Memory As a Source
By Donn Devine, CG, CGI
Most of us obtained our first knowledge of family history from our parents or other relatives, either to answer our questions or to give us information they felt we should know. Invariably, the information was recalled from their memories, without reference to any record or memorandum. This is the very kind of information that is at the heart of genealogy, as well as the basis for all written family records.
But remembered information isn’t always accurate. To evaluate information from memory as a research source, we need to know how long such information can be expected to retain its integrity in a single memory or in the memories of succeeding generations.
In pre-literate cultures that don’t have written records, there are institutions and practices that help preserve memories of important information about the past. But without similar built-in cultural traditions, our own society is left to wonder exactly how much we can depend on the memories of others.
A Memory Test
As a first step toward exploring the practical limits of memory as a genealogical source in our record-dependent society, I tried a short self-test, which I’ll ask you to try before telling you how I fared. Here’s the test:
Take a sheet of paper, or a blank family group sheet, and enter from memory the names, dates, and places of birth, marriage, and death for your parents, yourself, and your siblings, leaving blank those items you can’t immediately recall.
List similar information for each of your four grandparents.
Extend your list to include names, dates, and places of vital events for your spouse, your children and their spouses, and your siblings’ spouses, leaving blank the items you don't remember. Do the same for any grandchildren you have.
Go back and circle each item of information that you could have recalled from memory long before you ever began more extensive family research.
How well do people generally remember key facts of their own family history? For those of us who share an interest in family history, the names, places, and other vital statistics of our relatives come easily. But even so, my own memory test revealed the following about me: 1) how early I acquired a lasting memory of vital events in the lives of my first-degree biological relatives—parents, siblings, and children; and 2) how much less dependable my memory was for the events of people a generation earlier or later, or in collateral lines, to say nothing of those more distantly related.
In Step 1, I had no blanks except for exact dates of more recent deaths,. In Step 4, I was able to circle all the completed items from the first step as ones that I remembered from my childhood. After that, the uncertainties increase. In Step 2, I could list names and birthplaces for each of my four grandparents, circled as remembered from childhood, but at best I was certain only of the years of their vital events—information that came from later research, not early knowledge.
When it came to my grandchildren, I remembered where each was born, but could recall dates and years of birth—sometimes just one or the other—only after making some mnemonic associations with other events. With nieces and nephews, I was hard-pressed to get all sixteen in their proper birth order within their families. I recalled places of a few births and marriages, but none of the dates associated with them. I have no illusions about the reliability of my memory, and I confess to make extensive use of records, memoranda, and notes, not only for family history research but for most areas of my daily life as well.
Some of us are undoubtedly better than others at remembering things, including key facts in our family history, but however reliable our memories may be, they will all show a similar pattern unless some disruption in family relationships has interfered. We will likely find that full and complete recall extends only to information about ourselves and those closest to us, usually parents, siblings, spouse, and children. As we try to recall similar information about more distant relatives, even the most dependable memories begin to have difficulty in recovering all that might have been known about them at some point in the past.
An informant may have a steel-trap memory, but unless there are some special circumstances or evidence that confirm a better-than-average memory, details on dates for relatives beyond immediate family are likely to be imprecise, and both places and dates for more distant relatives, as well as the birth order of the latter, may not be remembered at all.
The Right Questions
With some appreciation for the shortcomings of remembered family history, and the differences that result from how and when the informant first learned of an item, we can now ask some further questions about each remembered item and then make a reasonable judgment about how well it reflects reality. Recognizing that all records depend on someone’s memory for each bit of information they contain, whether recorded when the memory was fresh or long after it was first known, we can apply the same questions to each information item in a record, as well as to items in an informant’s oral statement.
After determining that the informant was unbiased, with no reason to deliberately misrepresent the matter, answer the following questions regarding each information item (“yes” answers will indicate that the informant’s memory is more likely to agree with actual facts than “no” answers):
- Was the remembrance about something recent, or was the record made while the memory was fresh?
- Was the informant present at the event, or did he or she know of it firsthand?
- If the information came to the informant from someone else, was it about the informant or an immediate relative, such as a parent, sibling, or child?
- Was the information remembered from the informant’s childhood?
After the possibility of bias has been eliminated, we can see two general principles at work: 1) the more promptly a memory is recalled or recorded, and the more closely it affects the informant or an immediate family member, the more likely that it reliably represents the fact; and 2) information about ourselves and close relatives remembered from childhood may not be a recent memory, but it tends to be recalled, used, and reinforced more frequently than other older memories, so it is less likely to be lost over time.
The process of being able to determine the original source of any information and its reliability is sometimes called “evidence analysis” or “evidence evaluation.” While it may sound formidable, it is nothing more than asking the questions that will help us decide how much we can trust a particular piece of information—especially when conflicting information is provided by another source.
We can see how these principles apply when we look at the information in a death certificate. The date, time, and cause of death are from the attending physician’s recent memory and professional knowledge, so they have high reliability.
However, items of family information about the decedent will vary in reliability, depending on how closely the informant was linked to the deceased. Date of birth, identity of parents, and the parents’ places of birth are likely to be quite reliable, if provided by one of the parents or by the decedent’s siblings. The information will be somewhat less reliable if it is provided by a younger relative, and considerably less reliable if the informant was a friend, neighbor, or business associate. Note, also, that in any particular instance, the information could be totally in accord with the facts, or, when memory failed under the stress of bereavement, a total fabrication to satisfy the interrogator’s demand for answers.
Memory, fragile as it is, is the foundation of most of the information on which genealogy and family history is based, whether the memory was recorded at some point, or reported directly by the informant in an interview. Knowing the indications that separate more reliable recollections from less reliable ones can help us avoid being misled by information that may not reflect actual facts. Therefore, taking the time to identify, by name or relationship, the informant or source of remembered information can also help each of us better determine which memory items represent what really took place, and which ones should be rejected as undependable.
Donn Devine, CGSM, CGISM, a genealogical consultant from Wilmington, Delaware, is an attorney for the city and archivist of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. He is a former National Genealogical Society board member, currently chairs its Standards Committee, is a trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, and is the administrator for Devine and Baldwin DNA surname projects.