Friday, September 16, 2011

Darned Physicality and Organization

Records say the darnedest things

We depend upon records to reveal the “truth” about our pasts.

Yet sometimes records have anomalies.
Some are amusing or humorous.
Some are interesting or weird.
Some are peculiar or suspicious.
Some are infuriating, even downright laughable.

Yes, Records are the Darnedest Things.”

Records Are the Darnedest Things: Physicality and Organization

Failing to recognize the context within which a record exists is a common mistake made by record publishers and new genealogists. Because microfilm and digital images keep us at arm’s length from the actual record, we must make special efforts to understand its physicality and organization. A single image may look like this:

 The first page of a passenger manifest may be just half of the record

But when combined with the following image, a picture of the original record starts to emerge.Passenger lists commonly run across two pages

To understand a record’s physicality and organization, as a minimum you will want to view a couple of the images beforehand and a couple afterwards. If possible, you should also check front matter, the spine, and front and back covers.

I say “if possible” because record publishers don’t understand the importance of presenting records in context. It is rare to find accessible, legible images of covers, spine, front matter, and pages without names. marketing promotion of their U.S. Immigration CollectionI remember an experience at that illustrates the point (although I don’t remember all the specifics). Someone (marketing perhaps) published something (the website pictured to the right, perhaps) about the U.S. Immigration Collection. When a company genealogist asked about it, the someone was amazed to learn that passenger lists commonly have second pages with lots of juicy information.

For the marketing website pictured to the right, knowing about second pages may not have made a difference. Keeping the handwriting large prevents showing all the columns of one page, let alone two. But I digress…

To understand a record, you must understand its physicality and organization.

Yes, records are the darnedest things...


  1. I totally agree. One of the collections that has this issue is the Ontario Marriages collection. For several years, the form of register used in Ontario spread over two pages for each entry, but Ancestry only published the left-hand pages. The right-hand pages included the provincial registration number, the date and place of the marriage, the officiator and the witnesses.

  2. Also check for addendums and errata pages. These are more often found in published materials, but I've seen the last page of US census EDs used to add missed people belonging to families found on an earlier page.
    B.G. Wiehle

  3. Ahh, so true. A while back some unknown er, person, at deliberately deleted the 'following pages' for the 1925 Iowa State Census -- the ones that gave parents names, including the mother's maiden name, and where they were married.

    Happily, enough genealogists noticed the deletions and knew their significance. Sufficient howls and acerbic remarks convinced to restore the deletions.