In all important decisions we need to consider the source of our information. This article helps us to understand why we should check our genealogy sources carefully.
This great article is written by my friend, Bryan Mulcahy, from the Ft. Myers, Library.
Primary vs. Secondary Sources in Genealogical Research
For many beginning researchers, the terms primary and secondary information and sources can be confusing. Primary sources, briefly defined, are documents or records created at the time of, or shortly after, an event by either someone with personal knowledge of the facts or the actual testimony of a person involved in the event. In the ideal situation, informants may have been on the scene at the time of the event, and were close friends of the individual or family members. Unfortunately, it is possible that they may have been bystanders or neighbors whose knowledge of the individual or family may have been limited at best. Fortunately, if this was the case, authorities may have tried to locate family members to obtain additional details.
Primary sources are usually the first or earliest documents in which a particular piece of information was recorded. This source may be an official document or certificate, or a published work containing transcribed information from original documents or other primary sources. Records containing this scope of information may include diaries, journals, state or federal census records, courthouse records such as deeds, wills, probates, birth or death records, baptism or marriage records, ships passenger lists and military records. Primary records are, of course, the most reliable sources, but secondary records can provide you with many clues for further research.
Secondary sources are published works, including those distributed electronically, either copied or compiled from primary sources, or reflecting the conclusions of a researcher based on primary or secondary sources. Secondary information was usually provided by someone whose knowledge of data was not from firsthand knowledge. They may have been family members but were either away at the time the event occurred, estranged from the individual or family, or resided in distant localities.
Secondary sources are those records or other pieces of information that were created at some time after an event occurred. The passage of time, the lapse of memory, and the lack of knowledge (or ignorance) of the person providing the information all conspire to make the evidence less than reliable. In addition, an informant sometimes falsifies information for a variety of reasons. When analyzing information, regardless of whether it is a primary or secondary source, it is helpful to know the relationship between the informant to the individual or family. That relationship may shed light on the potential accuracy of the information.
Secondary sources should be viewed with skepticism until they are later verified in a primary source. By their very nature they should be suspect, and you should always seek additional evidence to either corroborate or contradict the facts they present. Examples of secondary sources may include family histories, bible records, indexes or compilations of census or marriage records, any sort of history (county, state, etc.), and collections of cemetery inscriptions.
Some documents can be both primary and secondary sources. Death certificates are notorious for their errors. Dependable information on a death certificate may include the name of the decedent, date and place of death, place of burial, and undertaker’s name. However, the key word is “may”. Always examine the date of death and the certificate's issue date. If there is any significant time lapse, look for other corroborating evidence elsewhere. Also, the date of birth, birth location, age, names of spouse, and names of parents are all secondary sources. Never take these details for fact. Remember that someone else acted as informant in order to fill out the certificate. If he or she didn't know the correct information, he/she may have guessed at it. Use these pieces of information as pointers, but always find other substantiating evidence.
Bryan L. Mulcahy
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL 33901-3917