Teaching about Sources

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A source, sometimes referred to as a document or a record, is the "container" so to speak of genealogical information. Historians refer to sources as being primary or secondary. Genealogists see the fallacy of describing a source this way because it is the information that is primarry or secondary. The legal profession describes sources as being original or derivative, a much more practical approach. Genealogists prefer this finer distinction. Lets look more closely.

What is an original source? Original sources are created at or near the time of the event they primarily refer to. The informants, if not the creators, are in a position to know the principle facts first hand.

So, what's a derivative source? Anything that is not an original source is a derivative source: photocopies, digitized copies, microfilmed copies, transcripts, abstracts, notes, compilations, indexes, folklore, family traditions, etc. As you can see the range is tremendous. Of course one might have more confidence in image copy derivatives like the microfilm, or digital image of a record, than with a transcript, or index or my story about what I saw on the original document.

Many genealogy students need lots of re-inforcement activities to clarify what is original and what is derivative. Learning exercises that have them discriminate between the two types are important. One could use real documents, but practice could also be done using just descriptions like this problem.

"Study the list below and identify which of these is an original and which a derivative source. Be prepared to discuss your answers.

  1. Transcript of entries from the Prebble family Bible
  2. Gravestone of Willard Jeffrey died 1796
  3. Birth registration of Eliza Kent in 1871
  4. Will found written in the courthouse register of wills
  5. International Genealogical Index
  6. 1906 Census of the City of Regina
  7. Marriage Certificate hanging on Grandma McLean's wall.
  8. Newpaper obituary for John Matthews date 17 August 1913
  9. Photocopy of page from the Madison County Farmer's Directory of 1922
  10. Digitized copy of the 1860 Census of Lenawee Co. for the Hambrook household"

This is a practical learning exercise. I think we could return to this list again after we taught about the nature of Information.

Could you suggest another approach to practicing the concept? Try this. Look in your purse or wallet and extract one or two documents that have your name and birthdate on them. Are they Original Sources or Derivative Sources? Could you do that in your first lesson for beginners?

What do you think?


5 responses to “Teaching about Sources

  1. I’ll bite…

    1) Transcript of Bible entries – derivative source, the original source would be the handwritten Bible page itself.

    2) Gravestone – tough one. Original source if the carver witnessed the death of the person who died, derivative if he worked from words or a piece of paper written by someone else. If it says only “1796,” he might have personal knowledge that the person was no longer living (having attended a funeral, say), then it might be original. If it said “May 31, 1796” then that would narrow the original source knowledge quite a bit!

    3) Birth registration – original if it was filled out at the clerk’s office by parents near birth date, derivative otherwise.

    4) Will in court house register — derivative if transcribed in the register or a photocopy of the original will, original source if it is the will written by the testator.

    5) IGI — very derivative, even if it is original source material transcribed.

    6) 1906 census page – original if it is the actual written census, derivative if it is a copy or an image or a transcription of the page, although a copy or image could be treated as “original” by some.

    7) Grandma’s certificate on the wall – original if it was written at the time of the marriage, derivative if a copy or a transcription from the town clerk.

    8) Newspaper obituary — derivative, unless the reporter witnessed the death and knew the person well.

    9) Farmer’s Directory page copy — derivative because it is a copy and probably a transcription of notes.

    10) Digitized census record — do you mean an image of the page itself, or a transcription? Derivative because it is a transcription, or not the original written page – but the latter could be treated as original by some.

    A good list, Ken, and a useful exercise – it helps to focus on the definitions and apply them.

    Cheers — Randy

  2. CatherineMielcarek


  3. Barbara Schenck

    Here’s a real life puzzler for you:
    My g-grandfather, John Fasel, married my g-grandmother Babette in 1880. I have two sources for this information.

    1) a certified copy of the marriage, recorded in Bremer County, Iowa (the original of which I have seen in person) which gives the date of marriage as 26 November, 1880. The bride, a widow, was named Barbary Meier, born in Germany, and her parents were Martin Shields and Anna Knorr.
    The copy is derivative, but the source is, presumably, original. The information is the problem.

    2) a photocopy of a bible record from the family bible of John F Fasel which is in the possession of my cousin. At the time I got the photocopy I didn’t know enough to write down all the information about the bible and date, but I can tell you the information was recorded some years after the fact, though it is in the handwriting of my g-grandfather. I have original documents (not photocopies) which he has signed and recognize his writing. This record gives his wife’s name as Babette Meier and says they were married 26 August 1880.
    So — the bible record itself is original but the photocopy of it is derivative. And the information doesn’t agree with the court record.

    What I know (from other records): Babette was a nickname for Barbara, hence the confusion between Babette and Barbetta. She was a widow and her maiden name was some variation of Schiessl/Schiessel/Schieszl (depending on who was translating the double S letter from German) according to baptismal records of her children. The recorder of the court record was not a German immigrant but an American who probably didn’t speak German, hence the Shields for her father’s surname. They were not married in a church (he was Lutheran, she was Catholic — they had a civil ceremony).

    So . . . how much weight do I give the courthouse document which I know has errors in it — and how much weight do I give John Fasel’s testimony? He was at the wedding as a participant. But it is clear this was ‘after the fact’ testimony. He also doesn’t mention his first two marriages (one ending in death and another in divorce)on the bible record, so he is capable of ‘editing’ as it suits him.

    Given a situation like this, where the evidence found in original sources disagrees, would you cite both as alternative sources for the date and continue to search for further evidence? Or, because it’s clear who he married and more or less when, would you move on to the more pressiing stuff — like where her family was from in Germany and who the first husband was?

  4. Barbara,
    First clarify one specific question you are trying to answer. IE what specifically do you want to know.Then look at the INFORMATION in each document that eyour specific question.If the question was “When did John marry Babette” remember that the information that answrs this is either a day, month, year combination, or something that lets to arrive at that. When you deal with information, you describe it as being primary or secondary– see my posting Teaching about Information.
    This deals with the informant. Is the informant a credible witness of the information provided. I would also ask, was the information recorded at or near the time of the event?
    Now, make a decision. Which deserves the greater weight?

    Remember, nothing can protect the information you seek from dishonest informants or incompetant recorders. They are a different issue.

    Finally, ask yourslf whether you have made a reasonably exhaustive search of the records pertaining to the question.You need to corroborate the vidence youn have gathered.

  5. Barbara Schenck

    Thanks, Ken. That bit about focusing on one specific question is such a very good idea. Sometimes all the info seems overwhelming. It’s nice to have a focus — and especially nice to remember to decide on one!

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