Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Short Primer on Sources

Judging from what I commonly see in facebook posts and online family trees, there’s widespread mystification when it comes to sources and genealogy. More specifically, there’s a lack of understanding about which sources have more or less clout in given situations. This is a bigger subject than can be thoroughly addressed in a single blog post. Lengthy books have been devoted to it. (See the latest edition of Elizabeth Shown Mills’s Evidence Explained, which is widely considered to be the industry standard.) What I will attempt here is a quick primer for the complete novice.

Like any historian, the genealogist relies upon records for credible information about the past. Depending upon the questions being asked, he/she consults different kinds of records for the best possible data. They come in two broad categories: primary sources and secondary sources.

A primary source offers information supplied by a direct witness to an event during the time this event occurred. Such records are the basic stuff with which we write history. A secondary source is an account written after an event by someone who was not a direct witness to it. Both primary and secondary sources have important uses, but primary sources are the strongest support for genealogical facts.

The important thing to keep in mind about these categories is that they often depend upon context. A primary source for one historical fact may be a secondary source for another. For instance, a death certificate is a primary source for its person’s death date/place, cause of death, last address, and often their spouse’s identity. But this certificate is usually a secondary source for the person’s birth year and place. Why do I say “usually”? Because much depends upon when the person died, who supplied the information filled out on the certificate, and what this person directly knew about the deceased. If the informant is a child or spouse of the deceased supplying this information many years after the birth event, the death certificate is a secondary source for that event. If the informant is a parent tragically supplying information for their deceased newborn, their testimony about the birth event becomes primary source information (or something extremely close to it). For another instance, a biography of Abraham Lincoln authored in 1999 is a secondary source concerning Abraham Lincoln, but it becomes a primary source if the research question directly involves evaluating biographies of Abraham Lincoln rather than studying Lincoln’s life circumstances.

Sometimes things can get pretty dicey, because you’ll encounter grey areas. For instance, say that you interview your grandfather, and he starts talking about things he remembers happening decades previously. He may tell you that he recalls attending his great uncle’s funeral, and that he’s “pretty sure” it occurred in Seattle in 1962. Your grandfather may have been a primary witness to this event, but his information has long since ceased to be primary source information. Time has altered the credibility of his recall. It’s quite possible that he is confusing this funeral and/or this year with another funeral at another place. It’s also possible he’s not. You have no way of knowing based upon his testimony alone.

Likewise, some information on written sources (even ones more squarely primary in nature) may be recorded incorrectly, incompletely, or illegibly. This leads to a crucial point: you should never be so satisfied with one source about a fact that you stop seeking and citing other quality sources for it when at all possible. Sometimes beginners say, “I already have a source for X event.” But it’s not just what one source, even a primary source, tells you; it’s also how multiple sources synergize, and what they say in concert with one another about the facts under consideration. Analyzing and making decisions about their collective testimony, contradictions and all, are at the heart of responsible genealogy. Doing well at these things requires patience and meticulousness, which develop with practice and experience.

Once more, while there are some very important uses for secondary source information, primary source information should be the basis, indeed the very lifeblood, of your family history research. And while many records are at least in some cases primary sources, others will only ever be secondary sources when it comes to your family history. Unfortunately, beginners often use certain easily-accessible secondary (or even tertiary) sources with abandon, and in ways that make them genealogical junk food. One of these, Findagrave.com, is a veritable security blanket among neophytes. I’ll address this website and its uses in my next post.

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