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

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The purpose of sourcing genealogy facts and events

We have had a lot of talk lately in the genealogy community about sourcing facts and events. I guess the fundamental question is why? Let's suppose you are entering your parents and grandparents into paper forms for that purpose for the first time. Does anyone really doubt your personal knowledge of your parents' names and their birth dates that you have celebrated all your life? Why on earth would you need to look at their birth or death certificates? And what possible reason do you have for spending the time to research the dates? If you extend these issue back, you can see that for many beginning genealogists, writing down that you looked at some kind of record, makes no sense.

But what if the information you have about these close relatives is either incomplete or contradictory? What then? Do you simply ignore the fact that you always celebrated your mother's birthday on a day different than the one she was born on? For example, in our U.S. culture, some children born on Christmas celebrate their birthday on another day so they can have presents and a party different than the celebration on Christmas itself. Is it important to document this tradition so that the "real" birthdate is not lost? This may seem like an oversimplified example, but the motivations to change dates for things like births are common. Two more examples, you grandmother got married when she was 24 but she always told everyone she was 19 (of course, this never happens) or your grandfather lied about his age so he could enter the military at age 16. But, you say, who cares? What difference does all this make in the long run?

The fundamental issue here is one of moving from orally transmitted folklore to documented history. This is an issue because many people, including genealogists, do not see a need for documentation. When I use the term "document," I mean anything that preserves past history. A document can be written, a painting, a map, a monument, a photograph, a computer file, a video or anything else where historical information is preserved.

I recently attended a meeting at which some representatives of FamilySearch spoke on the importance of stories as a way to involve people in genealogy (family history). One of the presenters talked about how a letter from an ancestor had influenced his interest in his family. Probably few in attendance realized the importance of one introductory statement he made; the letter was found by a researcher in the The Church History Library. In short, the stories and photos we all treasure as part of our family heritage are either discovered or preserved by people who value documentation.

I frequently hear stories about family history artifacts such as letters, photos, journals, and other items being discarded and thrown away. I have my own stories of valuable historical documents and photographs being rescued from destruction at the last possible moment.

When you begin the process of extending your family lines back beyond those people you knew personally, you are immediately immersed in the world of documentation. When we talk about "genealogists" we simply mean those people willing to search through existing records to find information about their families. To denigrate genealogy is to denigrate the whole process of historical preservation. There is a one-to-one relationship between the documentary information preserved about a family and the ability to find out information about that family.

Now we come to the issue of the process of recording and preserving our family stories and photos. Many families have their own store of documents. These are the very records that I have referred to as at risk of loss. These are also the same documents that the beginning researcher will consult to initiate the process of recording family history. Now comes the hard part; realizing that part of this process of preserving and passing along our history involves doing that accurately and consistently. Part of that accuracy is recording the source of each fact or event discovered in this process. As was written by George Santayana (Santayana, George. The Life of Reason; Or, The Phases of Human Progress. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1905.) "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Those genealogists who do not record where they obtained information about their family are doomed to repeat looking the next time they, or their descendants, need to verify the same information. Finding and preserving historical information goes hand-in-hand with the concept of making a record of those sources you use to compile that same information.

No comments:

Post a Comment