Negative Space: Making Your Genealogy Gaps Work For You (and your family tree)

How do you feel when your genealogy research hits a brick wall: frustrated, demoralised, perhaps downright bewildered? Sometimes what you need is a fresh perspective on your family history to kickstart your research process.

A brick wall has a substantial chunk missing from the middle, revealing wooden boards behind.
Looking at the negative space – what’s missing from your research – can be just as instructive as seeing what you do have. Photo by Josh Graciano via Flickr, CC BY-2.0.

Previously I’ve written about how asking the right questions can help to shape our genealogy research, and I’ve also examined how bias can lead us astray. Today’s subject involves a subtle change of mindset which can help you with both these aspects.

So let me introduce you to the idea of negative space. It’s a simple yet powerful concept which will help you identify new directions to go in and might just catapult you over those brick walls. You may have been thinking like this sometimes without realising it – so let’s find out what it is and how you can actively use it to your advantage.

These techniques are applicable to all genealogy research, but are particularly suited to 19th and 20th century work, where record survival is less likely to be a hindrance. We’ll start by finding out what negative space is, I’ll show you a simple example of how to use it in research, and convince you of its value through a very personal timeline exercise.

Negative Space – Spotting What’s Not There

When we’re researching our family history, we use our existing knowledge – or at least what we think we know – to seek out new facts and information and step further back into the past. This sound approach helps you to:

  • identify the current state of your research;
  • determine your next step.

Every time you do this in your genealogy research, you’re focusing on the concrete evidence you already have in order to decide what to do next. We’ll call these ‘concrete components’ of your research the positive space: the parts of the history that are already visible to you.

Photo by kbetart via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Positive space is an essential, and very valuable, part of your research journey – but I’d argue that it’s not the only element you need. Focusing solely on your existing evidence without thinking about what’s missing can provide too blinkered a view of the research problem and lead to anchoring bias, such that you give disproportionate weighting to evidence found early on in your search.

So let’s consider the negative space in your ancestor’s narrative and how it can be of benefit. Negative space is the part of your ancestor’s story that is currently invisible to you: the time periods where you lack documentary evidence about your person of interest. This will show up as gaps on their timeline, but when scrutinised can tell you a lot about how and what you’re choosing (or not choosing) to search.

How an Idea From Fine Art Can Help Your Genealogy

Why is thinking about what’s not there a useful perspective to have? Let’s (briefly) jump into the world of art – the origin of the terms positive and negative space – for a useful analogy…

A bowl of fruit seen from above, containing a number of overlapping items including oranges, lemons and green apples.
How would you go about drawing this bowl of fruit? Tip: a realistic drawing comes not just from drawing what is there, but by paying attention to what isn’t there. Photo by Ella Ohlsson via Flickr, CC BY-2.0

Imagine that you’ve been put into an art studio and told to draw the fruit bowl shown above. You’d probably start off by choosing one of the fruits and putting its outline down on paper. Let’s say you started with the orange; then you moved onto the lemon, then an apple, and so on. Once you’ve finished, you might find that the picture you’ve drawn doesn’t really look like the real thing. Why is that?

By only focusing on the outlines of the objects (what an artist calls positive space), you weren’t paying attention to the shape and size of the spaces in between the fruit, even though these play a vital role in creating the overall picture of what you’re seeing. If you started your drawing again but also took care to think about and measure the spaces in between objects (the negative space), then you’d probably do a much better job.

What Does Negative Space Mean for My Family History Research?

In genealogy we are rarely gifted a continuous chronology for any ancestor: instead we find ourselves piecing together their story from a series of discrete points in time. These dots of documentary evidence on a timeline eventually yield an impression of their life. Only by acknowledging the limitations of those individual points in time can we appreciate what each is contributing to the narrative.

Newspaper article about a Captain Isherwood getting drunk and being ejected from the military after wild behaviour.
If you only knew Isherwood as an upstanding citizen of Old Windsor in his later years, would you be tempted to dismiss this report of military expulsion in Liverpool decades earlier as a different man? Statesman (London), 28 September 1815, via the British Newspaper Archive at FindMyPast.

If you try to interpret the information you have without accounting for what you haven’t yet searched for, you lack the context to make fair judgments of the evidence. Active use of the negative space in your tree and timelines can completely reshape your perception of the narrative. The extract shown left is an excellent example of this!

Use Timelines To Your Advantage

Good visuals are the best way to start spotting your negative space, and if you’re going to get to grips with this, then a hands-on approach is best! So let’s do a little exercise now. You’ll need a computer OR some paper and coloured pens. Researchers with a visual impairment may prefer to make a tactile timeline if working with physical sheets.

Take an ancestor you’ve researched – possibly one you’ve come to a halt with. Obtain a list of the source citations you already have for them and plot them as follows:

  1. Using a black pen, draw a straight horizontal line on the page in front of you.
  2. Using a blue pen, mark in their birth and, if relevant, their marriage, as it would appear in that country’s civil registration records.
  3. Using a red pen, add markers across your timeline to show evidence for your ancestor in the national census.
  4. Add other sources in distinct colours, one colour per record type.
  5. Always add points using dots, or crosses, or vertical dashes: these are points in time and we need to be careful to show them that way.

