What is the real definition of original source? Four authoritative references, four answers. Depending on which reference consulted, you will get a different answer as to what criteria is used to determine if a source is original.
Earlier today I posted the following to the APG list on RootsWeb:
There exists confusion in the current genealogy literature on the definition of an original source.
For this discussion I would like to focus only on the definition of original source and not derivatives, common derivatives (transcript, extract, abstract), or derivatives that can be treated as originals (image copy, record copy, or duplicate originals). I want to focus on the source – the container, the person, the paper, the stone, the object. Not the information contained in it (as much as possible) and its classification as primary or secondary. Also I don’t want to focus on how that information relates to the research question (i.e. the evidence and whether it is direct, indirect, or negative).
The 4 main sources that genealogists can turn to for a definition of original source are: Evidence! (1997), The BCG Standards Manual (2000), Professional Genealogy (2001), and Evidence Explained (2007). But using these sources can be contradictory and confusing. Is this due to the refinement of the definition over the years?
Let’s look at some specifics.
On page 49 of Evidence! the word material is used instead of sources, but the definition is useful:
“Original material, as defined by the purist, is based on firsthand knowledge – be it oral or written.”
The main criteria identified is: firsthand knowledge
The BCG Standards Manual
As the GPS was formalized, The BCG Standards Manual defined original sources (see page 8 ) as:
“the person or record whose information did not come from data already spoken or written.”
The main criteria: first occurrence of information
The next year, Professional Genealogy was published which includes Chapter 17, “Evidence Analysis”. On page 333, we find the definition of an original source as:
“In genealogical terms, original sources are those that meet two criteria.
They are made at or near the time of the event, and their informants are in a position to know the facts firsthand.”
So a two-pronged test must be passed in order for a source to be original.
Criteria: timeliness and firsthand knowledge
In 2007, the definition changes to focus on form as found in Evidence Explained. The research process map inside the front cover has “form” written under both original and derivative. We find a definition of original source in three places:
. page 24: “Original sources – material in its first oral or recorded form”
. page 826: “original source: a source that is still in its first recorded or uttered form.”
. page 828: “source: … Sources are broadly classified as either an original source (q.v.) or a derivative source (q.v.), depending upon their physical form.”
The main criteria: physical form
So it appears that now a single-question test would be sufficient to classify a source as original:
“From what was this source derived?”
If the answer doesn’t reveal another source, then it is an original.
In an APG discussion, Elizabeth Shown Mills indicates that “Original sources can have secondhand information.” An example is an original death certificate that contains primary information of the death but secondary information of the birth. A question that I haven’t seen answered is:
“Can an original source contain ONLY secondary information?”
What would be an example? If that case is true, then only the definition in Evidence Explained is useful. Otherwise you mix the classification of source with that for information.
Another point I want to bring out from Evidence Explained is the definition of primary source found on pages 22-23:
. one created by someone with firsthand knowledge . one created at or about the time an event occurred Within this framework, contradictions abound between theory and practice, causing ambiguous analyses and unreliable conclusions.”
It appears that the reason primary source is discussed is to identify its weaknesses and show why original source is preferable in genealogy research.
The problem stems from the two-prong test of firsthand knowledge and timeliness. If a source came from someone with firsthand knowledge but was created long after the event in question, the test would fail. Or, if the source was create near the time of the event, but the informant had secondhand knowledge, then the test would also fail. The strength of the single test of physical form for an original source is its simplicity on focusing on the object that is the source and not the informant, his/her knowledge, or the information.
What is confusing is that what Evidence Explained defines as a primary source with its problems is the same definition that Professional Genealogy uses for original source.
My inclination is that this progression of definitions is a refinement of understanding over the years and that the current accepted definition of original source focuses only on physical form. And as the other three guides are revised, they will share the definition currently found only in Evidence Explained.
The Back Story
Now let me tell you the back story that produced this examination of the definition of original source. In a recent presentation aimed at teaching beginning researchers the Genealogical Proof Standard, the question came up as to whether a grave marker is an original or derivative source. In preparation for the presentation (and as part of a study assignment for the ProGen Study Group) I shared the two-pronged test defined in Professional Genealogy, Chapter 17. Because it was a double marker and the wife died three decades after the husband, the class questioned the timeliness part of the test. I sensed that there was still a little confusion on this point and have wrestled with this question since then. There has to be a way that beginners can confidently determine if a source is original or not.
As it so happens, this month’s ProGen Study Group assignment includes reading the first chapter of Evidence Explained. That is when I noticed the possible shift toward physical form and a single test. I had read the chapter a few times before, but now I saw it differently. Now a single test, that is something that I think beginners can understand!
So in the grave marker case, what would it be derived from? One answer could be nothing, in which case it is an original. In some cases a new grave marker is created to replace an old one. I don’t feel that happened in this case. It would be something to check out. When my mother passed away, we worked with the mortuary to design the grave marker and then months later it was created. We verified the paperwork and later the grave marker to make sure all information was as we expected. So, was the marker inscription a granite-carved extract from the original paperwork or more likely a duplicate original? In either case, things are less problematic and I feel comfortable classifying the grave marker as an original source.
Classifying Sources with Evidence Explained?
Something else I noticed in my latest browsing of Evidence Explained.
Chapter 5 deals with Cemetery Records and on page 207 is summarized the QuickCheck models which are grouped in three categories: Cemetery Office Records, Markers & Memorials (Originals), and Derivatives. So it appears in this case I don’t have to worry about things too much and can call the grave marker an original source because Evidence Explained classifies it as such.
I think that for beginners using Evidence Explained as a crutch is acceptable as they gain confidence is classifying sources using the physical form test. So my recommendation for beginners would be to 1) try to determine if a source is original or derivative on their own and come up with an answer, 2) look up the source in Evidence Explained and if original or derivative is specified compare it with their answer. If they don’t match, try to determine why it might be the other classification.
Other chapters that appear to at least partially classify sources as original or derivative (or image copy) are: Ch 6 – Census Records, Ch 7 – Church Records, Ch 8 – Local & State Records: Courts & Governance, Ch 10 – Local & State Records: Property & Probates, Ch 11- National Government Records, and Ch 12 – Publications (Books, CDs, Maps, Leaflets & Videos).
Too bad there is not a growing master list of record types with classifications as: original, derivative, image copy, duplicate original, and record copy.
Now, two hours later, I have down in words what has been swarming in my head for weeks. I look forward to learning from your understanding and experience.
Follow the discussion on the APG list.