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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 ($).
Of course you have noticed that the charts or forms you work with have similarities in their basic requirements. Without a name in each generation, even if it’s only a surname, you can’t begin to start filling in the details for an ancestor. You want to concentrate on the elementary vital events that frame each ancestor’s life span: BIRTH–MARRIAGE–DEATH, often abbreviated to BMD. Each of these events requires the person’s name to be associated with a date and place (NAME–DATE–PLACE or NDP).
When you’re searching any kind of records for a birth, marriage or death, the time period (date) and the location (place) help to identify whether you are looking at an event for the “right” ancestor. In other words, the date and/or location can help distinguish between a father and son with the same name, or two cousins, or uncle and nephew, and so on. You may be surprised how many “same names” pop up in different places!
We try to collect and confirm all this basic information on our working charts for a “bare bones” outline before we can find and add interesting biographical details and contemporary context.
You may wonder if there is a distinction or difference in the terms “genealogist” and “family historian.” Probably a genealogist was once regarded as more of a technician than a story-teller. Family historians may be regarded as less careful or exacting about their work. These days, the terms are commonly used interchangeably as widespread educational opportunities teach a professional and principled approach to whatever your personal project is. Most of us now are not content with merely collecting NDP and BMD or constructing lengthy genealogical tables. We not only want to reconstruct the lives of our ancestors, we want to do it to a high standard.
Sources give information; information gives evidence. Evidence is what you finally insert on your charts or family history or software, when you are satisfied that you are as close to the truth as possible about an ancestral identity, event or relationship. Both sources and information must be examined and evaluated for their genealogical value.
The Sources We Use
It is necessary for you to be discriminating about the source of a piece of information. Sources are the form in which we find our information. Sources may contain one or more pieces of information. How credible or reliable is a particular source? When was it created, and by whom? If your father tells you that great-uncle Jimmy came to Canada from England in 1912, you believe him, right? But later you find Jimmy’s marriage registered in Manitoba in 1910. Then his obituary says he came to Canada in 1910. Meanwhile, an Internet site shows a family group record for him with a specific marriage date in 1908. We will return to Jimmy later on.
What are you to believe about his emigration and marriage dates? First of all, consider the sources. We ask ourselves, am I dealing with an original source, or a derivative source? Are some sources more “reliable” than others, or inherently carry more value than others?
An original source is one that was created at or about the time a certain event happened, reported by a witness or participant in that event. In other words, the informant was in a position of firsthand knowledge. An original source is one that does not derive from a previously existing record. It happens that sometimes an original record, like a birth or a baptism, was never created or has not survived destruction of some kind.
A derivative source is any non-original source. We have to remember to distinguish between a source and the information within it. In general, a derivative is any source that is based on a previous source, even if the original source no longer exists. Examples are family stories, family histories, databases, indexes, transcriptions and abstracts. Someone repeated these (verbal stories) in the effort to duplicate them, or compiled (in writing) their version of a finding aid, summary or history. The latter usually reflect conclusions reached by the compiler, which may or may not agree with your own examination of the same sources. But “conclusions” are broaching on the topics of information and evidence.
We are saying that derivative sources should not be taken at face value without studying the who-why-how-when-where of their creation, in order to place a relative weight on various bits of information within them. They are less reliable than an original source, simply because they are further removed in time or composition from an original, and become more prone to human error. However, derivative sources are frequently necessary for providing information and clues when original records are absent.
At one time we would have said that all published material (in print, orally transmitted or Internet material) is derivative. The Internet is akin to a giant publisher where anyone can post family information (we are not referring to such valuable tools as library catalogs and the like). While this still holds, the digitization of historic original records by reputable institutions is becoming a fast-growing segment of Internet activity. Viewing a digital image of a census return, for example, seems just as valid as searching the same page on a microfilm reader—which is normally as close as we are allowed to a census return. Therefore, the Internet itself can hardly be categorized as a “source” but needs citation to the specific site or URL of interest.
Types of Information
Genealogical information is a statement about an ancestor, event, relationship, etc. (This is not the same as a deduction or assertion you make after examining the information you collected and your analysis of its evidence.) Information might be reported in writing or orally.
