Creation of Records
Because family history depends on finding records about individuals and families, you should understand the nature of the records that you will be searching. In fact, one requirement of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that “the data’s background context [be] considered.” This means, among other things, understanding why and under what circumstances the records were created.
This understanding should come before you use data found in the records for genealogical purposes. One professional genealogist comments, “I stress the importance of researching the record type before you use the record for research. Having a clear understanding of how, why, and when a record was created goes a long way in knowing if you are looking at primary, secondary, or later copy of any given record.” Another professional genealogist explains, “It is critical that genealogists appraise the merit of each document studied.” The preeminent book for genealogical source citations rather bluntly states, “We cannot expect to pull a census and scan names or run statistics without thoroughly understanding the circumstances under which that record was created....Every source type has its peculiarities that affect both the meaning and the weight of the evidence we draw from those sources.”
Once you understand a document’s background, you are able to more fully utilize the information found in the record. A professional genealogist explained, “If we don’t understand the records, we won’t get all the information from them that we need to answer our research goal.” Another professional genealogist notes, “Since the researcher seeks records with the purpose of learning specific information about a person, group, or family, records are best understood and used according to their content. … It is by understanding the creation, purpose, and use of genealogical records … that excellent genealogists can then effectively use, interpret, and evaluate the information in those records.”
When preparing to gather data from a document, keep in mind these three important pieces of a record’s history:
Events Listed in a Record
Most records were created to register events such as birth, death, or military service. Noteworthy happenings in a person’s physical, social, religious, family, civil, or private life were recorded by various jurisdictions. However, remember that not all information in a source is of equal value. Primary and secondary information can both be contained in one document (e.g., a birth date listed in a death record), so “it is invaluable to know if the information in a document is from primary, secondary, or tertiary sources.”
The Locality Pertaining to the Record
Usually records are connected to a specific locality: a town, county, state, province, region, or nation. In order to find a person in a record, you must know the specific place (usually the town or county) where the person lived when the record was created. Remember that sometimes the place may have changed since the person lived there—it may have a new name or belong to a new county, province, or state. Gazetteers (geographic dictionaries) can help you determine this information. Also, see the discussion of Jurisdictions.
A Record’s Purpose
Authorities create records to serve their organization. The records may describe an event or the size and nature of the population. You can better use information from a record if you understand why a record was made and kept. For example, to use a tax list, you need to know if the government was taxing real or personal property, or every head of household or adult males. Each tax list may include different people and property.
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), 8, 10.
- Marcia Yannizze Melnyk, The Genealogist’s Question and Answer Book: Solutions and Advice for Maximizing Your Research Results (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2002), 163.
- Natalie D. Cottrill, “What Every Genealogist Should Know About Original and Derivative Records and Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources of Information,” in ProGenealogists.com at https://web.archive.org/web/20140705130339/http://www.progenealogists.com/sourcetypes.htm (accessed 5 December 2013).
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 21.
- Tom Jones, “Inferential Genealogy,” in FamilySearch.org at http://broadcast.lds.org/elearning/FHD/Community/en/CBIG/Inferential_Genealogy_Course_Handout.pdf (accessed 5 December 2013).
- Kory L. Meyerink, “Elements of Genealogy,” Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills (ICAPGen, 2012), 27, 30.
- Cottrill, “What Every Genealogist Should Know,” at https://web.archive.org/web/20140705130339/http://www.progenealogists.com/sourcetypes.htm (accessed 5 December 2013).