Primary and Secondary Sources

The amazing “double life” of a man, born, wed and buried in Zutphen Holland  (Has this happened to you?) whilst, simultaneously, marrying and fathering children several thousands of miles across the ocean  in Ohio USA, underlines the importance of obtaining as many PRIMARY SOURCE items of documentary evidence as possible when compiling a family tree.

Crudely speaking, a PRIMARY source is the original document or record or other artefact that underlies whatever event you are recording. A SECONDARY source is one that draws on the primary source, eg interpreting it, or in other ways building on it. A GRO death certificate, a Will, or a gravestone might be considered a primary source; and a bare listing of the death on someone’s website as a secondary source.  But, of course, as with any broad-brush explanation, there are degrees of safety and reliability within these two categories. However, in the case of the Zutphen “Bigamist”  the publisher of the Dutch tree had a wealth of good PRIMARY source data to back her assertions whilst the publisher of the Ohio tree had only the flimsiest of  “proof”, based on uncorroborated, lowgrade. SECONDARY sources, to support hers.

The further you go back in time, the harder it is within some social, ethnic or religious groups to obtain Primary source  material.  In the UK, there is a patchwork of possible primary sources on births, marriages and deaths before the introduction of national registration in the 19th century.  English parish registers offer fairly abundant material on the majority of the population who belonged to the Church of England, but for others – Nonconformists, Catholics, Jews and others – the pre-19th century sources are more hit-and-miss. Newly arrived immigrants and those with nomadic lives such as Roma and Travellers,might also remain “unrecorded”. Anyone without at least one unsourced event in their tree can consider themselves very lucky indeed!

It is important, therefore, when publishing your Tree or Family History to make quite clear which facts can be supported by PRIMARY sources; which facts are based on good SECONDARY sources; and which are based purely on SUPPOSITION or HEARSAY.  It is no crime to include such conjectural material in your tree, but it is misleading and unhelpful not to distinguish between the relative reliability of the data you offer.

The GENEALOGY QUALITY CODE won’t fill those aggravating blanks in your tree. Nor will it sprinkle your ancestors with fairy dust and turn the poor tailor into the scion of a wealthy family.  And, as has been pointed out by some critics, it will carry no legal weight. But we hope it will bring a greater awareness of the need for honesty and reliability in the otherwise unmoderated world of Internet Genealogy Websites and Social Media and that, by signing up to its codes of practice, you will be advancing the cause of serious research, whilst limiting the scope and influence of the purveyors of  “stolen” or genealogically untrustworthy material.

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One Response to Primary and Secondary Sources

  1. Albert says:

    This also raises the point already made on this website about not interfering with or amending primary sources. It’s no more proper to over-write eg a birth register, or a transcription of one, than it would be to manipulate eg a photograph of a gravestone by adding information that’s not there. Primary records must be preserved and transmitted in their original, pristine form.

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