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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The dilemma of the original in genealogy

Here is the dilemma, when is it important to keep or have the "original" document? Genealogists are constantly reminded of the need to provide sources. Although this was not always the case, and is still a subject of some controversy, almost every currently available instruction book or article on the subject of genealogy will encourage the reader to document the source of any information from birth dates to immigration. So when is it necessary to view the original document? And even more important, in this day of digitization, what is an original document?

Years ago, in my early days in court, if we brought a copy of a document to a trial we were required to verify or lay foundation for the copy before it could be introduced into evidence. For example, using a genealogically relevant document, if I brought a copy of a deed into court, I had to produce a witness who could testify when and how the copy was made. This was the rule with photocopies as well as the more ancient hand written ones. It was even especially true of so-called carbon copies.

Over the years, this court rule changed. In a recent trial, I never saw any original documents. Every piece of documentary evidence consisted of photocopies of originals. Presently, in almost every case, a photocopy of a document can be substituted for an "original" without laying any foundation for the exchange. So what now is the value of an "original?"

At this point it is probably important to make a distinction between types of originals. The first category of documents I will call reproducible originals, like birth certificates and such. The second category are those documents, like an original handwritten letter from my great-grandmother, who is now deceased, that cannot be duplicated. Unfortunately, some documents in the first category may make their way to the second if the government agency that created the document is no longer in existence. We must also think of the distinction between the information conveyed by the document and the document as an historical artifact.

Let's take the example of my grandmother's letter, if I photocopy the letter, I have preserved all of the information contained in the document. But no one would deny that having the actual original piece of paper signed by my grandmother is more intrinsically valuable to our family than the photocopy. If the copy were equivalent to the original there would be no market for collectibles at all in our society. As a people, we place a high premium on originality, in art, in books, in antiques, in almost everything. This is reason that I will keep boxes and boxes of letters even though I have scanned the contents into the computer. This is why their are huge historical special collections in libraries. I may be able to get an exact copy of a first edition of a book, but there is no one that will not realize that the actual first edition is likely worth more.

So what does this mean to genealogists? We need to determine the intrinsic value of documents and preserve those that have real value, such as original letters and such. But at the same time, we need to be aware that in this world of copies, the original as such, is meaningless from an informational standpoint. A digitized copy of the letter suffices for all purposes to convey the information contained therein. But we do not throw away the letter merely because we have a digitized copy, unless the documents themselves have no intrinsic value.

What is intrinsic value? I learned about this early in life collecting postage stamps. Just because a stamp was old did not make it valuable. Value came from a combination of factors including condition and scarcity. Would you like to find an original handwritten letter signed by Abraham Lincoln? What do you think it would be worth? See what I mean. For this reason it is not necessary to keep the original junk mail saved by our grandmothers, but it may be interesting to have digitized copies, maybe, possibly? Even I have a difficult time making this distinction, but it is a good idea to be aware of the distinction.

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