
One of the hardest things for the human mind to grasp is that coincidences happen. We are very, very good at seeing patterns. We are very good at seeing connections. We have a tendency to put meaning where it doesn’t belong. We even have words like coincidence to describe the experience. It is one of the most sprung traps in genealogy.
Sophie is a woman that I have been researching. Family lore says that she nationalized about 1940. From records I’ve found I can say that she was Russian and Jewish. She was born in 1876 and lived in Detroit. She didn’t enter the United States directly but briefly lived in Canada and arrived in the U.S. by train. Her last name was unusual. How many of those details need to match before it is clearly the same person?
She naturalized in Detroit (check) in 1936 (check). She was Jewish and came from Russia (check, check). She was born in January of 1876 (check). She had the correct, unusual surname (check). She arrived in the U.S. by train (check) from Canada (check) after briefly being a Canadian resident (check). Looks like of found her!
The amazing thing, the point of this post, is that one and only one naturalization in the Detroit records looked promising and it matches on detail after detail after detail. The chances that there were two such women is so close to zero that the case would appear to be not just closed but forcefully slammed shut. Yet, there were two. The Sophie I am seeking lived in Montreal. The Sophie who naturalized resided in Edmonton. The other family members listed in Sophie’s naturalization bear no resemblance to the family members that I have for my Sophie. Other records make it clear that they were two distinct people. Given the size of Detroit, these two data doppelgangers probably never even met.
In this fairly recent case there were sufficient records to prove a coincidence that would seem to be impossible. I often wonder how many such coincidences have been left for us to trip over but without the data necessary to prove that the clearly impossible, in fact, occurred. It is a sobering thought. It seems to me that there is no “just plain progress” in genealogy, only careful progress.
People like Sophie and Sophie are one reason that no stone should be left unturned. Those unturned stones are where the proof of coincidence might be hiding.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 2, 2012
Last week I was thinking about lists and logs. I also spent a little time thinking about where I store the information about my sources. I’ve even drawn flow charts to try to streamline what I do and think about my routines. This week I’ve been thinking about information about sources, and how that process fits into research.
The Citation Situation
Once genealogists realize they need to keep track of their sources, the next step is to figure out what needs to be recorded about those sources. At first, one tends to jot down whatever minimal information that is obvious enough, so a “citation” might look like, “John Doh, The Simpson Family Archives” or “FHL film 123456.” Not really sufficient but far better than nothing. When I do a beginning genealogy lecture, the rule of thumb I give is to imagine that you need to find the source again, years later and you don’t want it to take a lot of time, so write down now everything you would want to know then to help you locate the exact information you are using. Not a perfect rule but it does give some motivation for recording the information.
Then comes properly citing sources. There is a motivation for this as well. Any ad hoc process means that you need to think trough what it is that you actually should be recording. That isn’t so bad if you find one bit of information per month but if it is several things per day every day, it simply takes too much time to think it all through. I’m not a big fan of any peripheral thinking that pulls my mind away from any chance for an insight about the document. Beyond that, there is no guarantee that you will think it through correctly. So then one learns to consult a reference book that explains how to form the citation. That reduces the time thinking about how to form the citation but it still is not always quick. Figuring out what part of Evidence Explained to read, pulling out the proper format, and perhaps bending it to the unique situation, takes time and thought as well.
“This one is just right…”
Years ago, a colleague had designed some apparatus and asked me if I knew how to instruct people to use the right amount of glue when putting it together. I thought for a moment and he said, “It will be held together under pressure while the glue dries. The right amount to use is ‘too much.’ It’s really fast to use too much, it takes too much time to try to get it perfect and if they use too little, it will fall apart. If they use too much, the press will just squeeze out the excess.” Often the effort wasted on a little overkill is less than the effort needed to decide exactly when to stop.
With that thought in mind, I’m going to make an attempt. Too often I’ve found myself hunting for just the right example to follow in Evidence Explained when I really should be focusing on the task at hand. With some rules of thumb that err on the side of overkill, and a structure for what I record so that everything is clearly labelled written into a little software, I hope to stop thinking about whether or not I need a bit of information for a citation and and certainly not worry about comma placement. The time for those things is later. When discoveries are being made and the pieces are falling into place isn’t the time to ponder exactly what form a final citation would take. Recording the necessary information about a source and composing a proper citation aren’t the same thing and they need not occur at the same time.
