Most have heard some variation of the question:
“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
There are various view points as to why the answer could be “yes” or why it could be “no”. One I find interesting is that the tree falling makes a vibration, but it doesn’t become a sound until some creature is close enough to translate those vibrations into sound.
I have been thinking a lot lately about sources — specifically those used in genealogy to help identity our ancestors and further our research. Let me see if I can process the recent comments on this blog and the APG list and correlate it with my past thinking.
A source is a thing. So it must have a creator (or recorder).
A source contains information. So it must have an informant.
Very often the creator and informant are two different people.
Sources are Objects
A source is a physical thing. A document, a picture, an artifact, an audio recording, a video, a grave marker, etc. True, it is a container of information. But we can step back and talk about just the container and its creator without talking about the information and the informant. The stone cutter carved the grave marker. The census enumerator filled out the census form. The enumerator created a second copy of the census by referring to the first. This agency microfilmed the census copy. That company digitized the microfilmed census. I wrote a letter. You created a tape recording.
I like the box of cereal analogy. Maybe because I have eaten so much cold cereal over the years. The box of cereal (the physical box) was created by someone. It contains Frosted Mini Wheats (or insert your preferred cereal) that was provided by someone else. The box is the source and has a creator. The contents is the information provided by an informant.
Can the source and the creator be the same? No, how can a creator create itself. So it is flawed to say that a person is a source. A person can be a creator or an informant, but not a source. Let’s consider an example:
Your great grandfather on January 1, 1900 went out into the forest to think. On that day he decided that he was never again going to swear or lose his temper. Nobody was around and for many years he never told anyone. He never wrote it down. But that decision was important and shaped the rest of his life. He remembers the day, because it was the first day of the new century. Many years later he tells his son, your grandfather. This knowledge positively effects your grandfather and he always remembered the story told to him by his father. He never wrote it down either and he never passed the story along until one day he tells you. A few years later your grandfather dies. Now you are the only one who knows the story and the details.
What if your great grandfather never shared the story? Would there be a source?
When you hear the story, if you never write it down is there a source?
I think that no source exists. There is no physical object and no creator.
Let’s say you write down the story. You are the creator of the document. Now a source exists.
I think this is what Donn Devine was saying in his APG post:
“…the unfixed oral utterance, from human memory, is recognized, but for practical purposes is not used until it has been captured in fixed form and can be cited
as a record. By their nature, most textual records are initially based on transitory knowledge and memories, either of the human recorder, or of a human informant …
Excepting records produced by recording devices, an original textual record source–the first fixing of the information it contains–is in fact always derived from another source, the person who created the record, or the human informant who provided the information being recorded.”
Sources Contain Information
Now lets say that as a child, your received a journal for a birthday present. You keep the journal all your life, but you never write anything in it; not even your name. Do you have a source?
All you have is an empty book. There is a thing and a creator of that thing. There is also an informant (or a potential informant) but no recorded information. No source exists.
Once you start writing in the journal, then there is a source.
I find it very useful to consider a source as an object and classify it as original or derivative based on whether it was created based on another object. If the source object was created based on an informant and that informant only received the information from another informant and so on until the first informant, then the source would be original. Otherwise, the source would be derivative.
Back to the Grave Marker
The physician witnessed the death of a person and was an informant providing death information for the death certificate (a document created by someone else). A source exists and it is original. Not because the informant provided primary information, but because the certificate was created based on an informant and not another source.
A family member also witnesses the passing of their loved one and provides information on the forms at the mortuary. This family member is an informant and is also providing primary information. The form is an original source. Once again, not because the information provided was primary, but because the information came from an informant and not another source.
Now the stone cutter gets the form and proceeds to create the marker. The marker is an object created by a stone cutter. It contains information. It is a source. Following a strict definition, the marker was created based on another source and is therefore derivative.
But is this a special case that warrants a special name?
The federal copy of a local census is strictly a derivative as it is a transcript, but because of special circumstances we give it the name “duplicate original” and we can treat it as if it were the original. There are often transcription errors between the two sources, but it doesn’t stop us from calling both originals.
Is our grave marker example a similar situation?
There could be differences between the form and the grave marker, but because they are essentially part of the same “transaction” does it merit the classification of duplicate original and therefore both can be considered an original. What if the form no longer exists and the grave marker is all that is left? Does lack of the “true” original help elevate the grave maker to the classification of an original?
Back to the title of this post: If a Person has Some Information and they Never Share it, Is There Still a Source?
I say that a person is never a source; they can only be an informant or a creator. No source exists if there is no object/container and no information/contents.