In two previous blog posts, I described format changes for the next edition of Dad’s family history and examined citation of sources. This blog post, third in the series, presents evaluation of sources and the information in them Get a cup of your favorite beverage and a snack because this is a long post! You may even want to read it in 2 sittings!
Entering the facts in a database or research log is only the beginning! “Oh, no,” you say, “there’s more?” Oh, yes, there’s more! Review the document itself. Identify the document (or source) as original/ primary, derivative/ secondary, or authored / tertiary. Classify the information found in the source as primary, secondary, or unknown. A statement about both the source and its contents can be included in your citation of the source.
“The Evidence Analysis Process Map”, designed by Elizabeth Shown Mills, puts these concepts in perspective:
To begin, use one of the sources cited in the previous blog:
1790 U.S. Census, Bucks county, Pennsylvania, population schedule, township not stated, p. 112 (penned), col. 1, Peter Pofte [Poste]; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed, viewed, downloaded 17 October 2017); citing National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication M637, roll 8.
The document is a scanned or microfilmed copy of the original document, held at National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. (the repository). An online database provided access to the document. Document is a primary source.
The writing is uniform, indicating that one person filled it out. Census takers received instructions about the report and what information to collect. Recording the information at or near the time of the event, the census taker asked questions of a household member, possibly the head of household, Peter Poste, or a neighbor. The number and ages of people in the family should be validated by other sources and serves as a base for future research. Primary information.
Guidelines for Evaluating Sources & Documents
In genealogy, sources are classified as original, derivative or authored.  You may also see the terms primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.  ,  The concepts are essentially the same. An original source is “material in its first oral or recorded form.”  Created at or near the time of the actual event, reports by someone who experienced or witnessed an event are classified as original sources.  This includes original materials from the time period, such as tax lists.
Examples include original birth & marriage certificates, physical objects (such as a cross-stitch sampler), autobiographies, personal diaries and audio recordings. A map created at or near a specific date is an original source.  Other examples are creative works, such as art, poetry and music and original articles or reports of research studies. Are satellite images of the earth primary sources? Yes, if the image has not been changed. An exact photocopy , microfilm image, photograph or scanned image of a document  are generally classified as primary sources. However, the information may be either primary or secondary.
One of my prized items is an autograph book that belonged to my maternal great-grandmother, Anna Klee Maurer. The small book contains notes from her friends and teachers. The most significant entries (to me) are the notes written by Anna’s future husband, Hermann Maurer (dated October 21, 1883) and the notes written, in German, by her future in-laws, Valentine and Katharina Maurer.The book itself is a primary source. Translations of the German language entries are derivative sources. A transcription of all entries in the book becomes a derivative source with secondary information.
In contrast, derivative or secondary sources are created after the event. A copy of an original or original in which the content has been manipulated are examples. Derivative sources interpret or evaluate evidence, especially when the original work was done by others. Specific examples include delayed birth certificates, tombstones, county record books (which are transcriptions of original documents), databases, translations, transcriptions of personal diaries or audio recordings, and some family histories.
An image copy of an original birth, marriage, or death certificate is a primary source. However, if the certificate is a transcription of the original certificate, then it is a secondary source. My maternal grandparents’ death certificates, obtained from the state of New York, are original sources with a blend or primary and secondary information.
My great-aunt Viola wrote a brief family history of the Tucker and Maurer families. The handwritten document names five generations of my mother’s family with some birth, death, and marriage dates. Two family stories tell of possible lost fortunes. I have a carbon copy of the original document. Here’s my citation with source and contents evaluation:
“Maurer- Tucker Family History.” (Handwritten notes. Huntington, New York, ca. 1985), carbon copy privately held by Susan M. Posten Ellerbee, [address for private use,], Yukon, Oklahoma, 2010. Transcribed by Ms. Ellerbee in 2012. Author considered reliable. No sources given. Family stories told to Mrs. Tucker by her grandparents. Most names & dates have been verified with other sources. Secondary source with blend of primary and secondary information.
The third category of sources is authored works which are a “hybrid of both original and derivative sources”  Labelled as tertiary in other disciplines, these sources obtain information from primary and derivative sources. Examples include manuscripts with personal conclusions; family histories may fall into this category. Other types are county histories with genealogical and biographical information, textbooks, directories, video documentaries and reference books such as encyclopedia, handbooks, and manuals. The Posten family history that I am revising is this type of source.
Q & A
Are photocopies original or derivative sources? Mills (2015, p. 30) states “. . . image copies as originals so long as (a) the images are legible; and (b) their information does not conflict with other information.” If these criteria are not met, treat the image copy as derivative and “seek access to the material from which the images were made.” This concept provided my rationale for seeking the actual books at a local library instead of using online copies of the same books.
What about a scanned or digital image of a marriage record found online? Most consider this as a primary source, it meets the criteria above. Some consider this as a derivative source. If possible, obtain a copy of original by personally visiting or requesting the document from the repository. Remember that the county clerk’s office or the church where the marriage was performed are the repositories, not the online database. The church or county hold the original document as filed in their office. A note of caution here. Ask for an actual copy of the original or you may get a copy of a form with information typed in. This type of document is a transcript of the original and, therefore, not a primary source. (Disclaimer: I read this on a blog and now can’t find the reference!).