Let’s see what this yields in my example below…

Insights from Core Record Sets

I’ve depicted a timeline below for one of my ancestors, John MATHER, as someone might draw it early on in their research. This uses only English records for the census and civil registration, and includes John’s son Fred (my great-grandfather whose birth registration led me to John):

Basic Timeline for John Mather using only civil registration and census records. These are drawn as points on the timeline and there is significant space in between them.
Timeline of early research evidence for John MATHER, c.1835 – bef. 1891. Timelining your research forces you to see your evidence as points in time rather than a continuum.

Once you visualise your research like this, you should notice a few things:

  • Our understanding of John MATHER is based upon only 5 documents which mention him, and the 1891 census indicating his wife has been widowed;
  • We have no information for his whereabouts in 1871;
  • We haven’t noted much information about his family;
  • Further searches are needed to locate his birth and death certificates.

At a glance, our timeline shows the limitations of our documentary evidence, allowing us to identify what’s missing from our narrative and generate ideas to extend the research. The timeline has helped us to spot the negative space in between these record sets and should prevent us from making too many assumptions about what’s happening in those periods.

Confronting the Negative Space

Many genealogists may stop their research after Phase 1, feeling that the core documents have told them what they need to know. But there’s still so much more to be found – and a substantial amount of negative space to deal with! For Phase 2, you need to be bold and springboard right out into that negative space. Let’s revisit John MATHER now.

Look back at that first timeline we had for him. Given the strong links to Bury, Lancashire (usually living in properties in the same close network of streets), it would be tempting to assume that he was somehow missed off the 1871 census, and was probably in Bury after all. But you’d be wrong.

Enhanced Timeline for John Mather highlighting the negative space in between the data points.
A second timeline for John MATHER, where the green brackets highlight the negative space. As soon as we push off into the negative space following 1861, there are revelations to be had.

Confronting the large negative space running 1861-1877, our timeline suggests that we need to expand our research into John’s family too if we are to understand what’s happening. This might provoke us to revisit John’s entry on the 1881 census and use it as a starting point.

If we stop being blinkered and only looking at John’s entry in the 1881 census, we might also notice that a cluster of his children are listed with a birthplace of “Belfast, Ireland”.

Census return for John MATHER and family in 1881, with several children clearly shown with a birthplace of Belfast, Ireland.
John MATHER and family, living in Bury in 1881 – his final appearance on the England and Wales census. Four children: Martha, Edwin, Grace and Sarah, are all listed with a birthplace of Belfast. England & Wales Census 1881, ref. RG11, Piece 3866, Folio 111, page 46, via Ancestry.co.uk

We’ve just found an amazing research springboard. The suggestion that the family lived away from Bury during a period of negative space is a game changer. Cracking your research wide open, you now know to consult alternative record sets…and sure enough, the family’s baptisms appear in the Ireland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1620-1911 record set available on Ancestry.co.uk. Further searches of the England & Wales baptismal index on gro.gov.uk turn up two more sons born in Bury: Linol (1862) and John (1880). Suddenly we have at least seven additional points on our timeline, pinning John and the family in Ireland for a series of events 1865-73 and suggesting a Bury link in 1862 and 1880. Doesn’t this rather change our perception of the family’s existence during this period?

Our examination of John MATHER has only looked at one small example of negative space in a timeline. There are plenty of other questions we could ask, and I hope you’ll find new questions to ask about the spaces in your own research.

Some General Tips for Negative Space

Speaking more generally, we’ve seen how a Negative Space perspective can:

  • show you where the gaps are in your narrative;
  • demonstrate the value of including collateral lines in your research;
  • encourage you to seek out new record sets for specific time periods;
  • enhance your critical thinking, by provoking the question: have I made too many assumptions about the negative space?

By making your research a visual rather than written entity, you can spot new areas to explore. By actively identifying the negative space, you avoid extrapolating from your existing research points without having good cause – helping you to avoid anchoring bias.

Try This Timeline Trick on Yourself

We’ve seen how you can use negative space to nudge your thinking in the right direction. Yet the perfect demonstration of how negative space can distort the story comes from comparing someone’s lived experience with the official record. There’s only one option for this though – using the one timeline you know all the secrets of: your own.

Timeline 1 (Civil Registration and Census)

Use the colour coding I gave you earlier, draw a timeline for yourself, but include only the information as you would appear in your country’s census and civil registration records. Now take a step back and look at the whole timeline so far. If someone a hundred, maybe two hundred years from now were to see this timeline, how accurate an impression would they have of your life?

Examine the negative space on the expanses of time between these sampling points. Sit for a minute and think about what might have happened in your life throughout these periods. How much of the picture is missing at the moment? What would other researchers have to do in order to find those missing pieces – especially if they don’t know to look for them? Which alternative record sources might need to be consulted to illuminate these areas of your life?

