I thought I knew all about sources for research until I took the Boston University Genealogical Research Course in 2014. Genealogists are very particular (and picky) about types of sources and information contained in those sources than what I’d previously experienced. The term “primary source” and “secondary source” were familiar to me in my work life, too, but in genealogy, we have “primary information” instead of “primary source.” The whole reason it matters is to get to the type of evidence the source and information provide.
Not all documents are created equal. When reviewing results of a search, it’s important to also be aware of the type of source you have, what information it contains, and what evidence it provides to answer your research question. There are three different categories for each:
Sources: containers of information, not the information itself. Tangible, stable
- Original records – written report of an action, event, or observation
- Derivative records – transcribed, abstracted, translated from original record
- Authored works – biographies, genealogies, books, journals, local histories
Information: source’s surface content. Tangible, stable.
- Primary – reported by an eyewitness
- Secondary – hearsay; reported by someone not an eyewitness
- Undetermined – unknown origin
Evidence: building blocks. Intangible and changeable.
- Direct Evidence – one information item that answers a question by itself
- Indirect Evidence – set of 2 or more information items suggesting an answer only when combined
- Negative Evidence – absence [not lack] of information that answers a question [e.g., someone not included in a will that should be accounted for]
My great-grandmother’s death certificate is an original record, created at the time of her death. The information contained in it was supplied by 4 people: clerk, doctor, funeral director, and family member. The doctor and funeral director provided primary information about date, time, and cause of death, and of where the body would be buried. The clerk provided primary information about the state numbering system. The family member provided both primary and secondary information: primary about address, name, age, marital status, but secondary about birth and parents, since the informant was her daughter and therefore not present when Jane was born. Taken together, the death certificate provides direct evidence for the question, “when did Jane die?” but only indirect evidence for “who were Jane’s parents?”