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The nature of documentary evidence

The nature of documentary evidence
So we’re going to look at the nature of documentary evidence right now. Just to go over a couple of points about this. So think about some questions that you’re going to want to answer about your family. Think about what documentary evidence actually is. And then look at what secondary and primary sources are and unpack some of the issues around that. Think about family stories and whether or not those are actually useful to us, as genealogists. And then consider whether some stories and sources are better than others. And we’ll find that, perhaps, some of them are better than others. OK. So looking at possible questions to ask about your family.
The real basic questions that we want to answer are birth information, marriage information, and death information. And names of your relations, so you want to know your mother’s name, your grandmother’s name, that kind of thing. So those are really basic questions to answer. But then, moving on from that you can ask all sorts of other questions. Occupations. What were they, did they change over time, and where did people actually work? Questions about the environment that people lived in. What was the house, or the farm, or the flat that they lived in like? What was the neighbourhood like? Did they live in a working class neighbourhood? That kind of thing.
You can also start asking questions about what do they do in their free time? What hobbies did they have? Did they like to play sports? And some of these things can be a bit difficult to find out, but there are sources that can help you find those things. And perhaps more difficult than anything else is what was a person actually like? What was their character? And sometimes that can be very hard to know, but there are certain things, sources that you can use to maybe get a glimpse of that. So, some possible questions to ask. And those are just a starting point for questions. So, considering what documentary evidence actually is.
It’s actually written evidence of an event or a relationship. So somebody was born, there’ll be some written evidence about that. Certificates of birth, marriage, death. You can see this list here. Church records, diaries, I’ve just covered a wee smattering of them here, but there are many, many other types of documents, i.e. written evidence that you can use. And these are really helpful because they’re usually created at the time of the event. And most of us have memories that can fade or change over time. So if you’ve got something that’s written down at the time of the event you’re more likely to get the truth of what actually happened. They were born on that particular day to that particular person.
But just keep in mind that even though it’s written down it’s not necessarily correct. As we’ll see, I’ve got an example to show you here. So even though you have written evidence, you should still seek corroboration, i.e. other sources of evidence for that particular event.
OK. So here’s an example of a document. This is an English marriage register entry from 1872. So a man and woman have gotten married. You can see there’s a lot of interesting information there. You’ve got the date, their names, the names of the fathers of the bride and groom, where they got married, and so this is all lots of interesting and useful evidence for us. This is an example of a primary source. But the thing to note about this is this is a copy of the original register and this copy was made much later on by a registrar. So we asked for the copy of it, they wrote it down and sent it to us.
So that person making the transfer of information might have messed up. So things to think about when you’re looking at documents. That things might be wrong. On their best will in the world, somebody might have made a mistake. Moving on to primary and secondary sources. We’ve seen a primary source. As we’ve been saying, they’re usually created close to the event. Close to the time period in question. And they’re usually original firsthand accounts of the event. So you’ve got the parent going in and registering the birth. Someone talking in a diary about what happened that day to them when they met the man they were going to marry. That kind of thing.
Secondary sources, on the other hand, are usually written at a later point in time. And they can interpret or analyse primary sources and events that happened on them, but they are often based on primary or other secondary sources. So these include things like books on historical events. So the sacking of Stalingrad or a book about the American Civil War. Those are secondary sources but very useful still to us as genealogists because they help give us background about events, and occupations, and what life was like at that time. You can also consider things like encyclopaedia entries and magazine articles as secondary sources, too. And there are other ones that you can look at. OK. Family stories. Are they useful?
Everybody’s got a family story. Are they primary or secondary sources? Well this is something I go back and forth about quite a bit. And I, to be honest, I still haven’t quite come to a true decision about that. I think it varies depending on the story. What I find is, you often get grains of truth in family stories. But they can be totally incorrect, as well. So be careful with them. I know that you often get combining of individuals, or stories coming together and presented to you. This is what happened to Aunt Winifred, when actually it was three people that actually happened to. There can be a lot of wishful thinking, and hoping, happening with family stories.
So-and-so went to this great university. Well, actually, they went to another university but always represented themselves as going to a particular university– passed down to the family. And misremembering, as well. And white lies. “So-and-so, I know they went off to Canada because we remember getting postcards from them. I could show you the postcards” and you find out later, well actually they were in prison for five years. And nobody wanted to say that. “But no, I remember getting a postcard from them.” So, misremembering. White lies. But they can be quite useful and my family stories have been a good spur for me to do genealogical research. And I found some amazing things off the back of family stories.
Things that weren’t actually true but then I found the truth, which, to my mind, was even more interesting.
OK. So is some evidence better than others? And I would say yes. Beware of a family tree that you find either online or handed to you that someone has created, then they’ve given no sources for the information that they’ve used. You can use those as a starting point. But I would just say check the information that’s there. Don’t trust that someone else has found what’s happened in your family because there’s a lot of issues with family trees, and things need to be checked. Usually, primary sources are fairly reliable. And I will say usually because there are things that can happen with primary sources. And secondary sources which give sources can be useful as well.
And there are some secondary sources like well-researched encyclopaedias or biographies, which can be very useful indeed. But just to remember you can’t rely on any source 100%. You need to check the information out with other sources. And for most genealogical work, I would say maybe you can, at most, have a 98% probability that you’ve got the truth. That elusive word, truth. What is that? And just on that note, coming back to this great primary source that we were looking at earlier. Wonderful information here. So the groom is down as a widower, very happily. And the bride, as a spinster, which means she was single, hadn’t been married before. But the problem is, that widower information is a pack of lies.
He was actually married to another woman at the time of this marriage. So he’s a bigamist. But you’d never know that. Of course you wouldn’t go and tell the registrar this. But here it is. So that’s not true but there it is in a primary source. So you need to check things out. So just take everything you read with a grain of salt.

This video introduces the idea of basing research in documented data rather than hearsay.

We cover what documentary evidence is, consider what primary and secondary sources are and find out whether some evidence is better than others. Possible questions you might ask about your family will be considered as well.

The document featured in this video can be found in the ‘Downloads’ section below.

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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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