On the Value of Information, Genealogical or Otherwise

I continue to see a troubling phrase in regards to certain records, that they “hold little genealogical value.” Is this our only concern as researchers, that records hold genealogical information? Is it not possible for records to hold information important to one’s research, in spite of the presumptive lack of genealogical information?

The answer to the latter question has been demonstrated, repeatedly and by various individuals, to be an unequivocal and emphatic yes. Directed searches in records that, in general, are believed to “hold little genealogical value” can still be quite useful in sorting out two (or more) individuals of the same name, pinpointing the residence or daily activities of an ancestor or potential ancestor (and thus placing him or her in close proximity to potential relatives), or overcoming local governmental records losses.

One needn’t look far for an excellent example. Helen F. M. Leary in her pointed article “Sally Hemings’s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence”1 used information from a wide variety of sources including Monticello’s architecture to demonstrate that Thomas Jefferson was, indeed, the father of all of Sally’s children; but, of equal importance, to refute evidence to the contrary. Other examples of the need to expand research into records of “little genealogical value,” when circumstances dictate the necessity of doing so, are published regularly, if not frequently, in modern genealogical periodicals.

When records are described as “holding little genealogical value” or otherwise limited in use by well-intentioned authors, it sends mixed signals to less-experienced researchers (should one expand research into non-traditional records or not?) and discourages them from using records creatively in ways that the author might not have considered, in spite of his or her familiarity with the same. A researcher’s best action is, therefore, not to ignore such advice, but to judge the value of a record on the merits of how its information affects research outcomes, not on the presumption of whether or not it holds genealogical information.

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1. Helen F. M. Leary, “Sally Hemings’s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 89 (September 2001): 165-207. This special issue of the NGSQ included several perspectives from various scholars on the Jefferson-Hemings affair.

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