Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Digging into sources in the FamilySearch Family Tree - Part Seven

I feel like I am just getting started writing about sources in the Family Tree. Here is a definition of a source from the Help Center article entitled appropriately, "Sources in Family Tree."
  • A primary source is a record created at or near the time of an event by someone with personal knowledge of the event. Examples of primary sources include birth certificates, death certificates, census records, newspapers, letters, journals, tax lists, court documents, or church records. Published books can be primary sources if they contain accounts based on personal knowledge of an event.
  • A secondary source is a record created after the time of an event by someone who did not experience the event personally. Most histories are secondary sources.
  • Sources can also come from personal knowledge about a person or from interviews with living relatives or other oral sources. 
  • A citation is a reference that describes the source and how to find it. Citations for oral sources should include who provided the information. Citations are important because they help users know where information came from and how reliable it is. They can also help users find more information.
 OK, this is the "widely accepted" method of categorizing sources; i.e. primary vs. secondary. But there is a serious issue with this simplified and mostly inaccurate method of classification. For example, the definition above uses a "death certificate" as one of the types of records assigned to the category of "primary source." Here is an example of a death certificate. This one is the death certificate of my Great-grandfather I have used many times before.

The right-hand side of the certificate is filled in by the attending physician. The information fits the definition of a "primary" source, that is, "a record created at or near the time of an event by someone with personal knowledge of the event." However, some of the remaining information does and some does not fit this definition. The information concerning the date of birth, the age at death, the birthplace, the names of his parents and their birthplace was all supplied by "Mrs. Roy Fuller." The burial information was filled in later and may or may not have been added by someone who had personal knowledge of the event. So is this a primary source or not?

We may or may not know the identity or relationship of Mrs. Roy Fuller to the deceased (who happens to be my aunt and Henry's daughter), but we certainly do not know the individual who signed the certificate at the time it was filed. Classifying this entire document as a "primary source" glosses over the questions that can and should be raised about the reliability of each of the items contained in the document. If we just look at the document, we can see that part of the document was typewritten and part was hand written. So the document was created sometime after the events recorded. We can assume that the doctor wrote the handwritten portion after the creation the typed portion. The doctor was then reporting events in the past, either by memory or from notes. This may be true due to the fact that the portion of the document signed by the doctor is undated.

So, how reliable is this "primary source?" I would suggest that reliability may have nothing to do with when the information was recorded. However, proximity in time to the event does increase the possibility of reliability. For these reasons, I usually do not find that the distinction commonly made between primary and secondary sources to be of much use or significance.

How then do we approach a record such as a death certificate? The answer is simple. All historical conclusions are tentative and are subject to revision as additional historical records are examined. We could use Henry's birthdate from this death certificate by adding it to our own "family tree." But it is entirely possible that a subsequently discovered record could modify our understanding of the actual birth date. In some cases, we may never find another birth record and the date will become accepted because it is the only record we have. This is not the case with Henry Martin Tanner. We have 13 sources listed that address his birthdate.

Now here is a test. Is a U.S. Federal Census Record a primary source? By the way, the real answer is that the question is irrelevant because a census record does not fit the category of either a primary or secondary source. The main reason being that the person who supplied the information is not identified so we have no way to determine the status of the information. In Part Five of this series, I set out a series of questions that we should be asking about the reliability of any record or document we use in our genealogical activities. Rather than classify documents or records into categories, it is a much better practice to go through the process of asking questions.

By the way, using the terms primary and secondary is not the only classification method. All of the other methods of classification have the exact same limitations.

Previous posts in this series

1 comment:

  1. My favorite aid to understanding this subject is Mark Tucker's "Genealogy Research Process Map", available for free at
    "Original" vs. "Derivative" applies to Sources of Information.
    "Primary" vs. "Secondary" applies to individual pieces of Information in a Source.
    "Direct" vs. "Indirect" vs. "Negative" applies to Evidence derived from the Information.