Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Sources - source of pride and envy

Two weeks ago, I flew to London to attend Who Do You Think You Are? Live! Although most genealogists I met were from the British Isles, I also got to meet genealogists from Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, United States, Australia, South Africa and India. Worldwide Genealogists In Real Live.

One of the most fun aspects of this year's visit was being an expert on 'Ask the Expert,' where visitors can book free 20-minute consults. You can read about my experiences as an expert on my blog. I also met fellow members of the Association for Professional Genealogists and talked to many people at the stands.

Yvette with a bag standing at the balcony at Who Do You Think You Are
Me with my bag
(easier to spot than a rose in my lapel when meeting new people)
There was one thing I noticed while talking to this range of genealogists: how much we identify ourselves with our sources. Two genealogists from the UK independently told me, a bit smug, how their birth, marriage and death records go all the way back to 1837. Only to be surprised when I told them that in the Netherlands these records start in 1811, when the civil registration was introduced by Napoleon. Comparing our sources almost felt like a 'mine is bigger than yours' competition.

I must admit I take pride in the excellent records we keep in the Netherlands. I often work with genealogists from the US, where records typically start later or are less informative than their Dutch counterparts. Take US census records, for example. These only record families every 10 years (or 5 years if you are lucky and the state held a census in between the federal censuses). In the Netherlands, since 1850 we have had population registers that describe whole households, but they were kept up-to-date. Families were required to report their departure and arrival so the municipality could make sure the registers accurately reflected its residents. These records are so useful for genealogy and I love educating Dutch Americans about the possibilities for research in the Netherlands.

Example of a population register (Breda, 1917-1938)
It wasn't until I talked to these UK genealogists that I realized that pride in our sources can come across as snobbery. I'm used to being at the 'high end' of these comparisons, where my sources 'trump' those of my discussion partner. These UK genealogists were obviously used to that as well. The way we talked about our sources was almost like we felt superior to the other, which is strange since none of us have any influence on the hand we are dealt.

Genealogy Standards1
In fact, I think there is an upside to having fewer sources available. Over the last two years, I have been emerging myself in genealogical methods and standards as they are taught in the US, to prepare myself to become a Certified Genealogist. The Americans are light years ahead in terms of methodology, compared to genealogical education in the Netherlands. When you have fewer and less informative sources to work with, you must learn how to make the most of them.

In the Netherlands, the solution to almost any brick wall is always "find more sources." Building a case using indirect evidence even seen as sloppy genealogy by some, because you did not put in the effort to make another trip to the archives to find real evidence. In the US, genealogists need to learn how to combine indirect evidence from a range of sources to prove their case.

Reading about their techniques has been an epiphany for me and has helped me to solve several of my own brick walls. Techniques that work for finding enslaved ancestors have helped me trace serf ancestors. Lesson learned: no matter how wonderful our sources are, we can all learn from each other.

  1. Board for Certification of Genealogists. Genealogy Standards, 50th-anniversary edition. Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry, 2014. 100 pp., paper, ISBN 978-1-63026-018-7.


  1. Yvette - when I got stuck with some of my Irish research, I took a look at my Swedish and Norwegian ancestors. What a treat! Beautiful records whether census or farmbooks or church papers. Wow, I am quite impressed. After reading your post, how I wish I had someone from the Netherlands!

  2. How nice to have different ethnicities to research! Wouldn't it be fun to 'borrow' ancestors of another researcher just to get a taste of records in other countries? Perhaps I will make that my topic for next month, I think that would be a great idea for a worldwide genealogy blog.

  3. A valid perspective Yvette -I think the US researchers are ahead of we Aussies when I see how far back they go in their own country. On the other hand, having to work "around the records" teaches you to be lateral in your research, until you get back to the UK where they have reasonable records. But I have to say (dare I, to a Dutch woman?) that the German church records with their familienbucher are just superb. As you say, luck hands out what we get -it's up to us to make the most of it in our research.

    There were so many immigrants from the Netherlands to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s (of whom I have a number of friends) - great to know their research will be aided by the additional records.

    1. That's what I love about this blog: reading about experiences in other countries. The Ortsfamilienbuecher are great indeed!
      I have several Australian clients who were in the 1950s and 1960s emigration wave to Australia (or their parents). I love how the Australian National Archives have made the naturalization papers available online. The index sometimes even has the scans attached to it, and if not you can simply order them. That is a wonderful service I have often used to find that all important place of birth or birth date!

  4. A very enlightening post as I know nothing about records in other European countries. I have admired the USA records for their early release of census returns, when here in the UK we have to wait 100 years. Scotland does get a bit smug about its records. Although registration came in (1855) later than in England (1837), marriage and death certificates are notable for including the mother's name - a major plus point. Though with registering deaths, it does depend on the informant having this knowledge. We can all learn from one another, so thank you for your point of view. I am happy to follow up your idea and write more fully about Scottish records.

    1. Ah, the dreaded "Mrs" in US records! I can't believe why a woman would give up her name, which is such a big part of your identity, just because she gets married! I much prefer the Dutch custom, where both spouses get to choose which name to use (or both). Even before we had that choice, women were referred to by their maiden names in official records.
      Needless to say, my husband's name isn't Hoitink :-)

  5. Very interesting, Yvette. You mentioned overcoming brick walls by finding more sources. I always encourage family historians to look for *unusual* sources, and also to research the relatives. My next post here will be about sources, so I must try not to sound smug!

    1. I love unusual sources! I recently used prostitution records when trying to find a female ancestor and the father of her illegitimate child. Was happy not to find her though! Not for the moral aspect, but because it would have made it so much harder to find the father. I look forward to your post!

  6. The trail goes cold and you look for more records...What do you do? You let the ancestors guide you. The clues are there even when the records go sparse.

    1. Do you ever read about a person in a source and just 'know' that he/she is an ancestor? I have had that feeling twice now. In both cases, it took me over 15 years but I was able to document the line back from me to that person. One is Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is my favorite historical person. Fascinating woman.

  7. This is one of the reasons I love this collaboration, learning about the sources of other countries. Now I need to find some ancestors in the Netherlands so I can hire you!


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World Wide Genealogy Team