If a Person has Some Information and they Never Share it, Is There Still a Source?

Friday, 20 Feb 2009 | by Mark Tucker

Most have heard some variation of the question:

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

There are various view points as to why the answer could be “yes” or why it could be “no”. One I find interesting is that the tree falling makes a vibration, but it doesn’t become a sound until some creature is close enough to translate those vibrations into sound.

I have been thinking a lot lately about sources — specifically those used in genealogy to help identity our ancestors and further our research.  Let me see if I can process the recent comments on this blog and the APG list and correlate it with my past thinking.

A source is a thing. So it must have a creator (or recorder).

A source contains information. So it must have an informant.

Very often the creator and informant are two different people.

Elements of a Source

Sources are Objects

A source is a physical thing.  A document, a picture, an artifact, an audio recording, a video, a grave marker, etc.  True, it is a container of information.  But we can step back and talk about just the container and its creator without talking about the information and the informant.  The stone cutter carved the grave marker.  The census enumerator filled out the census form.  The enumerator created a second copy of the census by referring to the first.  This agency microfilmed the census copy.  That company digitized the microfilmed census.  I wrote a letter.  You created a tape recording.

I like the box of cereal analogy.  Maybe because I have eaten so much cold cereal over the years.  The box of cereal  (the physical box) was created by someone.  It contains Frosted Mini Wheats (or insert your preferred cereal) that was provided by someone else.  The box is the source and has a creator.  The contents is the information provided by an informant.

Can the source and the creator be the same?  No, how can a creator create itself.  So it is flawed to say that a person is a source.  A person can be a creator or an informant, but not a source. Let’s consider an example:

Your great grandfather on January 1, 1900 went out into the forest to think.  On that day he decided that he was never again going to swear or lose his temper.  Nobody was around and for many years he never told anyone.  He never wrote it down.  But that decision was important and shaped the rest of his life.  He remembers the day, because it was the first day of the new century.  Many years later he tells his son, your grandfather.  This knowledge positively effects your grandfather and he always remembered the story told to him by his father.  He never wrote it down either and he never passed the story along until one day he tells you.   A few years later your grandfather dies. Now you are the only one who knows the story and the details.

What if your great grandfather never shared the story?  Would there be a source?

When you hear the story, if you never write it down is there a source?

I think that no source exists.  There is no physical object and no creator.

Let’s say you write down the story.  You are the creator of the document.  Now a source exists.

I think this is what Donn Devine was saying in his APG post:

“…the unfixed oral utterance, from human memory, is recognized, but for practical purposes is not used until it has been captured in fixed form and can be cited
as a record. By their nature, most textual records are initially based on transitory knowledge and memories, either of the human recorder, or of a human informant …

Excepting records produced by recording devices, an original textual record source–the first fixing of the information it contains–is in fact always derived from another source, the person who created the record, or the human informant who provided the information being recorded.”

Sources Contain Information

Now lets say that as a child, your received a journal for a birthday present.  You keep the journal all your life, but you never write anything in it; not even your name.  Do you have a source?

All you have is an empty book.  There is a thing and a creator of that thing.  There is also an informant (or a potential informant) but no recorded information.  No source exists.

Once you start writing in the journal, then there is a source.

I find it very useful to consider a source as an object and classify it as original or derivative based on whether it was created based on another object.  If the source object was created based on an informant and that informant only received the information from another informant and so on until the first informant, then the source would be original.  Otherwise, the source would be derivative.

Back to the Grave Marker

The physician witnessed the death of a person and was an informant providing death information for the death certificate (a document created by someone else).  A source exists and it is original.  Not because the informant provided primary information, but because the certificate was created based on an informant and not another source.

A family member also witnesses the passing of their loved one and provides information on the forms at the mortuary.  This family member is an informant and is also providing primary information.  The form is an original source.  Once again, not because the information provided was primary, but because the information came from an informant and not another source.

Now the stone cutter gets the form and proceeds to create the marker.  The marker is an object created by a stone cutter.  It contains information.  It is a source.  Following a strict definition, the marker was created based on another source and is therefore derivative.

But is this a special case that warrants a special name?

The federal copy of a local census is strictly a derivative as it is a transcript, but because of special circumstances we give it the name “duplicate original” and we can treat it as if it were the original.  There are often transcription errors between the two sources, but it doesn’t stop us from calling both originals.

Is our grave marker example a similar situation?

There could be differences between the form and the grave marker, but because they are essentially part of the same “transaction” does it merit the classification of  duplicate original and therefore both can be considered an original.  What if the form no longer exists and the grave marker is all that is left?  Does lack of the “true” original help elevate the grave maker to the classification of an original?

