Confusion with the Various Definitions of Original Source

Wednesday, 18 Feb 2009 | by Mark Tucker

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

Professional Genealogy

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

Evidence Explained

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.

Primary Source

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.


  1. This is a great point of discussion, and you seem to have summed it up well. If you would indulge my opinion here, I would like to weigh in. I have not read “ProGen” but have read the other three, and have recently written an article for future publication on analyzing the “sources of sources”, dealing specifically with original sources.

    In my understanding, the terms original and derivative in all of these sources refer specifically to the form in which the information is conveyed. I myself have had a bit of trouble with the distinction between a death certificate and a photocopy (or microfilm copy or digital image) of the same death certificate. In my opinion this should not make any notable difference in the reliability of the information, as long as the copy’s provenance does not suggest otherwise. There is a distinction between a 1:1 copy and a derivative source such as a transcription or abstract, as these derivative sources are filtered through the prejudiced human mind. But the camera doesn’t lie.

    I do not have either of Mills’ books (Evidence! or Evidence Explained) here with me right as I write this, but the BCG manual definition is relatively fresh in my mind. It states that there are 4 factors that influence a record’s reliability (not necessarily in order): (1) source’s involvement, (2) record’s proximity in time & space, (3) source’s motivation/bias, (4) source’s understanding. None of these four factors change whether the source is an original or a copy of the original. With a derivative source, there is the added potential for mistakes on the part of the person doing the deriving – i.e. misreading words, omitting relevant information that inadvertently changes the tone, etc.

    The real distinction should be made between primary and secondary information, for which individual records can have examples of each. While, yes, the gravestone is an original document – it is also secondary information. Whether you are standing in front of the gravestone (original by definition) or viewing a digital photo of the gravestone (??), the distinction is negligible. Assuming that the photo has not been “photoshopped” that is. This is where the provenance is important.

    Hope I didn’t ramble on too much. And thank you for the attention to these details as always. Your blog is always one of the first I read.

    Comment by Michael Hait — 18 Feb 2009 @ 6:53 am

  2. [...] started out as a follow-up comment to that left by Michael Hait on the post, Confusion with the Various Definitions of Original Source, got too long for a comment and has turned into this [...]

    Pingback by More on Sources: Original, Derivative, or Otherwise | ThinkGenealogy — 18 Feb 2009 @ 10:24 am

  3. Mark, I’ll comment here on a couple of your points, but I’ll do it in separate messages.

    You write:
    “A question that I haven’t seen answered is:
    “Can an original source contain ONLY secondary information.”

    The answer is “Yes.” As an extreme example, drawn from a paper I’m working on right now for an academic history conference, let’s use an interview I did years ago with a descendant of the colonial freedwoman Coincoin (the central character in my historical novel _Isle of Canes_). The subject of that interview was “traditions about the family’s origin.” The tape of that interview constitutes an “original record” because it represents the first time that information had been recorded. Yet, there is absolutely nothing in the lady’s response to my questions that could be construed as “first hand” or primary information.

    Michael Hait makes the distinction properly. In current genealogical terms, “original vs. derivative” deals with FORM, while “primary vs. secondary” deals with CONTENT. As an analogy: A while back in an _Ancestry Magazine_ article, which should be available in its online archives, I compared sources and evidence to a box of cereal that we’re tempted to buy at the grocery store. We’re tempted because it’s the only box of our favorite cereal that’s left. But we’re hesitant because it’s a damaged box and that causes us to worry about the safety of the contents. The same issue—quality of the container vs. quality of the content —is what’s at stake with this original/derivative source vs. primary/secondary information issue.

    Along this line, Michael also wrote:
    “Whether you are standing in front of the gravestone (original by definition) or viewing a digital photo of the gravestone (??), the distinction is negligible.”

    I agree, so long as we’re talking about the “original” vs. a “photo” (and assuming the photo clearly reproduces what’s on the stone). Where the original vs. derivative issue arises, insofar as tombstones are concerned, is whether the stone we are viewing is, itself, the original stone–or whether it is a replacement put up generations later by descendants who decided to add more data “from their own knowledge”—data that may not be correct. As genealogists we do encounter situations in which someone recorded gravestones 75 years ago and reported the inscription as “Catherine Jones, d. Aug. 25, 1805.” Yet a visit to the cemetery today may reveal a concrete stone (a medium that didn’t exist in 1805) saying “Catherine Jones, beloved wife of Sam Jones, b. 1 January 1780 – d. Aug. 25, 1805.” That leaves us with a significant reason to question both the birth date and the fact that this woman who died on this day was the wife of Sam Jones. (Whether she was beloved or not is a different issue.)

