Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sticking to the Original Records – What is an original record?

When I first started practicing law, now about forty or so years ago, I frequently had to worry about producing the "original" document as "evidence" in a hearing or trial. For example, if the dispute was about ownership of a piece of real property, I had to find and produce either the original deed or a certified and sometimes verified copy of the original. A mere copy of the deed was not acceptable and would be subject to the objection of the opposing attorney. After having produced the original and once it was "entered" into evidence, I could make a motion to the court (Judge) to substitute a "true" copy of the original rather than lose the original to the court's records of the trial.

It was not unusual to have a controversy over whether or not the document produced was actually an "original" document. As time passed, the need to produce an original document slowly disappeared. By the time I retired, the issue of an original only came up in very limited cases. One notable exception was the production of an "original" signed and witnessed will in a probate action. No copy was ever accepted by the court (Commissioner or Judge).  Likewise, if there was dispute over whether or not an original document existed or over the accuracy of a copy, the original document had to be produced.

Genealogist live in a world of documents. Some of these are "originals" in the sense that they were created at or near the time of an event, but most, are really just copies of these originals, if an original document could be said to exist at all. For the purposes of the court, we had to show that the document contained either an "original signature" or that the document had a seal and stamp from some government agency certifying that it was a true copy of the original in the agency's files. The reason why this early rule was enforced was to ensure that the original document had not been altered by making a copy. As document reproduction technology developed, this need to see an actual original document almost disappeared, as I noted.

When I read or listen to genealogists talk about documents, they often refer to the distinction between examining the original record as opposed to a copy. The idea is that the original will somehow always be more reliable than the copy. Let's think about that for a minute. For example, an index is a copy of a document. Unless the index clearly indicates the source of the information and identifies the original documents used to compile the index, there is no way to tell whether or not the index is an accurate representation of the information contained in the original. I often see an online database program where the information provided comes from an index and there is no link or citation to where I might find the original record. Here is an example from This is a screenshot of the California Death Index 1940 - 1997. It has over 9 million individual records.

Here is the citation provided by California, Death Index, 1940-1997 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000.
Original data: State of California. California Death Index, 1940-1997. Sacramento, CA, USA: State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics.
In other words, the index is a copy of the California Index. This may or may not be a problem, but we certainly do not know the relationship between the two indexes. does provide some additional information.
About California, Death Index, 1940-1997

Indexing death records in California between 1940 and 1997, this database is an invaluable tool for those researching in the state of California. 
Vital records in California have been kept by the state registrar of vital statistics since 01 July 1905. This database is an index to the death records in California from 1940 through 1997. The database may provide such valuable information as first, last and middle names of the decedents, birth dates, mother's maiden name, father's last name, sex, birth place, death place, residence at time of death, death date, social security number (when available), and the age of the individual at the time they became deceased. The information provided in this database is sure to prove useful to those researching in the state of California. 
Use the information below to obtain a copy of a death certificate from California. 
California Department of Health Services
Office of Vital Records
M.S. 5103
P.O. Box 997410
Sacramento, CA 95899-7410

Please visit the following web site to obtain the necessary forms and current pricing information: 
Why can’t I see the Social Security Number? 
If the Social Security Number is not visible on the record index it is because does not provide this number in this database for any person who has passed away within the past 10 years.
I am guessing the nearly all the users of the California Death Index on, simply enter the dates into their family tree and ignore all the supplementary information. More sophisticated users might follow up and try to order a copy of the death certificate.

Why do I bring up this issue? The answer goes back to my initial discussion about the need to produce an "original" document. This rule existed in the court system until copies of the original became reliable enough to use in the ordinary course of litigation. But in some instances, even a photocopy was not sufficient to satisfy the court that the document was reliable. This is still a very good criteria for use by serious researchers. Here, using the California example, the accuracy of the index cannot be determined because the original supporting documents are not readily available. In these cases it is necessary to follow up and obtain access to the most reliable documents, most original, that can be obtained. Any information obtained from an index where the original documentation cannot be examined, must be considered to be tentative and unreliable.

Genealogists sometimes couch the distinction between a copy and the original in the terms of "direct" vs. "indirect" evidence. Sometimes the terminology is between a "primary source" and a "secondary source." These distinctions are only partially helpful. Is the California Death Index a primary source? Is it direct or indirect evidence? If I were in court, I could argue that the California Death Index was a government record, kept in the course of the government's normal activities and should be accepted as reliable. Just because a document may fall into the category of an original, a primary document or even direct evidence, does not guarantee its accuracy. Even if I took the time and spent the money to get a copy of the "original" death certificate, there is no guarantee that the information on the death certificate would be accurate.

What is the poor genealogist to do? How do we know what is correct and what is not? That is the core issue of any historical research. All conclusions are tentative. All "proofs" are subject to revision. We may become convinced that we are right, but it is always a good idea to remind ourselves of this fact from time to time.

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