Back to the title of this post: If a Person has Some Information and they Never Share it, Is There Still a Source?

I say that a person is never a source; they can only be an informant or a creator.  No source exists if there is no object/container and no information/contents.

Related Posts

Confusion with the Various Definitions of Original Source

More on Sources: Original, Derivative, or Otherwise

Attending physicians aren’t usually stone cutters


  1. Here’s a thought that might change the definition a little:

    What about a face-to-face interview, that is not recorded or transcribed at all? That is to say, I interview my grandparents and then input the information directly into my genealogy software. Using your definition, the database file would be the original source, but I would have to argue that the interview with the informant would be the source. Make no mistake, I did not mean to imply that this lack of note-taking constituted responsible genealogy, but so very few of our sources are actually created by responsible genealogists.

    Comment by Michael Hait — 21 Feb 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  2. I wouldn’t be as dogmatic about denying people as “sources.”

    In general usage, people are frequently described as reliable or unreliable sources of information. And if you split hairs and make your definition exclude a regularly used definition of the word, I think you find peoples’ eyes glaze over.

    Besides, family stories come down to us often in the oral telling. They exist as stories to help us understand ourselves and our backgrounds. They may even have kernels of truth in them!

    I understand and accept your cereal box notion of sources, but I wouldn’t be that limited in my description. I believe that people can be sources of information. My father was the source of many family stories that he never wrote down. My grandmother was the source of lots of stories she told to me and my children. I have written some down. I have taped some. I have passed others on as oral testimony. The stories that are written down exist outside my having to deliver them — but they do exist, once told. in the memories of my children and grandchildren. They are also, granted, prone to mistelling and misinterpretation and mistakes. But they still exist and they traveled from one person to another through the spoken word.

    Like Michael, I think the informant or the storyteller is a source (even though the information passed on may be ‘derived’ from earlier tellings).

    Comment by Barbara Schenck — 21 Feb 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  3. If you need an original source copy for something to be true, then every documented record that no longer exists is an unacceptable source. (i e Personally copied from county record book in 1970; county records destroyed in 1980.)

    It is simply impossible to prove every bit of information you get about your family with a written source. Your mother’s written testimony that your great-grandmother’s eyes were blue is not more valid than her oral testimony to that fact. *She* is the source of the information — not the paper she wrote it down on. It is because a person *must* be a source that the reliability standards and source weighting is an important part of our research.

    You’re trying to make the data fit your description instead of coming up with a description that fits the width of the available data.

    Comment by Denise Pagel Moskovitz — 23 Feb 2009 @ 8:31 am

  4. “Evidence Explained” – the current ‘source Bible’ defines source as “artifacts, books, digital files, documents, film, people, photographs, recordings, websites etc. Sources are classified according to their physical form: original or derivative”

    I would definitely agree with Elizabeth Shown Mills on people being able to be sources.

    Comment by Rita Martin — 24 Feb 2009 @ 10:51 am

  5. What a wonderful blog. Well done!

    I’m also of the opinion that people are sources. And yes!–thank you Barbara Schenck for commenting about oral family history. –GJ

    Comment by GeneJ — 14 Mar 2009 @ 5:28 am

  6. In the end, all sources were created by people, weren’t they? People created the formal document as well as the oral history. The question is, what is the reliability of each kind of source? Which information do you trust the most? Or does it matter? For me, the formally recorded document beats “mama said” by a long shot.

    Personally, I want to record all the stories about my ancestors, but not necessarily accept them as proof of any event except that a given person actually lived – or did he? Auntie left one little detail out of the story she wrote about her father – he had been born out of wedlock. (True example!) Yes, the man lived, but under two names. He was William Lewis in his homeland, and William L. Parry in America. His pre-immigration records could not be found unless one knew that little (unspeakable for Auntie!!) fact. That little omission cast a shadow of doubt on everything else she wrote about him. What else did she omit? Or what parts of the story did she create as a cover-up for reality?

    There are all kinds of sources available to family historians. The challenge is to recognize that not all sources have the same reliability value. If we truly want to confirm the genealogy assertions we make, we need to use the most reliable, most accessible sources available. Which one would you trust? Auntie’s story or the government birth record for William LEWIS? I’ll take the document, thank you.

    Now, how is the best way to record it….? I like the bibliography style, ala Reunion. I like a list of sources that I can attach to many people and events in my database. I then expand the source reference with notes and/or memos for the individual when I choose.

    FYI, I am fluent in both Windows/PAF and Mac/Reunion.

    Comment by Venita — 27 Apr 2009 @ 8:52 am

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