Teaching about Information

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Donn Devine teaches us about information in his article, "Evidence Analysis" in Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians, (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001) page 333. He says, "Any source or record may contain information based on both primary and secondary knowledge – one of many reasons that genealogists must distinguish between the source and the information it offers" So what is the difference between primary and secondary information?

Primary Information is an assertion by a person who was a knowledgeable participant, or eye witness, in an event. This primary information can be presented either orally or in written form. Though this assertion may be presented near the time of the event, or much later, there seems to be a preference for primary information contemporary to the event it describes.

Secondary Information is any assertion made by a person who was not either a participant or eyewitness to the events described. Donn Devine suggests this can include both original and derivative records. A good example is the age given on a death registration. When we were completing my father's death registration I answered the questions while my brother wrote them down. I "knew" exactly when and where he was born: 6 December 1906, Addiesland, Newarthill, Lanarkshire Scotland. But other than his death date and cause of death, every scrap of information on the form was secondary information–even his name!

So how do we teach this concept? Thinking of Helen Leary's idea of teaching this at the beginning level, I believe we would need to teach them by examining records at hand, the students own documents. Invite them to bring in birth, marriage, death, census, probate, and tax documents, local histories, genealogies, memorial cards, wedding invitations, pictures of gravestones whatever (both original and derivative).

Arrange these on a board or tabletop with a number beside each. Have each person examine every document and write down, the number, the name of the subject of the document (Martha Ormond, Joseph Sidley etc), the name of the informant, and a point form list of information on a sheet of paper. For each element, have them tell you whether the informant was an eyewitness, participant, or absent or unknown. Then have them decide whether the information is primary or secondary.

The key thing for students to realize is the connection between the informant and creator of the document and the information it contains. Is he a credible witness of the information presented?

What do you think?


One response to “Teaching about Information

  1. desta elliott

    I know the textbook answer, but I have found so many errors in both primary and secondary sources I wonder if my mom knows her name. (I found her in the 1930 census as a five year old using a familiar form of her middle name. When I asked her, she said she converted to her first name when she started first grade as she was ‘all grown up.’ The spelling of my Dad’s last name differs on his official birth certificate from the way he has always spelled it.)

    Sources are interesting for tidbits that are almost throw aways. My gg grandfather was married, I just found out, by the man whose daughter married my g grandfather. My grandparents were next door neighbors in the 1910 census.

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