Family Tree Friday: Preserving the integrity of original records…including the mistakes!

Recently, a colleague of mine received a reference request that highlights a common misperception some people have regarding original records.  The request involved a researcher who complained that their family name had been misspelled on the 1930 census and they wanted the National Archives to “fix” the mistake.  Now, most expert researchers know that original records—and especially census records—are not perfect.  They always need to be evaluated for reliability (sometimes the author’s perspective can be suspect), but many original records also contain all kinds of inherent or contextual flaws, including misspelled names and misidentified people.  (On the 1910 census, for example, my own grandmother appears as a 2-year-old toddler named “Pearl” even though her proper name was Cora Marie!)

 As primary source material, however, original records are still considered sacrosanct because they provide the foundation—the essential evidence—upon which all historical and genealogical research is based.  From an archival standpoint, therefore, we never, under any circumstances, alter the original!   To use the vernacular, the original record “is what it is.”  Tampering with it in any way would compromise the very integrity and meaning of the record.  In the case of the 1930 census, it would also be a physical impossibility to correct a misspelled name because the Census Bureau destroyed the originals after microfilming the schedules.  (For practical reasons, we also can’t go back and change the microfilm.)  Either way, the National Archives cannot “fix” mistakes on existing records.  Our first responsibility is to preserve the records “as is” so they will be available to those who come after us, to be used and understood in the same context.  The best we can do now is alert researchers to the possibility that mistakes exist and encourage everyone to conduct research with an open mind.

6 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: Preserving the integrity of original records…including the mistakes!

  1. I love the blemishes that original documents can contain. My birth certificate has my father’s name mispelled. When I first discovered it at the age of 30, I was imbarressed that I might not know how to spell his first name correctly. I asked my Mother and Grandmother to make sure I knew correctly. Now I wonder how this mistake wasn’t identified at the time the certificate was issued. I have always been asked to check and double check my children’s official documents because they can not alter them later.

  2. Hi Jan,

    Your example about the misspelled birth certificate is spot on! It certainly doesn’t make the document invalid, but sometimes the flaws do add a touch of character. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I recently obtained my father’s birth certificate (1936) and found it only listed a middle initial, not the middle name that I, as a Junior, was given. This is compounded when you consider my son, the III, also has the name instead of initial.

    To get ever stranger… my dads middle name was supposed to be the name of the doctor that delivered him. Although very close, the two are clearly not spelled the same. What is funny is that my dad pronounces his middle name differently than the way we spell it. Based on the doctors signature, my dad pronounces it correctly.

    1. Hi Moe – Your example illustrates the point exactly, and shows that discrepancies can appear in places other than federal records as well–in this case state vital records (birth certificates). Thanks for sharing!

  4. Hello, Blog-readers:

    If an error in a birth or death record is causing a problem for some reason, you can apply for an amended document. If I understand it correctly, the amended document doesn’t REPLACE the erroneous one, but is an adjunct record.

    You would then have, for example, your “Simth” birth certificate and your “Smith” amended birth certificate.

    If a document error doesn’t bother you or cause some kind of bureaucratic problem, then I guess there’s no need to have it amended.

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