Rule 1: Every document has an owner
Rule 2: Every document needs to associated with its owner
Rule 3: Every document may have multiple owners
What I mean by ownership of a document is that the documents (every piece of paper, book, certificate, etc.) have references to one or more individuals. Some of these individuals will be relatives, others may be government officials or other unrelated people. As a side note, it is unwise to assume that people mentioned in any document are unrelated. Even the government agents who compile the records, especially in small towns, may be unknown relatives.
Associating the documents with their owner (or owners) means that you make a connection between individual relatives in your database with each document where they are mentioned. Many programs now facilitate this process by allowing you to add a document containing multiple names to each individual mentioned. This may seem like a tedious process, but it is essential to establishing familial relationships.
How do you associate documents with their owners?
Well, it really should be the other way around. You should be adding people to your ancestral family from documentary sources. I certainly realize that most people start their family tree by filling in those relatives they already know from memory. Unfortunately, many fail to document these close relatives because the "know" who they are. For example. when starting a family tree in a database program, the beginner will put in his or her parents and perhaps grandparents without reference to any documents. What we all need to understand about this process is that genealogists all did this back into the past and so today we have entire family histories with no sources cited. It is time to break this long-standing problem of unsubstantiated genealogies and begin the process of building our pedigrees from cited sources rather than from what we already know about our family.
I have, at least, eleven surname books about my family and my wife's family and none of them have anything more than the sketchiest references to sources. Almost every relationship set out in these, sometimes very lengthy, books must be verified from research into documents. It is not unusual to find information that is simply wrong. I am also aware of many other books about my family that also lack source citations.
Let's look at a birth certificate as a starting example:
This particular document is my father's birth certificate. It is publicly and freely available online from the Arizona Department of Health Services, Arizona Genealogy Birth and Death Certificates. Who "owns" this document, or in other words, who is mentioned in this document? Here is the list of the people:
- Wallace Ove Tanner
- Roy Tanner (LeRoy Parkinson Tanner)
- Eva Overson (Eva Margaret Overson Tanner)
- T. J. Bouldier (Physician)
- Martin J. Eusrir (spelling may be different) Local Registrar
- T. J. Bouldier as County Registrar
My father and my grandparents are the only relatives I am aware of.
So, theoretically, I should be able to create an entry for my father in my genealogy program (database) and for his parents, my grandparents. If I already have these individuals in my program, then I merely have to take this digital copy and attach it to each of these three people with a citation as to where the copy was obtained.
This is the core activity and the first step of organizing genealogy files. Now let's look at the entries for my father in the FamilySearch.org Family Tree under sources:
Here is the citation and the link to the birth record. Here is the expanded view of the citation and link:
This reference shows exactly where the record was obtained and who and when it was attached to this person. If a later user wants to see the record, then the link will give him or her the opportunity to do so. The record of the birth certificate should also be attached to his parents' entries in the FamilySearch.org Family Tree.
Now, you could attach this digital copy to your own genealogical database program entry for all three people. Technically, I should not have added my parents or grandparents to my program until I obtained documentary support. This process is sometimes referred to as "source-centric" genealogy.
Let's suppose I have a paper copy or even the original of the birth certificate. What do I do with the paper? If what you have is a photocopy of an original, the issue is whether or not you personally wish to keep the paper copy. You can or not maintain separate paper copies. But this brings us to the next rule:
Rule 4: Keep and maintain as much as possible, all original documents
Original documents, not photocopies, are historical artifacts. They should be maintained as such as far as is humanly possible. They are valuable per se. In many cases, perhaps most cases, they are irreplaceable. but what if your "original" is itself a copy? Don't assume that the agency or entity that created the document will always have a copy. Buildings burn down. Circumstances may change. It is not a bad practice to keep paper copies. But how do you show the "ownership" of the documents, copies or originals?
That is the subject I will start with in my next installment.
If you would like to read the first installment of this series, see the following: