Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Strathclyde's online course, Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree. Join the course to learn more.
Man thinking while looking out of window and holding a book

Finding and evaluating secondary sources for context

Secondary sources such as local histories, books describing occupations or events and even historical fiction can bring real depth to your family’s story.

Reading about the places and events that surrounded your ancestors can give you new insights into what their lives were like. Articles written on genealogical topics can be of great use as well. For example someone may have already explored part of your family line and written about it for a genealogical society.

The question is how can you access these sources? Many secondary sources will not be available in digital format though some which are out of copyright protection may be. So you may need to find material by going to your local library which might be able to provide more esoteric books through an interlibrary loan.

However, there are a range of online catalogues which will give you an idea of what exists on the topic you are interested in. Some of these give worldwide coverage and some include the full text of books and articles but you may have to pay for access in a few cases.

In an upcoming lecture we’ll explore a few of these sources in greater depth and give some ideas on ways to approach searching them.

WorldCat is called the world’s largest library catalogue and you can search for items located at more than 10,000 libraries worldwide. There is no direct access to digitised copies of items from this catalogue but it’s a great place to find out what might have been written on a topic of interest and to see what libraries might hold a copy.

HathiTrust is a partnership of academic & research institutions, offering access to millions of titles digitised from libraries around the world. Its online catalogue gives a full text search of the titles held within the database which means you can search items with words found within the body of the text. HathiTrust includes items found on other digital libraries such as the InternetArchive and GoogleBooks but has much more. Free access is offered to material which is not covered by copyright protection or where the author has given permission.

JSTOR is an online collection of digitised journals (scholarly magazines) which includes many items of historical and genealogical interest. You can buy access to the database on a single item, monthly or yearly rate however, many public libraries offer free access to their members. There is also free access to journal articles published in the United States before 1923 and articles published in other countries before 1870.

PERSI is an index to genealogical and local history articles written from the early 1800s to the current day. The acronym stands for Periodical Source Index. The index is created by the staff at the Allen County Public Library in the state of Indiana and can be accessed through a subscription to the FindMyPast database. You may have access to PERSI through your local library’s subscription to HeritageQuest (this is more likely for public libraries based in the United States).

Evaluating secondary sources

You should consider the reliability of the secondary sources that you are using. Just because something has been published (either on paper or on the internet) does not mean it is reliable. Authors can have a biased viewpoint which may mean they represent an event in a particular way that other authors do not agree with. Or an author may use a flawed or limited set of data to come to their conclusions and thus provide a misleading account of a situation.

Typically, though not always, you can rely more fully on works that have gone through an editorial or reviewed process such as history books that are published by well-known publishing houses or history articles which have been read by other historians and commented on before publication.

Webpages created by non-profit organisations, educational bodies and government bodies might be thought of as more reliable than those created by non-affiliated individuals. However, there are quite a few instances where bias and mis-representation have been given by these supposedly reliable bodies so as with most things…take everything with a grain of salt.

Some ways to consider reliability include:

Consideration must be given to the amount of distortion to the document or source used by an author to create a secondary work, which may affect its sincerity and accuracy. In other words, has the author given a true account of the situation, or has it been distorted in some way to make the situation look better?

Consideration must also be given to how typical or untypical the documents being sourced are so that limits can be recognised as to the conclusions that can made from them. Survival and availability are two factors which may limit the representation of documents.

A few research tasks

Try out some databases containing information from secondary and primary sources through answering the questions posed in the document which can be found below in the Downloads section. These tasks are totally optional. They use free online databases so no subscriptions are required. We suggest discussing your answers in your Study Group’s discussion area - to access that, click on the Study Group icon at the top of the page.

The answers for Week 5’s tasks will be found in Week 6’s Welcome to the Week video step as a downloadable document.

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for other useful items on the topic.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

University of Strathclyde