Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Original is not a category in genealogical evidence

In my last post I began a discussion on the concept of original documents. In this day of digitized photos and documents, there is a real issue as to what is or is not an "original." There is also an issue as to whether the idea of an "original" has any meaning in the context of genealogical research.

There are two divergent areas of concern when the issue of an original document arises, first is the issue of provenance, that is, attribution to a specific source. Over the years there has been a lot of controversy over forged or fraudulent documents. Obviously, this problem is somewhat limited to document attributed to famous individuals. No one would spend the time to forge a letter from an unknown farmer or factory worker unless there was some way to obtain some prestige or monetary reward for the effort. But a forgery of a document by Abraham Lincoln or some other famous person would immediately arouse a lot of interest, especially if the forgery were good enough to fool the experts.

Genealogy is not immune to forgery, albeit on a very much limited scale. It is not unheard of for individuals to falsify documents to obtain membership in heritage organizations such as descendants of certain immigrants or participants in a certain war. However, recourse to the original source records, if available, usually uncovers such frauds.

Apart from the issue of fraudulent documents, the other major concern about originality is an effort to make sure that the information obtained is as accurate as possible. Although it may not always be the case, there is an underlying assumption in historical research of all kinds, including genealogy, that the nearer the document is in place and time to the event the more reliable the document becomes. Hence, the search for original documents, or those produced during the event.

But it is always important to maintain the distinction between the "document" as an artifact and the document as a container of information. In the day to day world of genealogy, a copy of a birth certificate is as valuable as the "original" as long as the copy is of sufficient quality to reproduce all of the information contained in the "original." In fact, a digital copy of the original may be more accessible than the original document merely because the computer allows the user to enlarge the text, add contrast, take out defects and otherwise improve the quality of the "original."

In this context, the idea of obtaining original sources somewhat different. Many genealogists (and just people in general) take great care in preserving their "original" birth certificate, for example. However, it is usually relatively easy to obtain a new "original" birth certificate anytime you want to pay the money to obtain one.

The fact that I have the original birth certificate does not make the information contained on the document any more reliable than it were a photo copy or a digitized representation of the document. A good researcher will not put any more credence in the "original" of a document than the document merits. Just because you have the original document does not lend any more credence to the information contained on the document than a copy. In court, for example, just because you produce the original deed or contract, you do not automatically resolve any factual issues that may exist about the formation of the contract or the accuracy of the deed.

Evidence has to do with the reliability of the information contained in the document and the reliability may or may not be enhanced by looking at the originally created document. Originals may have wrong information.

I will continue this analysis in future posts.

1 comment:

  1. You raise good points about how we look at a document. Certainly original documents can have errors. My middle name is misspelled on my original birth certificate -- and on all copies thereof! That "original" record has another "original" record appended to it, since the mid 1960s, when my mother filed an affidavit to correct the misspelling. So which is the "correct original?"

    Both the document itself and the information it contains must be evaluated. That is why I support the view expressed by Elizabeth Shown Mills, that we distinguish between the documents as original or derivative (that is, derived from another source, whether that source is itself original or derivative) and the information contained in those documents as primary or secondary. That way, we evaluate the evidentiary validity of both the document AND the information, each as a separate entity.