More on Sources: Original, Derivative, or Otherwise

Wednesday, 18 Feb 2009 | by Mark Tucker

What 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 post.

Thank you for contributing to the conversation. Any discussion of sources and their classification as original or derivative is not complete without discussing source provenance. When we trace the incarnations of a source all the way back to the original, we are able to do two things: 1) answer the question “Is there a better source?” and 2) determine independent origin.
Let us take the example of an original census that was microfilmed and then digitized. We are looking at the digital copy and we determine that the image is dark and hard to read in certain areas. We ask ourselves if there is a better source and determine that the problem was likely with the microfilm so if a better source exists it would have to be the original. Let’s say that we are able to consult the original and we can read the problem areas. In this case, the original was the better source.

Let’s change our scenario a little. Same original and two derivatives, but this time we ask to consult the original and it doesn’t exist as it was destroyed after microfilming. In this case the microfilm copy or the digital image is the best source available. Similarly, if the original exists but has deteriorated in the years since it was microfilmed, then the microfilm/digital image would be the better source.

When we have an original, we only have two ways to make a copy of it: 1) photographically reproduce it or 2) manual copy (either written or typed).

To handle the first group, Evidence Explained discusses the concept of an Image Copy. An Image Copy is a derivative, but it can be treated as if it were the original if it 1) is legible and 2) doesn’t conflict with other evidence. A #3 is implied in that all representations of the source back to the original must also be able to be treated as originals. So the microfilm is an Image Copy of the original census and can be treated as an original. The digitized image of the microfilm can also be treated as an original because it is an Image Copy and if we print out that digital image we have made another Image Copy which as long as it passes the tests can be treated as an original. In your example, the death certificate is an original source and a photocopy of it is an Image Copy of an original and can likely be treated as if it were an original.

For the manual copy example, we have more choices: Duplicate Original, Record Copy, Transcript, Extract, and Abstract. The census enumerator goes house to house and records the information that is required. It is the original source. Now the Federal government requires that a copy be sent to them, so the enumerator makes a copy of the original. Technically it is a well-known type of derivative called a transcript, but because it is part of the “official” act of creating the census, then we can treat it as if it was the original and we give it the special name of Duplicate Original. There are known examples where this copy was changed to be alphabetical or only listed people by their initials or mistakes were made because the copying was done column by column instead of row by row, etc. There are even case where the true original was sent to the Federal government and the Duplicate Original stayed at the state level. We try not to get too caught up in the details and are satisfied that it is a Duplicate Original all the while keeping an eye out for irregularities. Other examples of Duplicate Originals are grantor/grantee copies of a deed and counterparts. I think about copies made as part of the same “transaction” when I think of Duplicate Originals.

A Record Copy is also technically a derivative (likely a transcript) but this time an official (likely a clerk) is entering information into a register. As in other cases, mistakes can still be made but because of the authority of the official and their mandate to record the information, we can consider both the original deed and its recording in the deed book as originals. There have also been times when the transaction has been recorded directly into the register in which case it is the original.

Outside of the special cases of Duplicate Original and Record Copy, other manual copying is categorized as transcript, extract, and abstract based on the amount of document that is copied. Transcript is full document (the entire census for a year and state), extract ( a page from the census), and an abstract (just the more important parts: names, places, dates, etc.)

All the above helps us determine the best sources for our analysis.

Let’s briefly talk about independent origin.  Let’s say we have 100 derivative sources that are varying generations removed from their original.  Two sources agree on one birth year (1880 ) whereas the other 98 give the birth year as (1830).  We might be tempted to go with the 1830 year as there exist more sources that agree with that year.  But without tracing the provenance, that would be a mistake.  Let say that the provenance is traced and all 100 derivatives come from only 3 independent original sources.  In fact, all 98 derivatives that agree with 1830 are all from the same original source.  When we consult this original source, we see that a mistake was made in the transcription that changed it from 1880 to 1830.  The concept of independent origin is important to consider.  Evidence Explained reminds us that quantity can never trump quality.

As genealogists, we identify source, the information that they contain, and the kind of evidence that information provides when compared to our research problem. Sources, information, and evidence. Not one is more important than the other. That would be like saying that our eyes or hands or mouth is more important than the others.


  1. Interesting discussion of a topic that often makes my head spin. I can sort out the distinction between primary and secondary information without much trouble. But my understanding of terms always crumbles faced with a tombstone.

    What makes it an original source? Unless the person witnessing the death carved the tombstone — indicating that the information about the deceased was original with him and not conveyed to him orally or in written form previously — it would seem to me to be a derivative of that conveyed information.

    For example, if I filled out a form for my father’s grave marker, and I had been there when he died, that form would be both an original source and one that contained primary knowledge. Why wouldn’t the grave marker be a derivative of the information contained on the form I filled out?

    Comment by Barbara Schenck — 18 Feb 2009 @ 10:47 am

  2. In retrospect, as soon as you mentioned the above distinction of image copies being treated as originals, I remembered the passage from Evidence Explained. As usual, Ms. Mills has thought this through thoroughly, and set the standard.