Aiming to err just a bit on the side of overkill ought to be just right for capturing the information without distraction. The day I hear my son ask, “Daddy, why did you assign my math worksheet to record group 07A?” I’ll know its time to back off on the overkill.*
It seems to me that there is another thing to consider. If I go back to my rule of thumb for beginners and change it a bit, what would I want to know if I needed to find a source tomorrow? That isn’t necessarily the same information. If I found something in a database after a long struggle, the search that led to success is clearly not what first comes to mind. Perhaps a name was badly mangled and a date was off and even a few other things were haywire. I want to know what search I performed. Someday the index might be changed and the search will fail. Until then the successful search terms can be very useful. I might also be able to make use of the amazingly long and strange URL that is almost certain to be what points to the final result of my search. That URL isn’t guaranteed to work next month or even next week. Nevertheless, until the inevitable day when the site is reworked, that URL might just save some time. These things would never be used for a source citation. Years from now they will be of no use. Tomorrow, I might need them, so I keep my “search citations” with my sources as well.
* If he adds, “You know it should be record group 08B!” then I’ll know it is time for some damage control.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | August 26, 2012
Today I thought I would write about what is clearly the single most exciting topic in all of genealogy. What would that be? What have I written so much about?
That’s right, checklists and research logs! What, I ask, could possibly be more exciting than those?
Either I’ve gone hopelessly insane or I’m not being completely serious. You may keep your opinions on that to yourself.
A couple very crude definitions should come first. A research checklist is designed to point out resources and allow you to put a check mark in front of what you have tried and see what the things are that you have not tried. A research log lets you record what resources you have checked, what you found and what you checked without finding anything.
A checklist is, at least partially, a forward looking thing. It gives you ideas for what you might try next. As you use it, a checklist will also remind you of what you have already examined so that you don’t needlessly repeat yourself.
A research log records what you have done whether it was successful or not. If you keep track of where your information originated, your source citations will give you an idea of where you succeeded, but what about the searches that proved to be fruitless? It is important to record that you tried and a log is a good place for that. It tracks what you have tried whether it succeeded or failed and gives equal weight to each. It lacks the bias toward what worked that other ways of tracking often contain. That said, I don’t find either of them to be perfect.
Why not lists and logs?
I started the last two paragraphs in passive voice but of course, a checklist does not “give” you ideas. You need to actively use it. A log does not grab a pen and “record,” you do. They are something you need to use and manage consistently. If you only update them sporadically, you can’t trust them.
You need to remember them, add to them and read information back out of them. The more stuff you put into them the more useful they look but the less useful they might actually be if they become too bloated.
If they aren’t sufficiently manageable, they become a perfect wellspring of that bane of research, procrastination. If you think you’ll make entries “later,” that usually turns into “never” faster than great-aunt Millie could lie about her age.
A problematic consideration comes when you try to decide what level the logs should be kept. Person? Family? Surname? Place? Time Period? Some combination of those? The fewer and more general the logs, the easier it is to make an entry and the more impossible it becomes to find anything. “My Big Everything I’ve Ever Done” research log quickly becomes a morass that is, for all practical purposes, what computer scientists jokingly call “WOM,” “write-only memory,” you write the information into it but have neither the will nor a way to get it out. Slice and dice your logs too much and they become inconsistent and impossible to manage or use for an overview.
Checklists have their own problems. There are two types of checklist, or at least there should be and sometimes that goes unrealized. One type is the comprehensive variety. It is a list of things that in general might be checked for a certain type of person or problem. Then there is the specific checklist set up for a specific situation. Never substitute the first type for the second. Even if there are convenient check boxes next to the items, don’t check them. Tape it to your wall and use it to inspire you to write a checklist that is actually relevant. A checklist that is so comprehensive that you can’t find the right place to make an entry and can’t find the entry later either, is useless for work.
