Let’s say you discovered your ancestor resided in a certain time and place. You studied the local history to understand the political boundaries and laws. You searched the local records and found a record that may or may not be relevant to him. Curious to discover the contents of the record, you probably conducted a cursory reading.
Then what did you do?
- Did you note the subject’s name, date, and place and then moved on to the next source, or
- Did you not find the subject’s name, so you quickly moved on to the next source, or
- Did you spent some time examining the source under a magnifying glass?
Sources are similar to untapped oil fields. On the surface, they may appear to be desert wastelands, but underneath that dusty topsoil may be rich oil fields of information. You begin to discover the oil by analyzing the source AND the information in light of your research question.
We’ll spend several weeks this month to help you with this process.
This week’s challenge: Take your previous research finds one by one and analyze each source and the information within it.
You might complain that you already did that when you got the document, but I really want you to do it again because you may already have the answer to your brick wall problem in your previous research, you just didn’t notice that it was there. Okay?
The best description I’ve seen of the difference between a source and information is found in Elizabeth Shown Mills’ “Quick Lesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map.”
1. Analyze the source. Here’s some questions to consider:
How did the document come to be where you found it? Was it passed down through the family from your great aunt Sally to you? Why did Sally have it? Who did she get it from?
Based on where the document is housed, was it stored in an archive that protected it from misuse or tampering?
Why was the document created?
Is it the original record or a derivative?
Is the handwriting consistent as performed by one author, or does the handwriting or ink change over time, suggesting multiple authors?
Is it part of a compilation in a book such as a deed book or will book?
In what condition is it? Are pages torn with words missing or is the handwriting and ink legible?
Who would have written it? The county clerk or the author of the source?
Might here be extra copies of the document housed elsewhere?
Can you get closer to the original?
2. Analyze the information:
Can you determine the date the record was created? Was it at the time of the event or several years later when memories might have been fuzzy?
Can you determine the date it was recorded?
Are there places mentioned?
Can you determine the author of the document?
Could the author have had a motive to change the document?
Is the information based on an eyewitness or did someone tell someone else of the event.
What names are mentioned such as neighbors and witnesses. What relation are witnesses to the target individual? Are they family members, close associates, or a county official?
Does anyone have a titles or post-nominal, such as “Dr.,” “Esquire,” “Yeoman,” etc.
Are any relationships stated such as wife, son, neighbor?
Is the informant named or can you decipher who it was? What could have been his or her state of mind at the time the document was created? For instance, if the informant on a death record is family member, or she may have been distraught about the death of the loved one and not remembered details clearly.
Could the informant have had motive to lie or stretch the truth?
What is not being said? Read between the lines.
You may have other questions for the record. What’s important is that you question what you see, both the source and the information within it!
In the coming weeks, we’ll discuss how to dig deeper into photos, census, probate, and land records.
What other questions would you add to this list?