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Exploring the nature of primary, derived primary and secondary sources

Genealogists use different types of sources to find the information needed to build their family trees; these are primary, derived primary and secondary sources.

Primary and Derived Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during or close to the event or time period in question. These can also be original, first-hand accounts of an event or time period. Primary sources are typically deemed to be the most reliable for providing quality information however; they can contain errors so any information should be corroborated.

A derived primary source is a source based in a primary source but with a level of intermediation; for example, a transcription of a census record, an abstract of a will or an obituary. There is a good deal of discussion in the genealogical world over what exactly constitutes a derived primary source. However, the main thing to realise is that any time someone copies information from one source to create another source (as in a transcription of a birth certificate) there is the chance that mistakes will be made. With the best will in the world wrong information can be copied and unless you can check the original document, there is no way to be totally assured that the transcriber has not made a mistake.

Primary sources include:

  • Original documents: Diaries, birth certificates, census records, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, government legislation, and there are many more.
  • Creative works: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • Science: Reports of scientific discoveries, social and political science research results, results of clinical trials
  • Artefacts: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary and derived primary sources include:

  • Newspaper or magazine articles which are factual accounts of events published at the time of the events. (primary source, though you could argue derived!)
  • A transcription of a Scottish census return (derived primary source)
  • Photographs by Diane Arbus of migrants to California (primary source)
  • A DNA test result (primary source)
  • An abstract of a probate record such as those found in the book Mayflower deeds and probates by Susan E. Roser. (derived primary source)
  • A WWI diary created by a Welsh Army Private in 1915. This diary presents evidence that a second ‘Christmas truce’ did occur which has been debated by historians for years. (primary source)

Secondary Sources

A secondary source interprets and analyses primary sources and may be based on primary sources, other secondary sources or a mixture of the two. Secondary sources are one or more steps removed from the event and are often written at a later date than the events being described. However, secondary sources may present pictures, quotes or graphics from primary sources.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • A history book such as Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick.
  • Encyclopaedias such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • A newspaper article written in 1980 about the long term economic effects of WWI.

Genealogical research conclusions are also a type of secondary source, and here we mean specifically the conclusions that we as researchers have drawn based on the examination of primary sources. These conclusions will concern the identification of individuals and linking them together into family groups, biographical notes on individuals, or full family histories which will be dependent on primary and secondary sources.

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This article is from the free online course:

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

University of Strathclyde