    Considering both the form of the source (the “container”) and the contents inside that container can be equally important to deciding the validity of the evidence we draw from that source.

    Comment by Elizabeth Shown Mills — 19 Feb 2009 @ 10:43 pm

  4. Mark also wrote:

    “Another point I want to bring out from _Evidence Explained_ is the definition of primary source found on pages 22-23:
    ‘PRIMARY SOURCE: 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.’

    Then Mark observed:
    “It appears that the reason primary source is discussed is to identify its weaknesses and show why original source is preferable in genealogy research.”

    Mark, the ‘apparent reason’ you draw from this isn’t quite what I was aiming at. First, I should point out that the definition of “primary source” in EE is, of course, the standard definition used in the humanities, journalism, etc.–not a genealogical definition.

    The main point, however, is NOT to say that an “original source is preferable in genealogy research” to a “primary source.”

    The point being made in EE is that humanities, law, journalism, and similar disciplines have tried to evaluate their evidence using TWO broad terms: that is, whether something came from a “primary source” or a “secondary source.”

    In contrast, careful genealogists now consider THREE elements: the SOURCE, the INFORMATION, and the EVIDENCE we draw from that information. To evaluate the source, we consider whether it is an original record or a derivative that might have copying errors. To evaluate the information, we consider whether it came from an informant with firsthand knowledge (primary information) or secondhand knowledge (secondary information). To evaluate the evidence we draw from that source, we consider whether the information states the point directly or whether it provides, indirectly, some piece of information that might eventually be used with other things to prove a point.

    In sum, the genealogical “preference” is not for “original source” over “primary source,” because that compares apples and oranges. The preference is to evaluate sources separately from information. The preference is to use the more-precise *terms* “original source,” “derivative source,” “primary information,” and “secondary information” rather than the generic terms “primary source” or “secondary source.”

    Comment by Elizabeth Shown Mills — 19 Feb 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  5. Mark also wrote:
    “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.”

    As we all discussed yesterday and today on APG-L, two factors were at play here. (1) The evidence chapter of ProGen was written by an attorney who was naturally using language common to his profession. (2) That ProGen chapter was written in 2000, when these concepts were still very much in the process of being refined and defined.

    So, where do we stand now and what should we do? As with all areas of scholarship, researchers consult earlier works to understand the concepts in play at the time of their publication. But, as with all areas of scholarship, we recognize that in any publication within any field, some concepts, practices, and counsel remain current across time while some other points become quickly dated.

    For that reason, we seek the latest peer-reviewed works that exist on a subject. For most of the 23 chapters of ProGen, those chapters ARE the latest works that exist on the subject. For a couple of chapters, such as the genealogical education chapter, ProGen represents the latest such “essay” available but the information is now dated. For Donn’s evidence chapter, ProGen does not represent the latest peer-reviewed source available; that position has yielded to EE. While most of the counsel he gives in hischapter is still up-to-date, that one definition is not.

    Comment by Elizabeth Shown Mills — 19 Feb 2009 @ 11:18 pm

  6. DearMARK,
    Ol’ Myrt here always delights in seeing how your mind works. Thank-you for this write-up.

    I beg to differ with you about gravestones.

    The fact that there are no clear lines of distinction are EXACTLY what you are trying to resolve in this blog entry.

    Simply put, Ol’ Myrt here contends that a gravestone is certainly NOT an original source, since it is unlikely that the attending physician is the stone cutter who carved the name and date of the deceased on the marker and then stuck around long enough to see that the stone was placed on the correct grave site.

    I know of one instance where a fellow genealogist was so overwhelmed by his father’s death, that when the 15 copies of the death certificate came in, he just put them in a desk drawer. I came on the scene as this son was recovering from prostate surgery. I noticed that the spacing of numbers for the SS# weren’t correct — and in fact figured out that funeral home had placed the sending fax number in the Social Security Number field on the form.

