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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is a genealogically significant document?

By focusing on a narrow topic, such as the lineage of a single family, genealogists tend to be rather parochial in their consideration of where and how to find information. In fact, in my experience, genealogist are not only parochial, but also provincial in doing their genealogical research. I have written in the past about the extreme manifestations of both of these attitudes but since this subject comes up frequently, I seem to always return to say more.

The two most common manifestations of these attitudes are the tendency of genealogical research to focus on an extremely narrow and confined definition of "genealogically significant documents" and their tendency to avoid any records or documents that take effort either to decipher or to find. For example, I find very few researchers who use books or microfilm. Because of the vast number of records that have been digitized and are available in some form online, they seem to feel that unless a document is readily available on one of the huge, online, genealogy database websites, then it is too much trouble to go any further. They then complain about their genealogical "brick wall."

OK, there are exceptions. I know a few really talented and dedicated researchers who have traveled all over the United States and the world looking in libraries and record repositories for records about their families. But even in the relatively very small community of persistently active researchers, there are only a few that make any effort to break out of the confines of the online digital records.

Part of the reason for this insular view of genealogy comes from an inability to visualize their ancestral families in their historical context. Genealogical research becomes a simple task of adding a name, a date and sometimes a place. We are rewarded for the number of slots we can fill up on our pedigree. Now, I have to point out that I live in many different genealogical sub-communities and depending on your own background and experience, you will either consider me to beneath your notice because I do not have the "credentials" of a "real" genealogist or at the other end of spectrum, I become an elitist who refuses to see the perspective of "common genealogist" and their concerns and limitations.

But reality is that this dichotomy actually does exist within the genealogical community and it is primarily caused by a lack of awareness of the breadth of the historical context and the realization that there are no insignificant historical facts. I can quickly determine the level of historical interest and knowledge of a researcher by posing the following questions:

  • Have you searched the tax records?
  • Have you search livestock brand records?
  • Have you considered mortuary records?
  • What was the religious affiliation of your ancestors?
The list could go on and on. The last question I listed, about religious affiliation, is one that indicates best the attitude of the researcher. I am not talking about people who are just beginning to do genealogical research. I am talking about people who are not open to suggestions that they will have more success if they take the time and make the effort to search beyond the obvious census and civil registration records. Of course, I am also pretty much aware that these same people will probably never read a genealogy blog. 

So what is the definition of a genealogically significant document? My answer is that a genealogically significant document can be any document that was created during the lifetime of the ancestor and has any possible connection to the place where the ancestor lived without consideration as to the category of document. Until you understand the social, political and cultural context of your ancestors' lives, you will not be able to identify genealogically significant documents. 

1 comment:

  1. Maybe I'm just easily entertained, but I have to say I really get a kick out of it when the last little fact when researching one of my wife's relations that finally connects a person in a christening record to who I think is the same person in a marriage record, is that person's smallpox vaccination record.