The information you find in a source may be primary or secondary. Those two adjectives describe the knowledge a source offers about NDP or BMD as they relate to a specific individual. Primary and secondary are words previously used in genealogy, and still used in other studies, to describe sources. Now the discriminating genealogist understands that it is the information itself which can be differentiated. One source can even contain both kinds of information.
Primary information is a statement of knowledge by a participant or witness to the NDP in any given situation, whether that person reports it at the time, or later. It may sometimes be erroneous, deliberately or inadvertently.
Secondary information is a statement of knowledge reported by someone who was not a participant or witness to a certain event. It has more chance of being inaccurate.
A death certificate or registration is an original source, often with many pieces of information within it. We normally view the person’s name, date and place of death, name of informant and cause of death as primary information. If the record also provides his age, date and place of birth, the names of his parents, and more, we must regard such as secondary. Even if the informant was his widow or one of his children, they do not have firsthand knowledge of his birth. If the informant was a physician or non-family member, would he be accurate about the names of parents?
Our initial question or problem about Jimmy was to determine his date of immigration into Canada. Applying the above descriptions and explanations to our example of Jimmy, we had these sources and information:
- your father said Jimmy arrived in Canada from England in 1912
- Jimmy’s marriage certificate says he was married in Canada in 1910
- Jimmy’s obituary said he came to Canada in 1910
- a family group record on the Internet gave Jimmy’s marriage date as 1908
1. Your father is the oral source of the information. How does he know that date? Was he alive and at the steamship pier when Jimmy sailed in? Or was he in the family home when they welcomed Jimmy to Canada? You should be able to learn if your father was born before 1912 in Canada and thus whether he was old enough to provide a first-hand account. This will help determine whether he is an original or derivative source and if his information is primary or secondary.
2. The marriage certificate was created by at least one party to the event and is an original source. By the 20th century, most jurisdictions placed the onus on the officiating person (clergyman or civil magistrate) to register this event. We expect the names, date and place of marriage to be primary and accurate information. Clearly this date conflicts with your father’s story. At this point we are not examining or commenting on all other information in this record (presumably provided by the groom or bride or both).
3. Jimmy’s obituary provided additional information. The source is a local newspaper, presumably where he had been living. A newspaper is an original source in itself but contains a multitude of reports relating to current events, editorial opinions, notices copied from other newspapers or services, advertisements, local news and so on—a lot of it secondary information. Its value as a source is strictly dependent on the particular piece of information relevant to the enquiry at hand. Since an obituary is obviously published after someone died, who supplied the information to the journalist? Did that person have first-hand knowledge of Jimmy’s immigration date? If it was his widow, was she present when he arrived in Canada? If it was one of his children, they would have no first-hand knowledge of the event. Sometimes the questions we must ask will never get clear answers. In this case, chances are the year of immigration is secondary information, but does not necessarily conflict with the date of his marriage.
4. A family group record on an Internet site is a derivative source, compiled and posted by some other researcher whom you likely do not know or have never met. Or perhaps the website owner is not even a researcher, but someone who lifted the material from a friend, relative or distant contact. The information has to be regarded as secondary. Are there clear citations for each piece of information? That would enable you to check the sources which were used and make your evaluations.
The only original source with primary information cited above is Jimmy’s marriage record. In view of that, your father was mistaken about the year he immigrated and the website is wrong about his marriage date. Although we have unresolved questions about the informant for the obituary, it confirms the 1910 immigration date. It is possible that he arrived from England and was married in the same year. A good researcher will explore additional sources in order to draw a firm conclusion.
It should be clear from this small example that:
- a) you will constantly come across both original and derivative sources
- b) some of the information can be contradictory
- c) you will need to develop the skills of evaluating sources and analyzing information.
Evaluation and Analysis
You are beginning to see how many questions you can ask yourself about sources and information, as you proceed in your personal project. Evaluation of sources and analysis of information is an ongoing procedure. As long as you examine all your sources and information as you go along, you are learning to act in a logical and professional manner.
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 email@example.com
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