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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Primary, Secondary or what?

Much of the genealogical literature encourages researchers to consult “primary” records and at the same time decries the use of “secondary” records. This dichotomy is overly simplistic and often misleading. In examining a variety of documents it is frequently impossible to categorize any given source as either primary or secondary or whatever. Few of the documents considered to be “primary” sources are in reality documents created at the time of the event by a first hand observer. Let me take as an example a death certificate. Transitional genealogical literature would say something like, “a death certificate would be a primary source for the date of death but not for the date of deceased's birth.” In fact, any particular death certificate could be secondary or further removed as a source for the date of death and more reliable for the birth date. Categorization of records can produce a false positive or a false negative.
Here is a quote from the USGenWeb Project on the difference between primary and secondary evidence:
"Primary" Resources: Those that recount an event at or close to the time it happened; original records of events and may include: diaries, journals, state or federal census records, courthouse records such as deeds, will probates, birth or death records, baptism or marriage records. Also included as primary sources would be ship's passenger lists and military records.

"Secondary Resources: Published records, including: family histories, indexes or compilations of census or marriage records, any sort of history (county, state, etc.), and collections of cemetery inscriptions, for instance.

Primary records are, of course, the most reliable sources, but secondary records can provide you with many clues for further research.
Rather than viewing records in categories as primary or secondary, I believe it is more productive to view all records merely as evidence to be weighed, similar to the way that evidence is presented in support of a legal case. The instructions given to jurors illustrate this attitude. For example, one jury instruction routinely given at trials involves the evaluation of evidence. Here is one such instruction from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals:
The evidence you are to consider in deciding what the facts are consists of:
1. the sworn testimony of any witness;
2. the exhibits which are received into evidence; and
3. any facts to which the lawyers have agreed.
In addition, the jury is routinely admonished to wait until they have heard all of evidence before making a decision.  As you can see, the concept is not to apply some sort of evaluation level to an individual document or record but to consider the relationship that the record has to the entire body of evidence available and to have the patience to wait until all of the evidence is presented before making a final decision about the issues of the case.

It seems that I am frequently dealing with someone who has found a primary source document and thinks the evaluation of the believability of the "evidence" contained in the document is basically over. After all, the document is a primary source! Simply locating a primary source document, no matter how defined, is not an excuse for discontinuing research. Until the document is evaluated in the context of all of the "evidence" available, no decision about the investigation can or should be made.

Routinely researchers come to me with issues regarding contradictory evidence. Just recently, one researcher was stopped by the problem that the death certificate, census records and a ship manifest did not agree as to the date of birth of the ancestor. My response was, “So what?” All that means is you need more evidence. In this particular case we looked for and found a marriage record in the newly added records on The marriage record lead me to believe that the ship manifest was likely not the same person, or if it was, the record was inaccurate as to the age of the immigrant.

Returning to the death certificate, there is no way to tell whether or not any of the information was actually gathered or recorded at or about the time of death especially if the information is inconsistent with other documents and records.The mere fact that the record may have been created at or near the time of the event does not, in itself, give any more credence to the information contained in the document.
To cite another jury instruction, this one discusses the credibility to give the testimony given by a witness. Most of the same considerations apply to documents discovered in the course of genealogical investigation. Here is the instruction, again from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals:

In deciding the facts in this case, you may have to decide which testimony to believe and which testimony not to believe. You may believe everything a witness says, or part of it, or none of it.

In considering the testimony of any witness, you may take into account:

(1) the witness’s opportunity and ability to see or hear or know the things testified to;

(2) the witness’s memory;

(3) the witness’s manner while testifying;

(4) the witness’s interest in the outcome of the case, if any;

(5) the witness’s bias or prejudice, if any;

(6) whether other evidence contradicted the witness’s testimony;

(7) the reasonableness of the witness’s testimony in light of all the evidence; and

(8) any other factors that bear on believability.

The weight of the evidence as to a fact does not necessarily depend on the number of witnesses who testify about it.
Some of these instructions merit another post, but suffice it to say that simply deciding whether a document is a primary or secondary source would have little or no value in deciding the ultimate issues of the case. 
So what is the use of considering whether a document is a primary or secondary source? The distinction is actually quite meaningless and may, in fact be impossible to determine, but the terms have a nice ring to them and they have been repeated so many times that that they taken a the truth. In the real world, very few documents will prove to be completely primary source material.
Comments would be appreciated.


  1. Thanks for another interesting post, James. I often find that details on Scottish Death Certificates do not tie in with evidence from other sources, as the informant may not have known the deceased's exact age, or parents' full names. I have found instances where the mother's maiden name given is actually for the other side of the family. No doubt due to grief and stress at the time.

  2. kinda goes along with my thought that there is no such thing as a "bad source"

  3. Interesting thoughts. I think that the general idea of primary/secondary simplifies a more complicated concept and helps beginners to understand. I don't think I would consider it meaningless. It can and should (I think) be used as an introduction to the idea of "trustworthiness" of source information, but I think that as you are more experienced, and learn line-upon-line, what you mention up above should be understood as well. And going along with what Lynn said, people can be too simplistic about this and put too much trust in "primary source info" and then discount to readily "secondary source info." But at the same time, I don't think that it's a concept that should be discarded, just defined better. (Maybe the problem is that we've taken a concept from historical research terminology and tried to fit it into genealogy research by assigning those terms to tiny pieces of very specific information, and it doesn't actually fit....) Good food for thought.

  4. It's always a real hoot for me to see that census records should be given so much weight in establishing identity, age, race, and living situation.

    How many of us have run across census records that completely butchered the spelling of an ancestor's surname? Or how about the math skills of some enumerators - many of whom were not highly educated themselves - in calculations of age? And let us not forget that sometimes, the reporters for a household were children or next door neighbors.

    Several of my far-flung ancestors used their ability as informants, i.e., next of kin for death certificates, to ensure that a family secret was kept.

    Good post. You do have to add up all the pieces in order to see the whole...

  5. The definitions embodied in the Genealogical Proof Standard are pretty definitive and should be considered in your discussion above. The GPS discusses analyzing and drawing conclusions from all of the evidence found to support an assertion. See

    In the GPS, Sources are either Original or Derivative.

    Information is either Primary or Secondary.

    Evidence is either Direct or Indirect.

    These defintions make a lot of sense to me, and have been adopted by almost all of the professional community. You will hear them used almost exclusively at conferences.

  6. Dear James, Thank you for your helpful insight on a matter that has concerned me for much of my research. I find that there can be no primary source for much of my own genealogy research. When I found my father's death certificate his date of birth and year seemed to have been transposed. Dec 21 1920 instead of Dec 20 1921.
    I very much wanted the correct information recorded and sent his military records to the state to prove his correct date of birth and thought that the clerk had simply transposed those two dates. I paid and it now is corrected. However after talking to the funeral home it came to my attention that they could have given the incorrect date to the state when his death was recorded. And at such a stressful time family members are often confused and could have misinformed the funeral home. So weighing the evidence is the only way to find the truth.
    Thank you.