Archive for March, 2011

I’ve been thinking even more than usual lately about the imperfect nature both of records being maintained throughout time to the present moment in which the researcher is viewing them, and about the imperfect nature of the transition of an original record to the point where the researcher is viewing it, presuming they are unable to hold the original in their hands themselves.

Late last year I obtained the probate packet of the man who turned out to be my great-great-great-grandfather, which I did by contacting the courthouse. Receiving it was a wonderful breakthrough in a 7-year mystery – finally viewing a document that stated explicitly that he was the father of my great-great-grandmother – but I noticed right away that there was a major piece missing in the file: His will! So I wrote back to the courthouse and politely said that I noticed there was no will in the photocopy, and was there one in the original file? They sent it back in my SASE. I had already read a copy of the will, so I knew its basic contents, but I wanted to see their copy of it.

This event came to mind again today when I was reviewing a typed copy of a probate packet that I received in today’s mail. It is recent enough that it is possible that it really was originally typed, but in viewing it I noted that the first list of heirs only has 6 of the 7 surviving children listed, whereas the second list – on the same page, and referencing the first list – has all 7 listed. The first list has their current addresses as of the time of the probate, whereas the second one only lists their names. As it seems so often happens in genealogy research, of course the person that I have had the most trouble tracking is the one whose address isn’t listed in the first list. So, I am planning to write them back and ask them if what they sent me was a digitized version of the original record and if so, if the original still exists for them to check against the copy.

So often, we genealogists have to take someone else’s word for it that the record is correctly rendered. While it might be easy to say that photocopies are a particularly error-prone method, any time we are viewing anything but the original document, we’re counting on someone else to have done their job well and to have done it close enough in time to the original event that that the original document still survived in its original form. And with many societies and other repositories now requiring that some or all original documents in their holdings that also exist in other forms (e.g., microtext) be viewed in that other form instead of in the original – we are being asked more and more often to rely on what someone else has done when doing our own work.

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