Digital Images and your Genealogy

Photography brought the capacity to edit a scene and unless the editor tells us about the change(s), we usually accept the photograph as reality.  Digital imagery expands that capacity into areas we may never dream could be exploited.

Frequently, my own client research leads to comparative analysis:

  1. of records based upon reading the original documents,
  2. official transcripts made at or near the time of the original,
  3. typed transcripts as preparation for printing the record–often many years later,–
  4. multiple versions typed or scanned for online delivery,
  5. index entries that have been substituted for a lost original, and
  6. indexes created for English records, many years after the fact, by non-English speaking typists.

 In each case, I hope that the originals are available to be examined,–not just a copy, not just a transcript.   So the announcement by the LDS Church that preservation of records on microfilm will be phased out–and records will be digitized at the courthouse and at the archives–made me shiver.  With excitement, to be sure.  With alarm, of course.

Will the images be untouched?  Will they be adjusted for light so that the edges of the documents can be read as well as the center? Can the images be manipulated by the reader–without leaving a trail?  In short, can we trust the digital images to represent the records–blotches, frayed edges, and all?  And will indexes created for non-indexed sources be compiled by trained native readers? and Heritage Quest sites include census images for Virginia, 1810.  I searched for John Farnsworth.  I already knew that he was in Loudon County in 1810–from the AIS 1810 Index (p. 294) and the Heritage Quest volume (p. 575) printed by Precision Indexing.  After many tries through the online indexes, I went to the images themselves and searched frame by frame until I found the entry–spelled Jno Farnesworth.  I had asked for this spelling in both databases.  Got a “no-match” message from both.

Elizabeth Shown Mills has written an astounding new 885-page style guide for genealogists and historians so we can site our sources in a standard format.   Titled, Evidence Explained:  Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.  (2007.  Genealogical Publishing Company, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, Baltimore MD 21211.  This volume needs a special shelf at the right hand of your computer keyboard, so all you have to do is open the pages to document your work.

Ms Mills’ introduction is a well organized chapter on evidence and the many considerations we must pay attention to.  (She uses the verb “must” consistently throughout this chapter.)  The second chapter describes “Fundamentals of Citation.”  And while she addresses indexes as a source to be cited, she omits mention of the central place an index has in locating entries and interpreting their evidence. 

An index in a genealogy source is more than a convenience.  It is an essential tool that often determines whether you use that source in your research or not.  Let’s face it, most searchers will not take the time to search the images one by one until the correct entry is found.  (I consult with genealogists, many of whom are beginners, several weeks out of the year. I have to decide if I take the time to find the entry for them or let them get by with a NIL search or depend on the index entry alone–which is always a bad idea.

How does visiting my kitchen relate to your genealogy?

My grandson Scott Jackson, removed the floor and substituted blue sky with scattered clouds.  And although the sky is a much better looking floor, than the multi-colored patch work carpet,  the digital image has been changed from reality.  As a source, it needs a footnote. 

Do you read the footnotes in the sources you consult?  And do you add footnotes to your own work–describing the circumstances of the search and what you did with the evidence you plucked from the context of the record?

In my genealogy opinion, you must tell me when you change the record.  And you must be clear about what you omit and what you add.  And you must cite the location of the records you consulted, so that I can search it for myself.

This is the reason that the new Mills book is so important:  citing the record, documenting the evidence, so you can see for yourself what the source said.  And what it did not say!  Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS  I have learned a different method of analysis–non-judgmental so you can see the evidence without coloring it your own color before you have a chance to consider all the shades present.  Stay tuned–I’ll demonstrate it on my kitchen.

PPS  A new database of killer libraries online–“I just thought you and your readers at Arlene H Eakle might want to have a look at a collection of over 250 digital libraries and archives we recently compiled over here at OEDb — (There’s 270 to be exact!) Let me know what you think.” Thanks, Jimmy Atkinson, OEDb: Online Education Database

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