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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Six: When is Source not a Source?

It may be true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but does this apply to our use of terms in genealogy? We use a variety of terms when referring to genealogical research: facts, information, evidence, names, sources, records, collections, individuals, documents, books etc. Unfortunately, there are no commonly accepted definitions for any of these terms in the greater genealogical community. We are left to the definitions as they are represented by other genealogists, historians, the various websites, libraries and repositories. For this reason, I am not at all sure we can communicate well when we start talking about doing basic research.

I would suggest that we need to focus on a term that refers to the basic unit of research such as the generic term "document." I would further assume that we can use the term "record" somewhat interchangeably. Of course both documents and records can take a variety of forms: oral histories, books, certificates, lists, transcripts, indexes, etc. They can also be presented in a variety of media formats, audio, video, text, books, microfilm, microfiche etc.

Arguments over the meaning of a word can end up in huge, expensive lawsuits. In my own legal practice, one argument over the meaning of phrase in a document lasted for more than fifteen years and resulted in the filing of over thirty separate lawsuits.

This is a good time to employ a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose we examine the 1900 United States Federal Census (or any other year). Is the entire U.S. Census a "document?" Do we consider each page of the U.S. Census to be a "document?" Is each entry on each page of the U.S. Census a "record?" Does this necessarily mean that the terms "document" and "record" are not interchangeable? Is each section of the U.S. Census gathered by each enumerator a separate "document?" If I poke around a little in all the books and articles about citation, I find that the "experts" recommend making a reference to the entire Census, the township, the ward, the sheet, the county, the Enumeration District, the family number, the state, the series, the line, the date, the roll and the image number. So is each of the entries so indicated a "record?" Is each entry a "document?"

Am I nit picking? (Do you know what a "nit" is? Am I really nit picking? How would you know?)

Because words are slippery, we need to be as clear and exact as possible. Requiring a complete citation is not "nit picking," it is merely a way to avoid the controversy of being imprecise. When we find a new piece of information about our ancestors, we need to record, not just the information, but the exact location where the information was found. By doing this, we turn a document or a record into a source.

To avoid further discussion, here is how I am going to use the following terms:
I will use the terms "record" (singular and plural) and "document" (again both singular and plural) to refer to a generic piece of written, audio, photographic (or whatever, carved in stone for that matter) information. So, a tombstone inscription is a document or a record. Likewise, a transcription or recording of an oral history is a document or a record. Any questions about that? There may be some residual issues about the difference between the information contained in the document or record and the physical item itself, but in this day of electronic documents and records, I assume that any ideological issues about whether a set of electronic impulses is a "document" are no longer an issue.

I am also defining a "source" as the document or record where we obtain information about our family (or really anything else, but we are talking about genealogy, aren't we?) when that document or source is made part of a citation which is included with the information. To summarize, a document or record contains information. When I find that document or record and extract the information, the document or record becomes a source only when the precise location (citation) of the information is recorded along with the information.

Hmm. That seems a little inelegant, but I think it is useful anyway. Why is it necessary to record the origin of the information before the record becomes a source? The answer to that question is the basis for this discussion about research. I assume that once you have done your "research" you wish to record and publish your findings, express your opinion, "prove your case" or whatever. In order for your conclusions to have any validity, they must be reproducible. I you say that your ancestor was born on a certain day, I should be able to go to the same record or document you used to derive that conclusion and come to the same conclusion. If you fail to make a record of the precise location where you found the information, then your conclusion is nothing more than an unsupported opinion.

When is a source not a source? The answer should be that a source is only a source when it is recorded in a way that subsequent researchers can reproduce the process of finding and verifying the record or document's existence.

What if I ask my Great Aunt Gertrude about her parents? What if she then dies? Is that information a source if I attribute the information to her? Is this true even if subsequent researchers cannot reproduce the information because she is now deceased? That raises the topic of another chapter.

Is the reproducibility of the research essential to its validity? Can you argue that even if I didn't happen to write down where I got the information, it is still a source and my information may be valid? Yes, I suppose you can argue that all you want, but the lack of an attributed source means I have to do all of your research over again and come to my own conclusions.

Until next time.

Previous installments of this series include:

1 comment:

  1. I am still working on my source citations and making progress but have a long way to go. I do find sources other's list very helpful though. Often I will find an online tree with a family line that I wonder if it may be connected to mine. In checking their sources I may find notation of my line or I may determine they are not related. More often than not though, online trees are using links as sources and the links are no longer valid links. So therefore no longer a source if they ever were.