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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Primary and Secondary Sources -- A multiple part discussion

In a recent blog post on Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, Blogger Harold Henderson raised an issue with a blog entitled, "There Is No Such Thing as a Primary Source." It seems to me that the issue needs further clarification and discussion, mainly because commonly used terminology may be misleading in evaluating the value of source records. His discussion is based, in part, on the following:
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007.
The real question is whether there exists an adequate terminology to discuss the issue of evaluation of evidence at all in the genealogical context. This issue of proof, in the genealogical sense, is one of the factors that has separated genealogy as a non-academic pursuit from the main body of historical studies.  In the past (as in the present) there was little rigor in establishing valid family lines. There are on record instances of wholesale fabrication of genealogical data. In addition, the attitude of the academic community has been antagonistic to studying mere family relationships.

One example of this antagonism is the fact that there are very few university level degrees awarded specifically in the area of genealogy or even the more expansive category of family history. If I wanted to go to Arizona State University, one of the largest universities in the United States, and study "genealogy" I might end up in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies with a class offering that includes the following:
From the multiple disciplinary approaches of history, philosophy and religious studies we investigate those matters that most make us human—mind, rationality and morality, spirit, and memory; our current areas of strength include: history and philosophy of science, intellectual history and history of philosophy, American and global religious history and cultures, environmental history and bioethics, women’s history and feminist philosophy, Native American history and indigenous epistemologies, history and philosophy of politics and the quest for justice; history, philosophy and politics of religion.
Do you see anything in there that might be called "genealogy?" I suppose if you keep digging, you might find something related to searching out your ancestors or even oral history, but it is anathema to the academic community to be interested in something as mundane as "genealogy." My point here is that there are various divergent academic disciplines that touch on genealogy, but none of them are directly involved in the subject.  We can look back in the development of genealogy as a pursuit for the reasons this has occurred.

To understand the issue of genealogical proof and the evaluation of evidence, it is necessary to examine the background of genealogy in Western Europe and the United States. In our online world it is rare to find genealogists who have studied the physical books written on the principles of genealogical research, describing the types of source materials and discussing the evaluation of evidence. Most current writing concentrate on methodology rather than the foundations of genealogical studies as a whole. Mills' book, Evidence Explained (see citation above), has a concise outline of the origins of genealogy, but her book is not intended to be a discussion of the underpinnings of genealogy, but rather a treatise on citation.

Most writers on the subject of the development of evidence evaluation in genealogy attribute the foundations of the modern practices to copious borrowings from the legal profession. Some of the most influential early U.S. writers on the subject were lawyers by profession and genealogists by avocation. Notable are the writings of Donald Lines Jocobus and even further back to the book:

Whitmore, William H. The American Genealogist: Being a Catalogue of Family Histories and Publications Containing Genealogical Information Issued in the United States. Albany, N.Y.: Joel Munsell, 1868.

If we go back to these early writings, we can begin to see the interplay between the serious academically oriented researchers and the results-oriented casual genealogist, who is more interested in names than history. I have referred to this before, in Spain, a common saying about an unreliable person was that he "lied like a genealogist." This unforgiving tradition still haunts the pursuit today. 

Here is another book I will be referring to from time to time as I develop this topic;

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2000.


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