Context is Key: Understanding the Record within the Record Collection

Records don’t exist in a vacuum. (For the purposes of this post, I am referring to microfilmed images of records we have located online). It’s important to understand the record in terms of the collection it’s found in. Once we’ve located a record, we need to ask ourselves questions about the record and the collection. Questions such as:

Who created this collection?
Does my record fit in this collection?
Is there anything unusual about my record that other records in the collection don’t have?
Is something missing that should be there?
Is the record an original or a copy?
Are there gaps in this collection?
Does the collection have an index and if it does, was the index created at the same time as the record?

We can answer those questions in two ways:

First, by studying our record image and the images that come before it and after it on the microfilm. We can compare handwriting – is it all the same in the collection (indicating perhaps a clerk copied the information from elsewhere)? Have we gone to the beginning of the film (or the beginning of the Item number on the film) and studied any images that may appear of the book cover that our record comes from? As we do so, we gather information which helps us place our record in context.

Second, we can study the collection description, which is what this post focuses on.

Where to find collection descriptions?

A quick example using Ancestry

One of the results in a search for Patty Dawley, born about 1771 in Vermont, is a death record.

Context 1

The top red arrow in the image above points to the title of the collection that the record is found in. In this example, the record is in Ancestry’s collection titled, ‘Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908’. The red arrow in the middle gives us further source information on the collection, including where the original data came from and which repository was responsible for first compiling the collection.

The red arrow toward the bottom points to the description of the collection and this is where Ancestry does a decent job of describing the collection further. Click on the Learn more… in the blue circle and a page will appear with a search box at the top, allowing you to search only within this collection. But page down, past the Source Information we just saw on the previous page. Here we are given more information (see image below) about the collection, including a brief history of when vital records were kept in Vermont, when the law came into being which dictated the keeping of those vital records and the availability of the records. Any known gaps in the records are also given. All of this information helps us to place into context our specific record. Perhaps even more than that, the description of the collection allows us to determine whether a record we are seeking exists in this particular collection.

Context 2

Another example using FamilySearch

Familysearch.org offers excellent descriptions of its record collections. Begin here at the Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections. This is an alphabetical listing of all the FamilySearch historical record collections (only the published ones). Find the collection you are interested in and click on the link provided. We’ll use the Arizona Marriages collection as an example:

Context 3
Image showing Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections

 

Context 4
Image showing Arizona Marriages collection description within the FamilySearch Historical Records Collection

There is a wealth of information on the individual collection page. The red arrow above points to the Contents of the page.  Of great importance is the general collection description which states that this is an index only collection so we will not find images of the actual marriage documents here. There is a coverage table and map showing which counties are covered by this index. There is information on what to do if you are unable to find your ancestor in the collection. The blue arrow points to the ability to access and search the collection from this page.

When we understand the record collection, we are better able to understand our specific record. Genealogists consider the weight of evidence in each document they use. Understanding why and how that document was created aids in being able to effectively weigh the evidence the document provides.

As important as it is to understand the collection our record is in, it is equally important to understand the laws at the time the record was created. Next week’s post will focus on how the laws of the time influenced the records created by our ancestors.