18 January 2015

What's A Record?

The copy of E. A. Wrigley's  Identifying People in the Past that I ordered recently has arrived.

I'm still working my way through it and, to be perfectly honest, it's a pretty academic read. For the faint of heart, there's even some mathematics and several charts and tables scattered throughout the text. The book is actually a series of six articles written by several different academics. More than anything it has gotten me thinking about terminology that researchers use, how records are created, and how one determines that two records are actually referring to the same person.

The definition of "record" interested me

In his essay "On referring to ordinary historical persons," Ian Winchester writes on page twenty-one Identifying People in the Past that "by a record, I mean, in general, any particular material object produced due to the presence of a once living person, which would not have been produced, had that person not lived."

Compare that to the definition of  a record in Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, which states in the glossary (page 88) that a record is "an account of an event, circumstance, etc,; a piece of writing created to preserve the memory of certain 'facts.'"

I tend to like Winchester's definition as it is broad and all-encompassing. Mills' definition is specific to the fact that genealogists use records for the information they contain. 

One definition is not really better than the other. Most items that genealogists classify as records would meet both definitions. 

A death certificate for any individual meets both definitions of a "record." After all, if the person has never lived the record would not have been created and it certainly was created to preserve the "memory of certain facts." It does seem that Winchester's definition would include items that may or may not actually contain any "information." Of course, the definition of information is another matter entirely. 

Thinking about definitions and research methodology can easily enhance our research and get us beyond self-imposed limitations that often we are not aware of. And isn't that how we grow as researchers?

That's one for the record.


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Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, second edition, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009, Baltimore, Maryland.

Identifying People in the Pastedited by E. A. Wrigley, published by Edward Arnold Publishers, 1973, London.



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