Origin of Information
|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
For years, genealogists have tended to regard records as either primary or secondary in nature. Upon reflection, however, these terms are insufficient. Indeed, they have the potential of misleading the less experienced researcher.
Every genealogical record is a report of some event or situation. The report might have been made by someone who knew the facts firsthand, or by someone who learned it from other sources. The report itself might be the first recording of the information on an original form designed to report such facts (or even on blank paper), or it might have been compiled into another record. The information in the report may come from a variety of sources, each with limitations. For these reasons, as well as for evaluating what is found, it is important to clearly define both the origin of information and the kinds (categories) of records used in research.
It is important to understand the difference between the information and the record that reports the information. Too often, sources are considered by researchers to be simply either primary or secondary. Furthermore, many also equate primary with original (that is, handwritten) records and secondary with printed or typed sources. This association is much too simple and can lead to inaccurate research.
The popular notion that all printed material is secondary in nature is too simple to be accurate. The real concern: Was the information recorded in close proximity to the event being reported? Today, computers are often used for the initial recording of events, and documents are printed from a database of events. Does the fact that documents are printed from the database mean they are secondary? True, most printed sources provide secondary information, but with some, such as newspapers and city directories, there is no other original.
At the risk of dismaying many colleagues in genealogy, this author is suggesting some new, clearer, definitions for the materials genealogists use: Sources are best considered as either original or compiled records (see Categories of Research Sources and Tools); it is the information in the sources that is either primary or secondary. Of added concern is the concept of tertiary information, a division overlooked by others. The importance of these distinctions will become apparent in Evaluation of Printed Sources.
Primary Information Versus Original Records
Historians have long considered that published sources can be primary or secondary in nature (Stephens 1991, 16). Most historians consider it sufficient to label sources as primary (created at the time of the event) and secondary (a synthesis of information based on other sources) because they deal mostly with sources as they attempt to obtain a broad picture of the happenings in a particular place at a certain time in the past. Genealogists cannot afford to be as vague when describing the quality of their sources because they need to examine their sources at a more minute level than historians often do. For the genealogist, it is the information within the source that is of utmost interest. Most original genealogical sources contain information that was current at the time the record was created as well as information that predates the record, often by years or full generations. Therefore, it is essential that genealogists refrain from calling the source as a whole either primary or secondary; it is the information within that source that must receive such distinction (Greenwood 1990, 63).
The traditional definition of a primary source has been that it is a record created at the time of the event by someone associated with the event. For example, a death record is usually considered to be a primary source because it is created at the time of the event by someone associated with the event, such as the attending physician or a close relative. However, only some of the information in a death record is primary in nature. Primary information must relate directly to the event being recorded. Thus, on a death certificate, the death date and cause of death are primary information, but the dead person’s birth date or parents’ names are not primary information. Such information, which significantly predates the event being recorded, is secondary information and is discussed further below. Primary information is the facts directly related to an event, recorded by someone with firsthand knowledge of the facts.
Almost every major original record used in genealogical research includes some information that is not primary. The table above illustrates this fact for several common sources that have often been called primary.
As the examples show, sources should not be described by the quality of the information they include (any record will include information of varying quality). It is better to describe sources based on their provenance (origin) that is, how they were acquired or what (or where) they came from. Hence, sources either are original (the first recording of an event) or compiled. The varied information in each source should be considered apart from the source itself. Therefore, as stated earlier, it is the information within a source that is best described as primary or secondary.
It is tempting to assume that any information that is not primary is secondary, but it is wrong to make such an assumption. It is also incorrect to claim that anything existing in printed form is secondary. These currently are broadly applied generalizations, but the researcher must remember that they are not always correct.
Secondary information is that which is recorded some time after the event, usually by someone not directly associated with the event. Often it is based on original records (or reports) and/or primary information. Most of the information in a compiled source, such as a family history, is secondary information, or what lawyers call hearsay information. However, it is possible to find primary information in a compiled source. For example, the preface to a census index may describe how the index was created; this is primary information, although it is not strictly genealogical in nature. A more practical example is a compiled source that quotes verbatim from an original record, such as a will or birth certificate, that includes primary information.
Some printed sources also contain tertiary information, which is a step further removed from primary information. Tertiary information refers researchers to other records. Tertiary information has limited direct genealogical application, but not limited usage. Bibliographies are the first such sources that come to mind. Many directories (except city directories), finding aids, indexes, guides, and inventories are also tertiary in nature. Tertiary information is usually found in reference tools, which are described below.
Tertiary information almost always appears in printed form, although some such sources exist in manuscript form. Sources of tertiary information are the most widely available of all genealogical sources. They are found in most libraries (including those whose staffs are not aware that they have any genealogical material at all; much tertiary information is found in common reference books that all libraries have). Sources such as the American Library Directory, the Guide to Reference Books, and the Encyclopedia of Associations, although compiled directly from the sources they discuss, contain tertiary information because they refer users to other sources.