As genealogists and family historians, we talk a lot about using sources. But I think that "source" is one of those words that of gets thrown around and we don't stop and think about what it really means. Let's take a look at understanding genealogy sources.
What Is a Source?
What is a source? Is it a birth record? Is it a published book? Is it what your grandmother told you? Is it a database?
A source could be any of those things. When it comes down to it, a source is whatever you use to get information.
If you use a birth record to get information, that birth record is the source. If you use a tombstone to get a death date, that tombstone is a source. If you use a published book of marriage abstracts, that book is the source. If Aunt Bertha tells you something at the family reunion and you use that information, Aunt Bertha is your source.
Yes, that means that if you use an online family tree for information, that online family tree is the source.
Two Basic Types of Sources
There are two types of sources for our genealogy research: original sources and derivative sources. (Some fields refer to sources as primary or secondary. However, genealogy classifies them as original and derivative.)
An original source is the first recording of that record. It has nothing to do with the information on the source. It has to do with the source itself.
That birth record that's recorded at the probate court, the family Bible that somebody wrote in, or the letter that your grandfather wrote to your grandmother during the war. Those are the first recording of that record.
That might make a bit more sense when we consider the second type of source: derivative sources. A derivative source is something that's either made from original sources or from other derivatives. It's derived from something else.
Let's say that the county probate court has marriage records. Those marriage records are the originals. If the local genealogy society comes in and makes a book of abstracts of those marriage records, that book that the society publishes is a derivative source. It was derived from, in this case, original records.
What Does This Mean for Our Research?
This is all well and good, but what does it actually mean for our research? If derivative sources are created from other sources (either original or other derivatives), consider what that means: it's changing formats.
Every time that something changes format, it's another chance that an error can creep in. For that book of marriage abstracts that the genealogy society published, did they include all of the marriages? Did they copy the information correctly? Did they leave out some information? Did they make a typo when they were compiling their book?
This isn't to say that derivative sources are bad. They can actually be quite useful in our research. It is to say that we shouldn't stop with them. Those derivative sources came from somewhere else. There is something else to look at. Where did it come from? Working your way back to the original can yield additional information.
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