    Now, I know that on a death certificate, there are primary and secondary forms of information provided. That is not Ol’ Myrt’s point.

    The fact that YOU checked, and rechecked the accuracy of your mother’s tombstone information, doesn’t mean everyone performs such due diligence. What if you had been so distraught that you simply weren’t able to go to the gravesite for a few years? This isn’t unheard of. And over time, we all remember things differently. And maybe then, through your tears you might not pick up on a mistake in the gravestone inscription.

    Bottom line:
    Attending physician are’t usually the stone cutter.

    Comment by DearMYRTLE — 20 Feb 2009 @ 8:39 am

  7. In regard to the question, “Can an original source contain ONLY secondary information?” the answer has to be Yes.

    An example would be German Church Family Books. These contain the parents names, their date and sometimes place of marriage, their birth dates, again sometimes with locations, frequently their death dates, the names and birth dates of their children, death dates for some of the children, marriage dates for some of the children, and a reference to other pages in the book for these marriages. All of this information has to be considered as secondary since, with the possible exception of some of the death dates, it has been copied from the original baptism, marriage, and death records. Evidence of this process is the addition of the Volume and page number of the Family Book in the original record.

    Comment by Eric Eyman — 23 Feb 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  8. My misfortune that I have just stumbled onto this discussion today and not last year!

    My comment/question has to do with the controversy of whether or not tombstones are original sources. It seems to me if a tombstone is the only source for a birth and/or death date, and remembering that death certificates are a relatively modern document, why would it not be an original source?

    At the same time, it seems to me that one can take either side of the argument and be correct. I would believe that a stone set shortly after death; e.g., homemade stones with dates intact (rare, I know!), would more likely be an original source rather that one created two-three decades later by a distant relative with no first hand knowledge of the events. But, suppose that distant relative had discovered a family Bible that detailed birth and death dates and used those data on the headstone. Are we now talking about secondary sources?

    All very confusing!


    Comment by Jack — 15 Mar 2010 @ 3:43 am

  9. I, also, have just stumbled upon this discussion. I must also admit to being fairly new to genealogy – hence the reason I am looking for this type of information. I am struggling with this issue. An example is my paternal grandfather. Admittedly, he abandoned the descendant family, so was pretty well removed from any “tribal” memory from relatives still alive. But I have collected several documents – some from online and some from actual visits to the appropriate sources.

    Assumed – He was born in SC in the 1890′s – prior to official birth documents.
    - The 1900 census gives his birth month as Sep 1894
    - The 1910 census says he is 14 (indicates about 1896?)
    - In 1918, he signed his WWI Draft registration that states his birthday as 18 Sep 1896
    - His family moved up to Georgia, and I have “official” docs from there.
    - I have a “certified” Delayed birth certificate (filled out by an older brother when my grandfather was 54) that gives the birthdate as 19 Sep 1896 (pretty close but not quite, I think)
    – His certified death certificate lists his Date of Death as June 9, 1955. And his age is 59 years, 8 months and 21 Days – translates back to 19 Sep 1895
    - I have an original actual clipping from the newspaper with his obituary referring to “yesterday”. And fortunately, the reverse side shows the date of June 10, 1955. So I feel quite certain that the June 9 death date is accurate.
    - And the bottom line is that his headstone marker indicates a Birthdate of Feb 14, 1896 and Death date of July 10, 1955 – Both dates are wrong based on other sources.

    My conclusion is definitely that tombstones cannot be considered reliable primary sources. I also doubt Delayed Birth Certificates, and Death Certificates are also suspect. I won’t even go into the subject of various spellings of names, etc.

    In this case, I have to assume that the obituary and the WWI Draft registration are the most accurate documents that I have. Am I way off-base here? Is there a way to somehow add “common sense” into the various definitions describing level of sources?

    Hope someone is still looking at this site. Yes, Jack, it is very confusing!

    Comment by Lynda Solter — 20 Mar 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  10. Presumably, a birth date wasn’t provided in the obit?

    I think I would go with the date he gave on the WW1 draft registration. It seems to me that date is the only one he personally contributed to any of the documents mentioned. Certainly he didn’t contribute to the headstone date. :-)

    Comment by Jack — 29 Mar 2010 @ 11:35 am

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