Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Getting Negative


Sometimes, taking a look at the negative side can be rewarding—and not just when we're making lemons into lemonade. Advice ranging from "learn from your mistakes" to "turn negative into positive" shines a light on the research process and reminds us that sometimes, we find something other than what we thought we were looking for.

I've spent the last month pondering the records—at least the ones currently accessible online—for the tiny Polish town of Żerków. My hope was to find something—anything—more on my second great-grandfather, Franz Jankowski.

In an ideal world, I would have found what I was really looking for: the identity of his parents. Did I find that? You already know that answer. But I didn't find nothing. I actually found a few very useful details. At least now, I have a clearer picture of what records are currently available for that region, and how to access them online. I've also gleaned a list of possible related lines—not the original purpose of my research quest, but details which may become useful in future attempts. I'll note these in my research logs and refer back to them the next time I attempt this same project.

But can I call that "negative evidence"? Not really. According to Thomas W. Jones, a genealogist with decades of accolades to his research credit, it's important to differentiate between two similarly-named concepts: "Negative Evidence" versus "Negative Search." 

Dr. Jones defines Negative Evidence as "Evidence arising from an absence of specific information in extant records where that information could be expected and where that absence suggests an answer to a research question." Negative Evidence can play an important role in our family history dilemmas, as Dr. Jones details in a RootsTech presentation. In contrast, he characterizes a "Negative Search" as, simply, "a search that yields no useful evidence."

I think we can all see into which category my experience of the past month falls.

In other words, nothing I didn't find can be used to ascertain a conclusion that Franz Jankowski wasn't in Żerków. There were too many gaps in the sequence of digitized records at the two websites I used. A more useful next step might be to determine why there were gaps in the holdings at BaSIA and the Poznan Project. Were the records missing because they have yet to be properly formatted and added to the collection? Or were they permanently lost through some casualty suffered in the past—fires, floods, or destruction of war?

All is not lost at the end of a negative search. And that's what helps us turn that negative into a possible future positive. Though not right now, sitting at my laptop in California, someday I may still be able to find my answer to the question of my Polish second great-grandfather Franz Jankowski's parents.

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