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Analyzing a Historical Document

What Does the Record Really Tell Us?

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It can be easy when examining a historical document that relates to an ancestor to look for the one "right answer" to our question - to rush to judgement based on the facts presented in the document or text, or the conclusions we make from it. It is easy to look at the document through eyes clouded by personal bias and perceptions engendered by the time, place and circumstances in which we live. What we need to consider, however, is the bias present in the document itself. The reasons for which the record was created. The perceptions of the document's creator. When weighing the information contained in an individual document we must consider the extent to which the information reflects reality. Part of this analysis is weighing and correlating evidence obtained from multiple sources. Another important part is evaluating the provenance, purpose, motivation and constraints of the documents which contain that information within a particular historical context.

Questions to consider for every record we touch:

1. What type of document is it?
Is it a census record, will, land deed, memoir, personal letter, etc.? How might the record type affect the content and believability of the document?

2. What are the physical characteristics of the document?
Is it handwritten? Typed? A pre-printed form? Is it an original document or a court-recorded copy? Is there an official seal? Handwritten notations? Is the document in the original language in which it was produced? Is there anything unique about the document that stands out? Are the characteristics of the document consistent with its time and place?

3. Who was the author or creator of the document?
Consider the author, creator and/or informant of the document and its contents. Was the document created first-hand by the author? If the document's creator was a court clerk, parish priest, family doctor, newspaper columnist, or other third party, who was the informant?

What was the author's motive or purpose for creating the document? What was the author or informant's knowledge of and proximity to the event(s) being recorded? Was he educated? Was the record created or signed under oath or attested to in court? Did the author/informant have reasons to be truthful or untruthful? Was the recorder a neutral party, or did the author have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded? What perception might this author have brought to the document and description of events? No source is entirely immune to the influence of its creator's predilections, and knowledge of the author/creator helps in determining the document's reliability.

4. For what purpose was the record created?
Many sources were created to serve a purpose or for a particular audience. If a governmental record, what law or laws required the document's creation? If a more personal document such as a letter, memoir, will, or family history, for what audience was it written and why? Was the document meant to be public or private? Was the document open to public challenge? Documents created for legal or business reasons, particularly those open to public scrutiny such as those presented in court, are more likely to be accurate.

5. When was the record created?
When was this document produced? Is it contemporary to the events it describes? If it is a letter is it dated? If a bible page, do the events predate the bible's publication? If a photograph, does the name, date or other information written on the back appear contemporaneous to the photo? If undated, clues such as phrasing, form of address, and handwriting can help to identify the general era. First-hand accounts created at the time of the event are generally more reliable than those created months or years after the event occurred.

6. How has the document or record series been maintained?
Where did you obtain/view the record? Has the document been carefully maintained and preserved by a government agency or archival repository? If a family item, how has it been passed down to the present day? If a manuscript collection or other item residing in a library or historical society, who was the donor? Is it an original or derivative copy? Could the document have been tampered with?

7. Were there other individuals involved?
If the document is a recorded copy, was the recorder an impartial party? An elected offical? A salaried court clerk? A parish priest? What qualified the individuals who witnessed the document? Who posted the bond for a marriage? Who served as godparents for a baptism? Our understanding of the parties involved in an event, and the laws and customs which may have governed their participation, aids in our interpretation of the evidence contained within a document.

In-depth analysis and interpretation of a historical document is an important step in the genealogical research process, allowing us to distinguish between fact, opinion, and assumption, and explore reliability and potential bias when weighing the evidence it contains. Knowledge of the historical context, customs and laws influencing the document can even add to the evidence we glean. The next time you hold a genealogical record, ask yourself if you have really explored everything the document has to say.

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