    I believe the concept of “independent origin” is sometimes lost on beginning genealogists, as well. Outside of New England, most parts of the U. S. started registering births and deaths toward the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th centuries. In most cases, this provides for a death certificate without a birth certificate. Beginning genealogists then locate the death certificate, locate the gravestone, and locate an obituary or two in local newspapers, and they all have the same date of birth. Well, these are three independent sources, so the old “preponderance of evidence” standard would agree that this is the correct date of birth, despite that old census record that says they is off by five years. But in fact, the same person (for example the widow or the eldest son) filled out the death certificate, ordered the headstone, and submitted the obituary to the paper. So in reality, the source for the information is the same, despite its appearance in different records. This truly proves the superiority of the modern genealogical standard to the old P.O.E. system.

    I think this may be the first time I ever inspired a whole blog entry with a comment. ;)

    Comment by Michael Hait — 18 Feb 2009 @ 11:00 am

  3. Wow – Barbara, you have introduced a whole new idea into this discussion. However, the same concept can be applied to marriage certificates. When requesting a marriage license, you fill out a form and hand it to the clerk, who then fills out the marriage license itself. Yet this marriage license is considered an original record, correct?

    I believe that in the scenario you present, the stonecutter would serve the same position as a clerk, with one additional level of surety: the person filling out the form is paying for the headstone, therefore if any of the information is engraved incorrectly (to their knowledge), they will not pay. This allows for less possibility for corruption of the data.

    Comment by Michael Hait — 18 Feb 2009 @ 11:07 am

  4. Michael, I’m trying to remember when I got married how it worked. I think it went like this: my husband and I went to the court house. We filled out forms (containing, of course, both primary and secondary information, i.e., my mother told me the day I was born). And yes, that was an original source. Then the clerk filled out the marriage license, allowing us to go to the church and get married (another original source using the information we provided — though I suppose you’d have to say the information was secondary). The source, however, was original because it wasn’t just a verbatim copy of what we gave the clerk but a distillation of the information, containing only what he needed to send with us to the church for the priest to see that we had complied with official legal rules prior to marrying. Then he filled it out after the marriage, adding information about the wedding date and place and containing signatures of witnesses and our signatures and his, and he sent it back to the clerk’s office. So it was still original. I suppose a certified copy of it would be considered “original” too — as he’s the legal representative of the clerk’s office deputized to make the record.

    HOWEVER, and it’s a big however, I can think of at least three instances in my family where the “official” and thus supposedly “original” sources were incorrectly derived from forms submitted by individuals providing primary information. My son’s middle name has an “ethnic” spelling. The clerk thought it was a different name and that “we” had made a mistake, so he corrected it. We had to have his birth certificate amended. My mother was born, according to her mother (not submitting the information, but definitely present at the event) on Oct 20. The doctor with bad handwriting submitted the list of babies he’d delivered that week at the end thereof to the clerk’s office in Silver Bow County, Montana. He wrote Oct 20 sloppily. The clerk read “Oct 25″ and subsequently issued the “official” certificate as being Oct 25. If you look at the original doctor’s writing, though — and you note that he entered babies born chronologically and there were babies born after my mother on the list on Oct 21, 22, and 23, then you know it’s an error. Still . . . my mother has had more trouble over the past 89 year with her birth certificate being “wrong” but “official” and theoretically “original” — especially in terms of social security and medicare — than you can imagine. Second, my husband provided his mother’s name for her death certificate given to the mortuary in charge of filing the information. It came back from the state incorrectly spelled. It, too, had to be amended.

    So, I guess I still see tombstones as derivative, but yes, you could make a case for them being the first instance of the information in that form.

    See what you started, Mark!!

    Comment by Barbara Schenck — 18 Feb 2009 @ 11:30 am

  5. In the in the scenario with the stonecutter , My father had his funeral arrangements pre-arranged which included his tombstone cut and in place. His name was spelled wrong but he said it did not matter and he didn’t want to go to the trouble to fix it. Several years later when my father died, he was buried in different cemetery with the correct spelling & dates on his tombstone.

    The possibilities are endless concerning tombstone errors, perhaps a even discount could have been offered not to redo an error on the tombstone.

    Comment by T Williams — 18 Feb 2009 @ 12:58 pm

  6. Another good point.

    However, if you return to the criteria that Mark outlined on his original post, the determination of the gravestone as an original source lies in its being the first appearance of that information in that particular physical form. Whether or not mistakes are possible (and I admit the exceptions noted do lead me to rescind my comment that the commercial nature would make these more reliable by definition), the final product is still accepted by the customer, making it ultimately a source separate from the original request form. I think there is a case for it being derivative were this not the case, and the form being its only source, but as it is, the source of the gravestone would be both the form as a guide and (more significantly) the purchaser, who will either accept it or not accept it. In fact, this is even more notable when mistakes do exist on the stone, because if the purchaser accepts the mistakes, he is in fact acknowledging the validity of the stone (even if the information is incorrect). Again, the distinction should be made also between primary and secondary information, and — even if the gravestone can be considered an original source — its information is secondary at best.

    Comment by Michael Hait — 19 Feb 2009 @ 4:23 am

  7. No wonder we new/intermediate genealogists are put off by the subject of citing sources!!!

    I try the best I can. As you have mentioned in later articles it does help if the software conforms to standards, but who sets the standards. I am trying to use the Mills, “Evidence” protocols as much as possible.

    Interesting discussions.

    Comment by Marilyn Smith — 23 Apr 2009 @ 3:59 pm

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