Thursday, January 29, 2015

Couldn't you say that more directly?

OK, so this is probably old information and I'm the last girl on the block to "get it" but I have to make a confession: I've not been very good at those designations for evidence such as primary and secondary, direct and indirect, original or derivative. Just not thought about them much. But while taking the DAR Genealogy Education Program (GEP) course online, I finally understood and could see how designating a record or a piece of evidence on that record as one of those just listed would really help. When I'm digging for ancestors and  looking at some piece of paper or image on Ancestry or Family Search, I can know in a moment how helpful that item is going to be for me by using those designations. And if the document or info on it is not "good enough" then I know what I need to do to find better. And we want the very best when we look for records, don't we? Sure we do!

I get the difference between original and derivative. It has to do with whether the record is the original, in its original form, or some other version. An example is the Declaration of Independence. If you're looking at the original Declaration of Independence, unless you're in the National Archives in D.C. than you're probably looking at a copy, a derivative version. Is it a transcript that you're looking at? Did someone transcribe it and type it up? That's one example of a derivative version. It's legit alright, but it's not the original so it's derivative. Or maybe you're looking at a short write up version, a synopsis or abstract. That's another version and it's going to give you less information so maybe you'll miss the very bit you really wanted to see. Get it? If you had the original of the Declaration of Independence you'd have a national treasure. If you have an abstract, what do you have? A derivative version.

Same with the records we look at. Take wills for example. I love to look at original wills online. Love to see the handwriting, the X or signature telling me if the person who wrote the will could read or write. Transcripts are OK but they can be full of errors. And of course we can label them derivative. Will abstracts are the worst for me! You just know when you look at one it's leaving out the good stuff you want to know! Derivative.

Direct and indirect were terms that I have to admit I didn't really understand or see how they could be helpful. Let me elaborate on that. When someone explained them I understood for a little while but then in a few minutes I'd forget again because I couldn't see the helpfulness of the terms. Well, I get it now! If you ask someone how to get to First and Elm they can tell you, go straight two blocks, then left for five more blocks and you'll be at First and Elm, that's pretty direct information, don't you think? And if you asked another guy how to get to the same place and he rattled on and on describing landmarks and building that were there 40 years ago, maybe you could figure out how to get there, but maybe you couldn't. That's indirect information. Yuck. Give us direct information, please!

Indirect evidence leads you to a conclusion only by stringing together a series of pieces of evidence. Why can't it be stated directly, we ask ourselves along the way? Because there's no direct evidence available, only indirect evidence. It's a puzzle that needs to be put together... by you.

That only leaves primary and secondary to be sorted out. This one is pretty easy and I thought I understood how to use the two terms. But then I dug into a simple death certificate and -- bam! -- a big light went off that showed me the very heart of the matter and why it's important to know and use this type of evidence analysis. Who was that informant and what did they really know anyhow? The date and place of death was a sure bet. It was most likely to be correct (and was primary evidence) because it was very close in time (primary) to the event. The informant had usually been witness to the death and so probably knew exactly when and where it happened. But what of the birth place? Or the subjects parents, or get ready, the subject's parents place of birth! See how that could go all wrong and lead to incorrect information?

So now I'm not too surprised when I think about my 4th GGF's death certificate and how the informant, his undoubtedly upset and grieving wife, mixed up his parents surnames. It showed me just how easy it was to get incorrect secondary info on a vital record. Wow!

Primary and secondary. (Think death certificate.)
Direct and indirect. (Think driving directions.)
Original or derivative. (Think Declaration of Independence.)

There are more complex ways to sort documents and evidence. Elizabeth Shown Mills has a good one here and there's more info on her method here.

Now wasn't that fun?

Samuel Albert House (1832 - 1917) and
Mary Elizabeth Farrell House (1835 - 1919)

His death certificate, the Informant his wife. Notice the surnames of his parents! They were mixed and his parents were Rebecca House and Isaac Biggerstaff. He did not take his fathers surname for a big reason. More on that later, of just search on Biggerstaff in the search box on the top, right.
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