What is Genealogy
Tid Bits
Tips and Gotcha's
Top ten myths
Top ten reasons to do it
Just for Fun
Getting Started
An exercise using a pedigree
Paperwork organization
Preserving your records
Labeling your records
Maps and geography
Old style dates
Old style handwriting
Tombstone reading
Calculating relationships
Family reunions
PC Software
Genealogical Programs
Genealogical Numbering Systems
Family Group Sheet form
GEDCOM format
Descendancy report
Ahnentafel report
Recap and Statistics
The data pyramid
Source Documents
Record types
Vital and primary records
Manuscript archives
Censuses and the soundex
Actual examples
Where to Look
Where to do your research
Kansas City area research
U.S. GenWeb
Recent immigrants
Ellis Island
African American
Native American
Hispanic American
Recommended web sites
Certified professionals
Genealogical publishers/sellers
Recommended books
Publishing your family history
Forms to use
Dewey Decimal system
Homework assignment

Source Documents -- the Basics

Source Documents form the core basis of genealogy. They are needed to supply the data about persons, places and dates.

Information about the source document itself

For each source document reviewed, several pieces of information should be recorded about it, keeping in mind future researchers (including the current researcher) who may want to re-retrieve this source document:

  • Who wanted the source document created, and why?
  • Who actually created it? List ALL relevant information: name(s), address(es), qualifications, why he/she created it, etc.
  • Exactly where was it found? List ALL relevant information: name, address, phone numbers, contacts, directions, etc.
  • Under what jurisdiction does the source document belong? Examples: court, state, county, town, organization, person, etc.
  • Why was it created? This may or may not be relevant. But if it is, it should be noted.
  • What is the name of the source document? List the entire name.
  • Is this the first edition or a later edition?
  • How many volumes and how many pages does it contain?
  • Is an index included?
  • When was it created?
  • Where was it created?
  • Who published it? List all relevant information: name, address, etc.
  • Is there any other specific information that should be noted? Examples: ISBN number.
  • At a basic high-level, what type of genealogical information is contained in the source document?
  • What form/format is the source document? Examples: family bible, book, certified document, headstone, microfilm, microfiche, computer file, Internet, CD-ROM, person's memory, letter, photograph, newspaper, magazine, etc.
  • How reliable is the information in the source document? Example: any glaring errors, many typographical errors, any conflicting/contradictory information given, etc.
  • What condition is the source document in? Examples: condition, readability, legibility, any handwritten notes on it, etc.
  • Is there anything else special that should be noted about the source document?

Reliability of the source document information

When a genealogy researcher looks at any given source document, the first question that must be asked is:  how reliable is the information on this document likely to be? This alludes to the trustworthiness of the information contained within the document. To answer the question about the trustworthiness of the information, several corollary questions can be asked:

  • Who put the information into the document?
  • How much time passed between the time of the actual event(s) being recorded and the time the information was put into the document?
  • Did the person get the information first-hand or second-hand?
  • How reliable is that person? How much care would that person give to the accuracy of the information?

Basic types of source documents: Primary and Secondary

Primary source documents are considered more reliable. This is mostly because they were created at the time that the event(s) occurred by one or more persons who has first-hand knowledge of the details of the event(s), and, had a strong reason to get the facts correctly recorded.

Secondary source documents are considered less reliable. This is because they were generally created after some time had passed after the event(s) being recorded and/or they had second-hand knowledge of the details of the event(s), and, they may be careless in their accuracy.

Primary records can contain secondary information. For instance, a death certificate (primary) can note the birth date or birth place of the deceased. This information is usually given by a member of the deceased's family and normally many years after the birth of the deceased. This birth information could very well be correct. However, the birth information on a death certificate is considered to be secondary information.

Primary source documents are usually the only ones considered to be solid documentation of genealogical worth. Secondary source documents should be used to give clues for what primary source documents need to be searched. However, secondary source documents will often be cited in a compiled genealogy either because no primary source documents could be found, or, the researcher/compiler did not have access to primary source documents.

Source documents come in a variety of record types. To see a list of many of them, go to the separate section about source document record types (click here [record types] to go to that section).

The Certainty Factor

Often times, mostly in secondary source documents (e.g. family history books or a book on the history of a specific geographical location), the author does not know a specific detail about a given event. Thus, a "best guess" may be given. If so, hopefully the author has indicated this to be the case. Depending on how far off the "best guess" is, the result is what is called the "certainty" level or factor of the guess. In other words, is it very probably true, slightly probably true, just possibly true, or merely conjecture, a "wild guess". The researcher should record this certainty factor with the information to which it belongs.

Recording information from source documents

When a researcher records information from a source document into his/her own records, extreme care should be given to recording the information as accurately as possible and exactly as it appears in the source document. If any special comments need to be made, such as about errors or contradictions, etc., the researcher needs to carefully and clearly indicate that the comment is his/her own and was not part of the original source document.

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Copyright © 2004- by Larry Wilson, all rights reserved