As the next step, evaluate the information in the document. Similar to the classification of sources, information is classified as primary, secondary, or unknown. Any document may contain a blend of these categories. Information in the document, a.k.a, content , is classified according to its origin :
Primary information is information provided by someone who experienced or witnessed an event . If created at or near the actual event, the document or information is marked as primary.  Examples include eyewitness accounts of an event, names of persons on census records, and first person accounts of an event in their original form, such as handwritten entries in a personal diary.
What about death certificates? Death certificates contain both primary and secondary information. The person’s name and death information – date, time, place and cause of death- are primary information. The person’s date of birth, place of birth and parents’ names are secondary information.
Secondary information is information provided by someone who has some knowledge of the event but did not actually witness the event. An intrepretation or evaluation of someone else’s work is secondary. Specific examples include marriage information copied into a courthouse or county marriage book, hearsay, tradition, and local lore. The family stories documented by my great-aunt Viola are secondary information. A newspaper report of a family reunion contains secondary information although the reporter may use information obtained directly from the participants.
Information is labelled as ‘unknown’ when you don’t know who provided the information. Two examples are a newspaper obituary with no documentation of source and a photograph with no information about the persons in the photograph. This information needs to be validated by other sources. When you locate the newspaper where the obituary was published and the publication date, the information can then be classified as ‘secondary’.
Family Bible Records: Original or derivative?
- When was the Bible published? If the Bible was published prior to the events documented, then the record (and its scanned or photo copies) might be a primary source. When photocopying or scanning Bible records, also copy the title and publication date pages. “My cousin sent me a copy of the Bible pages but doesn’t have the page with the publication date!” Now what? Look further.
- Who wrote the entries? You may not know exactly who entered the information. I am fortunate to have a scanned copy of the presentation page for one family Bible so I know who the Bible belonged to and can date the entries from that point. A transcription of that information equals a derivative source.
- Look for differences in handwriting. If the entries were made close to the time of each event, you should see differences in the style of handwriting as well as differences in the ink.
Ask similar questions about each document that you review.
- Who created the document? Does the person have the authority to do so? Ask if the creator is an expert on the topic. A mother who writes her baby’s name and birth date in the family Bible is certainly an expert on the baby’s birth!
- What does the document contain? Is the information relevant to your research?
- When was the document created? If not an original document, when was it copied? If a transcript of the original, when was the transcription done? How accurate is the transcription? Think of census records. How many times have you seen a name that was transcribed incorrectly? Was the error because of poor or illegible handwriting?
- Where was the document created?
- Why was the document created?
- Assess the quality and accuracy of the information in the document. Can you verify the information using other sources?
To summarize, careful review and analysis of every source and fact leads to a more accurate story about your family. Seek primary sources whenever possible. Do you include an evaluation of every source and every piece of information? Ideally, yes. Drop-down menus appear on most genealogy software programs for this task. Document the classification of sources and information on research logs. Use software, such as Evidentia (https://www.evidentiasoftware.com ), to assist in your analysis.
For a fun and more concise view of the topic:
RootsWeb’s Guide to Tracing Family Trees, Guide No. 12 (http://rwguide.rootsweb.ancestry.com/lesson12.htm : accessed 18 December 2017.
As a nurse and teacher, I participated in 10-12 research studies during my career. As either primary or co-investigator, I wrote and implemented protocols, then analyzed the data and finally, wrote the final reports. I applied lessons learned from these experiences to genealogy. As I wrote this blog, I realized that I have not consistently evaluated sources and information. In some cases, I saw what I wanted to see. Months later, as I again reviewed the document and my notes, I thought, “How did I ever come to THAT conclusion?” I am slowly becoming a better genealogist. There is so much to learn!
What helped? Reading about each topic from a variety of sources. Fairly consistent information in the sources. There is some debate about whether photocopies of original certificates are primary or secondary sources. Putting the information in a chart form for easy comparisons, although I didn’t include the chart here.
What didn’t help? Finding other websites written in a more concise or reader-friendly format. I had to consider that maybe I just needed to post a list of the websites and let readers go there. But, I always learn something when I write my blogs, so here it is!
Next steps: Take time to critically review at least one document or piece of information per research session. I often just skim over this process. Put a copy of the Evidence Analysis Process Map on my bulletin board. Add items to my Research Toolbox (done).
 Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015), 24.
 Mills, Evidence Explained, 24
 George E. Morgan, How to do everything: Genealogy. 3rd edition. (New York: McGraw-Hll, 2012), 32.
 Joni Seager, “Mapping” Primary and Secondary Sources. (http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25244 : accessed 19 December 2017
 Morgan, Genealogy, 10.
Mills, Evidence Explained, 24.
Mills, Evidence Explained, 25
 Morgan, Genealogy, 32.
 Randall Seaver, “Original or Derivative Source? Bible Records,” Weblog: Geneamusings, 13 June 2012 (http://www.geneamusings.com/2012/06/original-or-derivative-source-bible.html : accessed 14 October 2017.
 Gena Philibert Ortega, “Genealogy 101: #4: The Family Bible.” Weblog: Genealogy Bank, 8 November 2016 ( https://blog.genealogybank.com/genealogy-101-4-the-family-bible.html : accessed 18 December 2017.