Friday, September 20, 2013

How to report on nothing

How do we tell somebody we looked and didn't find anything?

Very thoroughly -- more thoroughly even than if we had found something.

Compare these reports:

(1) "I went to the courthouse and I couldn't find any of my ancestors."

(2) "I went to the courthouse and I couldn't find any Packmans."

(3) "I went to the recorder's office and I couldn't find any Packmans."

(4) "I looked for Packmans in the grantor and grantee indexes from the beginning of the county up to 1850, and didn't find any. I didn't have time to check the mortgagee and mortgagor indexes."

Whether we're reporting to our future self, or to a friend or client, only something as specific as #4 is acceptable. Why? Common sense and courtesy. (You can invoke the standards of the field, but in this case you can reach the same conclusion on more basic grounds.) If someone doesn't believe us, how can they check up on 1 or 2 or 3? If later on we can't remember what we did and didn't do in the recorder's office -- only that the place was airy and well-designed and not flooded with oil and gas men -- then we will speak ill of our former selves and have to do the work over again. The same applies, in spades, to research on the internet.

Photo credit: Caitlinator's photostream on,, per Creative Commons.

Harold Henderson, "How to report on nothing," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 20 September 2013 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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