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Dusty documents are keys to unlock research discoveries

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 03:11 AM

Genealogy is about a lot of things. Tramping around in cemeteries. Hacking through underbrush in search of an old home place foundation. Capturing a video interview with Great-Aunt Sophie during a fleeting period of recall. Discovering skeletons in the closet. Finding documents.

It all sounds pretty interesting, doesn't it? Until the last one.

Documents sound boring - except to the researcher who has uncovered gold in a dusty old record book.

Budding genealogists somehow know they're supposed to find documents. So they seek, they find, they file. They miss the real fun and the whole point: discovering that an ancestor can actually speak to them through a deed, will or court transcript.

Even the most mundane documents contain unsuspecting clues that could flip the switch to focus light on ancestors previously unknown and unheralded.

Finding the document is just the first step. After copying the document, the researcher must process it. That begins with writing the source on the face of each page, including enough information for anyone to relocate it.

For example, if the document is a deed, the source information will include the deed book letter and page number, and where the book is located. Called the source citation, it could look like this: "Floyd County Deeds, Book A:15, Floyd County Superior Court Clerk's Office, Floyd County Courthouse, Rome, Ga."

The next step is to transcribe the document. Most records of genealogical value were not typed. They were created long before that now-ancient contraption called a typewriter.

Transcribing requires deciphering every word. Sometimes that isn't easy. Old handwriting may be faded, and ink blots may hide several words or lines. Even without those hindrances, simply making out the words can be a challenge.

Generations ago, even the most educated people didn't write to modern-day standards. Scribes capitalized common nouns, used little punctuation and penned words no longer in use today. It's important for transcribers not to correct spelling or punctuation: Changing anything could inadvertently skew the meaning of the writing.

Copy the completed transcription and go through the copy, deleting boilerplate or inconsequential words. The result is called an abstract.

Never delete unfamiliar words. Instead, use dictionaries, Internet search engines and educational materials to learn the meaning.

The abstract will become a valuable research tool. The researcher can quickly refresh his memory or recheck details with the abstract rather than return to the original document or transcript.

Finding, transcribing and abstracting a document isn't worth much if the researcher doesn't understand the material, so each document must be analyzed. Here are some of the questions that a researcher should answer:

•Who created this document?

•Why was it created; what was its purpose?

•Is this the original creation or a copy?

•Did the person who created it have something to gain or a reason to falsify the information?

•Is the information in the document primary or secondary? Primary information comes from an eyewitness or participant in an event or by an official whose job it is to create the particular document. The closer to the event it was created, the more reliable it usually is.

Documents are steppingstones to genealogical discovery. Each one usually can move the researcher forward to the next encounter.

The final element in document processing is developing research problems to maintain forward momentum.

For example, a document in a probate file for Herbert Johnson might identify one of his legal heirs as Mary Ann Strickland. One of the new research problems, then, would be to determine how Mary Ann Strickland was related to Herbert Johnson. Making a list of resources and other documents that might answer that question will send the inquiring genealogist off on the next quest - for more documents!

Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac


.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.

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