Another way to look at it is that a checklist so comprehensive that you’re constantly “reminded” to look for totally irrelevant things is distracting you as much as it is helping you. Think the “hits” in the 1920 census that you get when looking for someone who died in 1905 are annoying? Try a comprehensive checklist. Use a comprehensive checklist as an inspiration for creating, and later perhaps adding to, a checklist tailored to your situation and you will be much happier and have a much better overview of what is done and what remains to try.
Raw, or Perhaps Parboiled, Excitement
Disclaimer: I have a strong bias against paper. It is good for a lot of things but not managing large amounts of data. Watch a few science documentaries about some data intense field like genetics or astronomy and compare the number of times you see a computer in the background recording data and the number of times you see a room full of monks in the background copying gene sequences or star properties into parchment tomes. I think there will be a clear winner. If the data is something a computer can read, it can also be processed and found in ways that would be difficult or impractical for a human to do in their pajamas at midnight when that nagging thought pops up. I couldn’t do what I’m trying to do, if I used paper.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been rethinking the way I track my work, putting together in a better way some thoughts and ways of working that I’ve been using for years. Hence the above named excitement.
One difficulty I see in general, beyond my thoughts on lists and logs, is that a principle of data handling is typically being violated. That principle says to only record information once. That doesn’t mean don’t back up. The principle originated from two problems that are guaranteed to appear when data is officially entered in multiple formats, in multiple places-
- The first is that it will cost more time. The corollary to that is that if it feels like time is wasted and a corner could be cut, it is human nature to cut it. Soon you won’t know where to look for the information or if it even exists.
- The other thing that happens is that you record something in all the multiple places your system requires but then find a mistake. You fix the mistake “here” but forget to fix it “there” and of course, Murphy’s Law states that when you need the information later you will look at the uncorrected version. People often overlook that information isn’t static, it needs to be maintained and managed. The more times the same things are recorded the more time and effort that information costs.
- A third thing that sometimes goes wrong is that formats become inconsistent. In this case that means that one tidbit of information about a source will be in one place but not in the others. Even though sources are recorded in multiple places some information about the sources are required in this form but other pieces are required in that form and to get what you need you end up needing to look at the original, and your notes, and the log and in your database and…
I’ve started designing a set of combined checklists and logs. They are checklists in the sense that for each individual I can see what I have decided I should try to locate and what I have found. They are logs in the sense that I don’t just put a check mark in a box. If I found nothing, I put in a note about where I looked, when I looked and how I tried to find it. If I succeeded, I enter a link to the digitized source, nothing else. I can look at these lists and see what I need to see about what I intend to do, what I have tried and what I found if the search gave a positive result. Some programs I’ve written can process them and present them in different ways. The necessary record of the search is in one and only one place.
Technically, a log should be in chronological order. I’ve made the conscious decision not to record things in that order. Honestly, I can’t think of the last time that I needed to know exactly in what order I did absolutely everything in a project. On paper, chronological order is the natural thing to do. Whatever it is, it goes on the next line. Simple to make entries and compact. In a computer file that can be updated to include any information in any logical location, is chronological order really sensible? If I want to know if I had found a will with a list of children before I searched a set of baptismal records, I can reconstruct it from timestamps in my logs and sources and do it with the click of a button if I write a little software.
Each digitized source I embed in an archive file that also contains the source citation, formatted in a way that a computer can process it. It also contains any notes I have about the condition of the source, any transcription I needed to make. Whatever I need to record about the source is actually with the source not lurking in several papers here and computer files there. The source and everything about the source in one place.
How this will work and evolve only time will tell. I haven’t managed to stamp out all the duplicated work in really keeping track but it feels like steps in the right direction.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | August 19, 2012
One of the biggest problems in genealogical research is deciding how much is enough. We all deal with it. How much dedicated searching before you decided that a record simply doesn’t exist? How long do you spend on a difficult to read document? How many documents relating to the same fact are enough?
I know when his son headed west and I know that he followed a year later. There isn’t any mystery there. I also think I know where his son’s land was. In this case all I want to understand is what land the father owned and where his home stood.
