Are my sources original? Who cares?

Many genealogists conduct all of their research using digitized and microfilmed records.

So what?

Ancestry, Footnote, GenealogyBank, the Internet Archive, USGenWeb, and other genealogy websites provide access to indexes, abstracts, transcriptions, and digital images of a large number of records. And their offerings are literally growing every day. The Family History Library holds microfilm of deed books, church records, will books, vital records, county histories, landowner maps, tax lists, and all of the other important record groups from around the world. These can be ordered through our local Family History Centers and provide access to the local records we need.

Here is the problem: these are not all of the records that you will need to use.

I use digitized records. See my recent “online case study” in which I attempt to research the family history of a freed slave in Texas using exclusively records held online. I have subscriptions to Ancestry, Footnote, and GenealogyBank, and have even compiled and published an e-book containing over 2,000 records available online on non-genealogy websites.

I also use microfilmed records. Sometimes from the Family History Library, and sometimes at other repositories such as state archives.

But I also use many original records directly at the repositories that hold them. By original records, here I mean those records available exclusively on paper. Records that have never been digitized and never been microfilmed. Often these records have not even been indexed, and the only way to research within the records is to conduct a page-by-page search.

In many cases, my success at locating the necessary records to prove a link or move beyond a brick wall was founded entirely on my use of these original, undigitized, unmicrofilmed records.

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a five-part checklist that allows one to verify, to a certain extent, the validity of one’s genealogical conclusions. The first requirement is that we conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for all records relevant to our research problem.

This does not read “all digitized records” or “all microfilmed records”; it reads “all relevant records,” and should without a doubt be taken to include those records that are not digitized or microfilmed. Take the following cases as examples:

1. Goal: identify the former owner of a freedwoman born enslaved in Maryland. How original records helped: In 1852, some Maryland counties recorded the names and ages of slaves owned, on the tax assessment records. These slave assessment rolls have never been digitized, microfilmed, or indexed. A page-by-page search through hundreds of pages, encompassing four separate election districts, finally revealed a household assessed for slaves with the names of the mother and child of the appropriate ages. Why digitized or microfilmed records would not have worked: The only other source that would have provided the names and ages of slaves during this time period would have been the estate inventory of the slave owner. In this particular case, the slave owner identified died in 1848, but the child was not identified by name in his inventory. These slaves did not bear the surname of the slave owner, and without having even a small “cluster” of people to look for, it would not have been possible to identify the family.

2. Goal: Identify the family of a man born ca. 1800 with a surname common to the area. How original records helped: The county in which this man lived his entire life had a courthouse fire that destroyed all of the probate records prior to 1852. A microfilmed land record was found in which the father sold land to the son, but this deed did not identify them as father and son. However, a case file in the state’s Chancery Court recorded the distribution of land owned by an unmarried brother among his siblings, as fellow “heirs at law” of their father (from whom the brother had inherited the land). This case file, while indexed, has not been digitized, microfilmed, or abstracted. It provided further support by proving that the land was originally owned by the father and distributed among his children. Why digitized or microfilmed records would not have worked: As noted, a single deed in which the father sold land to his son (the subject of research) was located, but no family relationships were noted within the deed. There were also no other tell-tale signs that this was a family deed, such as a low consideration amount, etc. The surname is relatively common within this specific county, so the deed alone does not prove a filial relationship. No other records containing specific relationship information about this family appears in the surviving county records. Only the undigitized, unmicrofilmed court case file provides the list of all surviving heirs at law that was vital to truly proving the relationships.

There are many other cases that can be used as examples, but these are two of the most recent cases that I have worked on. In both cases, there is simply no way that the digitized and microfilmed records would have provided the evidence needed to form a valid and reliable conclusion. Only the original, paper records, held by the State Archives, provided this evidence.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! The original records located in the musty basement of a county clerk’s office, or filed away in church files, give us the information that does not make it to an online source or even microfilm. My elusive Lyons great-great-grandmother was found in a baptismal record that gave the maiden name of the mother!

    Reply

  2. [...] by someone who was not a witness or participant is considered secondary. Experienced genealogists, who always strive to review the original record rather than a derivative source, understand that any single record can contain information of [...]

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  3. [...] Second, we would find our ancestors in published indexes, etc. The most important aspect of this is to understand what records exactly have been indexed, and obtaining the original source record for the reference. The reason this is important should be self-evident. [...]

    Reply

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