Make your timelines colourful and bold to spot negative space.
Image by sig_agv via Flickr, CC-BY-ND 2.0

Timeline 2 (Enhanced Sources)

Now draw a second timeline, just like the first. Add in your birth, marriage and census points. Then add in the following, each with a different colour:

  • All points in time where you changed residence;
  • Births of any children/grandchildren;
  • Any divorces or separations;
  • Any brushes with the law;
  • Any appearances in the news;
  • All jobs you had.

Now compare this second timeline to your first. How do the two stories differ? Moreover, how would they differ or things falter if someone were constrained to work backwards through your timeline?

Clearly, restricting your research to records of civil registration and the decennial census doesn’t paint a full picture of your life. Once you’ve seen how much someone would miss of your life by only using the core records, why would you want to take this approach with your own ancestors, in cases where alternative sources are available?

Make these two timelines visible in your workspace. Try pinning both your timelines up together, or set an image of them as your computer wallpaper. Every time you see them, it’ll remind you of the extent of information hidden within the negative space and will ensure that this new perspective is in the forefront of your mind when you’re analysing a research problem.

What Does This Tell Us?

The lived experience will always be far richer and more detailed than anything the official record could depict. Yet all too often we can be drawn into the trap of taking a small number of points from censuses and a handful of civil registration certificates and extrapolating too much from them in order to fill in the story. For some individuals who stayed put in the same house and job for decades, this might not distort the picture too much. But for many others this isn’t the case.

  1. Consult a variety of sources to depict residential, employment and social history. Land registry, employment and apprenticeship records, taxation records, electoral roll, wills and probate – these are just a few ideas. Look at this article by Lisa Lisson to get some ideas for hunting down more unusual genealogy sources.
  2. Extended family and the FAN Club (Friends and Neighbours) matter. To flesh out those gaps in your ancestor’s timeline, you need to know about their siblings, children and associates. Ancestors may appear on registration or census listings for other significant people in their life. Perhaps they were a signatory on a death certificate, or stayed with a friend on census night?
  3. Some of the best research comes when we’re able to appreciate the positive and negative space in our research simultaneously. By valuing the evidence we already have within the context of the unseen part of the story, we can find sensible directions in which to develop our research.

Guard Against Anchoring Bias

People nowadays don’t always continue the same occupation throughout their lives; the people of yesteryear were no different. It’s entirely possible (as proven by my own family history) to find an ancestor who started out as a cordwainer, left to join the military, returned to shoemaking on leaving the army, before settling down as a museum curator in old age. This wax-wane occupational transit, coupled with a lack of attention to the negative space, is a prime breeding ground for anchoring bias.

An excited, hasty researcher looking only at the positive evidence might say, “a museum curator! So we have a man of education who’s interested in the arts.” They might even assume that his final occupation was representative of his entire life, and ignore any searches that suggested otherwise – overlooking the matches which came up for a cordwainer in the town a few years before. They’ve assumed their existing findings are the whole story and fallen right into the trap of anchoring bias.

Copy of Andrew Todd's book, "Family History Nuts and Bolts: Problem Solving Through Family Reconstitution Techniques"
Andrew Todd’s book, “Problem Solving Through Family Reconstitution Techniques” includes some great examples of occupational reversion over a lifetime – exactly the kind of difficulties that Negative Space methods can help you navigate.

A negative space perspective provides a very different mindset for the question forming and search stage. Instead of saying, “I have a museum curator to look for” now the researcher might say, “This man was a curator in later life, but I don’t have evidence for what he was doing before that”.

Make Negative Space Work For You

I hope I’ve been able to convince you just how useful it can be to think about the negative space in your ancestral timelines. The Negative Space perspective will help you to keep an open mind and to ask all sorts of important questions such as:

  • Why is there a gap here?
  • Is there a key search I’ve forgotten to run?
  • What record sets haven’t I consulted yet?

If there’s one take-home from this article I’d like you to remember, it’s this: that life is lived as a continuum, but that we genealogists are constrained to reconstruct that life from only a scattering of points in time.

To do justice to our ancestors’ stories, we must acknowledge the limitations of the data points we have, and celebrate that evidence for what it is rather than distorting or stretching it into a time period it wasn’t ever meant to narrate. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and only think about the negative space. Remember that drawing that fruit bowl earlier required us to look at the fruit AND the spaces in between. Positive and negative space work as a team to tell a story.

So learn to appreciate the structure and knowledge – that wonderful positive space – in your timelines. But give that negative space some time too. Your family tree will grow and flourish as a result!

Image by c.art via Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Coming Soon…

Next week, I’ll explore the idea of Negative Space on a larger scale and show you how it can shed light on your own genealogy research habits, through a technique called Record Cluster Analysis. If you’re keen to learn about this, then register to receive email updates for each new post using the sign-up field in the right hand pane – or follow me on Twitter, where I announce each new post (@ScientistSoph). See you soon!

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