I have an obituary for the man’s daughter. It implies but does not state that the father, mother and daughter settled on land adjacent to his son’s land. It also states that they lived with her brother while her father prepared to move to his own land. Eventually, he built the first stone house in the area for his family.
I have the census taken in 1870, just before the family headed west. Father’s occupation is given as “Stone Mason,” the only time he appears that way in the census. It is, in fact, the only confirmation that he had such skills.
In a large unorganized photograph collection, I’ve found family photographs that extend over many decades that contain the same stone house. The first photo I’ve dated to the mid to late 1870s. The last seems to show the home still standing but abandoned in the 1940s.
I have three maps showing property owners in the township. One is a reconstruction supposedly showing the original owner of each piece of land. That means there is no date when the map represents the actual land owners. The earliest original owners may have sold their land before the latest had acquired theirs. Nevertheless, it should give some idea of who owned what land in the 1870s. The father is shown owning land adjacent to the son, just like the obituary implied. Unfortunately, there are no citations that would tell the user about the source of the information about a specific owner or when the piece of land was acquired. There is another problem with the map. I’ve looked at the land patents for the area. They mostly date from military grants made in 1860. The patentees probably never lived on the land and they are not named on the map. The map seems more likely to represent original occupants than original owners. What were its sources?
I also have two plats. One from a 1900 atlas and one from a 1913 atlas. There is a funny thing about those plats separated in time by thirteen years. They are identical except for the quality of the printing. So I really only have one map with data from 1900 or earlier. I also think I have to be somewhat wary of the plat. At least one of the men on that plat lived hundreds of miles away in 1900. He might still have owned the land. I doubt that in this case but, in general, land ownership does not prove that the person actually lived on that land.
Even though the father had been dead for years in 1900, this map just might have something to say about his home. On part of the land shown as his on the original owners map, there is a small black square indicating a house.
I also have a deed. It isn’t a digital version of a microfilm copy from the county deed book. It is the original paper deed with a cross reference, made by the county clerk, to where he copied it into the county deed book. It does not get much more original than that. It should take care of any questions about his land. Or maybe not…
- The deed dates from June of 1874 but he settled in 1871.
- It is not the land that he is shown as owning on the original owners map. It isn’t even for land particularly close to his son’s land.
- Then there are the tax receipts…
The rest of the twenty-two documents in the post title are original receipts for property tax payments. They tell yet another story.
The first receipt is for the same land as the deed not the land near his son. That is interesting but what is more interesting is that it is from April 1874, so it predates the deed. Even more interesting is that it covers the full tax bill for 1873, a full year and a half before the deed connects him to that land. Was he helping someone out and then getting the land cheap afterward? Apparently not, because the land was valued at less than he paid for it a few months later.
Another interesting thing about these receipts is that they give the full rectangular survey specification (the aliquot parts). That should make them very useful and as a group they are. Nevertheless, the specifications are occasionally wrong. Everything matches from one year to the next except that township 4 will become township 6 one year. Section 27 becomes section 22 another year. If I looked at just one, there is about a ten percent chance of getting the wrong piece of land and about a five percent chance of not even being within many miles of the correct place. I noticed as well that at the top of many receipts there is an admonition to check that the land description is correct. Oh well.
The receipts show that the father eventually did pay taxes on the land adjacent to his son’s but not until 1879 when he got two receipts, one for the land that he had been paying taxes on for years and one for this other land. The following year he got a single receipt that listed both properties, though it specifies that he only paid taxes on thirty of the eighty acres that made up the land from the 1874 deed. From 1881 onward, he only paid taxes on the land near his son.
So, How Much is Enough?
I still wonder, how many records does it take? There is of course no answer. Twenty-two records and still the simple questions about a man’s land and his home are not answered. Some records are wrong. If I had been unfortunate enough to have only those ten percent of the receipts with an error in one or another of the aliquot parts, I would be very confused. If I had only one erroneous receipt, I would be looking at the wrong place entirely. Some records add unexplained nuances and result in more questions than they answer.
In this case even twenty-two records don’t tell the full tale.Twitter It!
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