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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Reasons and Strategies for Using the Main Original Sources

Good research requires more than one piece of evidence to prove each point, simply because no one source can be relied upon 100%. There is no magic number as a lot depends upon the credibility of each source and whether the sources are truly independent. Say, your Grandad provided the information for the census giving Brighton as his birthplace, and he also wrote this in a letter to your aunt, and told his son who told you—these are really only one source aren’t they! As a good starting point I suggest that you find three independent sources that give the same information. It is also unwise to rely on only one type of source, thus three census records are not as good as oral family information, a christening record and one census. Be aware that any source may have errors, sometimes several on one sheet!

Using Civil Registration (Vital Statistics)

In our quest to find at least three pieces of evidence to prove each point, civil registration of birth, marriage and death is one of the five main original sources. What information do these registrations or certificates provide?

A birth certificate will always have the name of the child together with its date and place of birth. ‘Long form’ certificates will include the parents’ full names, including the maiden name of the mother, essential for finding their marriage.

In different countries and at different periods you may also find the father’s and mother’s occupations, informant’s signature, relationship and address, name of attending medical personnel, and details of parent’s marriage and other children.

A marriage certificate will state the date and place of the marriage, together with the full names of the bride and groom. Depending upon the time period and jurisdiction you may also find the ages, addresses and occupations of the parties, their parents’ names, addresses, occupations and whether still alive, religious denominations, whether the marriage was by banns or licence, signatures of parties and witnesses, clergyman and/or registrar’s signature and in some countries much more besides.

A death certificate will give the name of the deceased and the date and place of death. Some jurisdictions also record several of the following details: marital status, name of spouse and whether still alive, age, occupation, cause of death, names of deceased’s parents, informant’s signature, relationship and residence, where and when buried, names of surviving and deceased children, whether there was property left and its nature. Information on a death certificate is rarely given by the person in question, thus one is relying on what the informant knew, or thought he knew, or wanted others to believe!

A civil registration certificate not only provides one of the three necessary pieces of evidence for a linkage, but also gives much interesting family detail and plenty of leads for further research. For example:

  • The district where one civil registration event occurs may well be the one where several family events took place.
  • Addresses on certificates are prime leads for locating the whole family on a census.
  • Names of parents or children, and ages given, allow one to proceed to other civil registration events.
  • Occupations listed open up all kinds of doors for further research.

Is civil registration always an original source? If you are able to view the original record (or photocopy or microform of it) then it is. To date, in England and Wales this is rarely possible—the local superintendent registrars retain the originals but generally do not have the equipment to make photocopy certificates, and regulations preclude ordinary photocopies. The GRO (national office) only has transcripts so the researcher either receives a photocopy certificate of the transcript, or a transcript of the transcript. This situation may change soon if older registrations are declared historic and allowed to be microfilmed.

One should never believe or expect that all information on marriages and death certificates is primary. The only primary information on a marriage certificate is the date and place of marriage, and the names of bride and groom, (although cases of marriage under false names are known!) The only primary information on a death certificate is the name, date and place of death and the information about the informant. All the other information—ages, names of parents, place of birth, etc. can be considered secondary (or questionable and needing supportive information from other sources). The primary and secondary labels are for guidance and can surely be questioned at times regarding the type of information a source provides. For more information about civil registration/vital statistics records, refer to the appropriate course for the country of interest.



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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 22 April 2014, at 22:52.
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