Evaluating a Source Record

Evaluating a Source Record
One important aspect of the Genealogical Proof Standard is its focus on the principles of sound record analysis. Using these principles, you will be able to distinguish between different types of records, information, and evidence and use these distinctions, together with other factors, to determine the reliability of your facts.

Types of Records

There are two types of record, according to the Genealogical Proof Standard: original and derivative. These distinctions refer only to the form of the record, not to any of the information contained within it.

Before discussing the types of record, I would like to reiterate that the term record refers to any source, whether written or verbal. An interview with your grandmother is as much a source record as a marriage license or probate file.

An original record is, in short, a record that provides information directly from the source, without first appearing elsewhere in that form. For example, a tombstone, a newspaper obituary, and a death certificate are all original records. Closely akin to original records are image copies. Image copies include microfilmed books, photographs of tombstones, or digital census records. When the image is poor (as often occurs with printouts from older microfilmed records), the original record should be consulted. However, when the image is a high quality reproduction of the original, it can be used as a substitute for the original in many cases. [Please note that I do qualify this last statement. Even high quality image copies can have their flaws, and original records should be consulted as often as possible.]

A derivative record is a record that provides information that was originally produced elsewhere. For example, a published (or unpublished) book of abstracts, a transcribed list of gravestones, and an online census index are all derivative records.

Original records are inherently superior to derivative records due to the potential for error. Words can be misinterpreted, misspelled, or omitted, possibly changing the tone and information presented within the record.

One particularly negative example of this potential, bearing directly on African-American genealogists, is the tendency of abstracters and transcribers from previous generations to omit all mention of free persons of color or slaves in various record books. One simply cannot assume, when using a published book of record abstracts, that all records appear; some may have been omitted.

Not so long ago, original records, as described above, were called primary records, and derivative records were called secondary records. Records and information were seen as interchangeable. A distinction between these now exists.

Types of Information

Information refers to the content of a record.

Primary information is all content reported by a direct participant in, or eyewitness to, the event being reported.

Secondary information is all content reported by someone who was not a direct participant in, or eyewitness to, the event being reported.

A single record can contain both primary and secondary information. For example, modern death certificates contain the date and place of death, as well as the date and place of birth, and usually the parents names. In this case, the death information would be considered primary, and the birth information would be considered secondary. Note that this record is an original record, yet the information it provides varies in reliability. Only in rare cases will the informant to a death certificate have direct knowledge of the deceaseds birth.

Primary information is generally preferable to secondary information, but there are other factors which may affect this preference.

Identify the Informant

Key to determining whether information is primary or secondary is identifying the informant, or source of the information. In many records, the informant is identified by name (and often relationship), but in other records he/she may be unknown.

Once you know the informant, you must determine whether or not this person was likely to have had first-hand knowledge of the event being reported. This will help you qualify the information as primary or secondary.

When the informant is unknown, it is impossible to know whether the information is primary or secondary, and should thus be considered secondary at best.

You must evaluate the informants knowledge of the events being reported using four criteria: (1) how close in time and place to the event the record was created; (2) the level involvement of the informant; (3) the age and sanity of the informant, and the extent of his or her understanding of the events details and significance; and (4) any bias on the part of the informant that may have affected his or her account.

Types of Evidence

Records contain information, and this information then constitutes evidence. Evidence, in general, is how information relates to your research problem. The two kinds of evidence are direct and indirect.

A record contains direct evidence if it specifically states the answer to a specific question. A record contains indirect evidence if the answer, or a clue to the answer, is implied, rather than stated outright.

These concepts may be easier to understand using a pair of examples:

A marriage certificate contains direct evidence of the facts surrounding the marriage of a couple, including the date, place, and full names of both parties.

A birth certificate contains direct evidence of the facts surrounding the birth of a child, including the date, place, and names of both parents. The same birth certificate also contains indirect evidence of the marriage of the parents.

Neither direct evidence nor indirect evidence is inherently more accurate or reliable in searching for the true answer to your research question. For example, a pension application may contain direct evidence of the birth of a pensioner. However, the applicant may have moved his birth date backward in order to appear older (for financial gain), so another record that only provides indirect evidence of the fact may actually provide more accurate information.

The Genealogical Proof Standard provides a very thorough method to evaluating genealogical source records. By using these principles of analysis, you can obtain the highest level of accuracy in your research goals, and be able to solve almost every problem you encounter.

In the next article, we will explore these principles using a sample record from the Lowcountry.

For More Information

Almost all of the above principles have been derived from the book The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual: Millennium Edition, highly recommended to all genealogists. More information can be found at the Board for Certification of Genealogists website.