Understanding evidence, Part 1: primary, secondary and original sources
Janice Heppenstall is a graduate of our Advanced Certificate programme (with Distinction). She has a passion for finding the extraordinary in ‘ordinary’ people’s lives, using their stories as a springboard to explore the local, social and political context in which they lived. She blogs regularly on family history and genealogy topics at English Ancestors and is also to be found on Facebook.
This is the first of three posts looking at different types of documentation and other sources that we, as genealogists, draw upon to evidence our research. These posts focus not on distinct record sets like censuses, birth registers or manorial records; rather they provide a broader look to get us thinking about the relative value of ‘evidence’ from different source types. In this first part, we’re looking at some important terms used to distinguish source types: primary, secondary, original and digital surrogate. The second and third posts will build on this, looking at a range of what are termed derivative sources. Although our starting point is that some types of evidence carry more weight than others, as we shall see, none should be disregarded because there is value in all. It all depends on how we use them.
Primary sources are created at the time of an event, or not long afterwards. These include what we, as genealogists, tend to refer to as original records. They include the documents from official bodies and government offices that are the nuts and bolts of our research, such as civil birth, marriage and death certificates; records of baptisms, marriages, burials; wills; property documents, e.g. deeds; apprenticeship records; Court records; newspaper reports; and the 1911 and 1921 census (we’ll consider the earlier censuses in the second post). These types of original documents provide us with the hard facts that enable us to build our trees. They can include far more information than the mere fact of a particular event having occurred. A baptism record, for example, essentially has the date and location of the event, the child’s name and the name of one or both parents. Depending on the year and the parish, it may also include place of residence, father’s occupation, both parents’ fathers’ names and the child’s actual date of birth. Some even include the day of the week on which the birth occurred! It will of course include the denomination, and there may be other notes in the margin. That’s a lot of evidence! The important point here is that we are looking at the original document with our own eyes, and we see for ourselves what was written. We can examine it closely, decipher the handwriting, verify that this is the correct document for our research and get every last scrap of information from it.
When we refer to ‘original records’, strictly speaking what we mean is the actual original documents lodged in archives like the local Country Records Offices, the National Archives at Kew, National Records of Scotland, National Library of Wales, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) or other diocesan, university or specialist archives. However, increasing numbers of such documents have been photographed and made available to us online, through various websites. The availability of digital images can mean it is no longer necessary to handle the originals, which are stored away, safely. Indeed, often they are no longer available for the general user, meaning the photographed copies of them are what we must use. Archivists refer to them as digital surrogates. In almost every case they are as good as the original, but just occasionally they are not – we’ll see an example of this in part 3. When we rely on these surrogates, it’s good practice to say so. We can refer to them as ‘digital images of the original documents’ and give the website.
Whether we see the actual original documents or an online photograph of them, we can be reasonably confident that most of the information in these original documents/ primary sources is true. Why only reasonably confident? Because the information recorded is only ever as true or as accurate as the facts provided by the informant. In the 1911 census my great grandmother added six years to her second husband’s age to make the age difference between them less obvious. Another example: the marriage record for my widowed 3x great grandmother has her father’s surname as ‘Moss’, which is actually her first husband’s surname. Sometimes we have to read between the lines, recognise human error, make allowances for individual foibles, and on occasion perhaps witness a web of deceit unfolding before our eyes.
However, primary sources do not have to be from official bodies. We might also have personal items such as photographs of people and places; letters; memoirs; diaries; and spoken accounts by people who witnessed an event. In the case of photographs, sometimes simply seeing the image can be sufficient for our information needs: ‘Oh look, that’s Auntie Ethel at Grandma’s Ruby Wedding party, so she must have emigrated after 1977…’ However, often it’s what’s written on the back that adds vital information. The name of a studio on the back can help narrow down the date of the image, or there may even be a date stamp. Alternatively, someone may have written a note on the back. On the back of a group photo taken at the start of my Dad’s National Service training he has written his Platoon, Company and Regiment, along with the full address of the barracks, the date, and a signed dedication to his parents. But beware! Notes may have been added later by someone whose knowledge of the photo is based on hearsay. My Mum incorrectly labelled a photo as her ‘Uncle David’. Meanwhile, her cousin had incorrectly labelled a different photograph of the same man as ‘Uncle Albert’. It took a collaboration between the two daughters of these cousins – myself and my second cousin – to compare what we had and work out that these were in fact two precious photos of ‘Uncle Joe’, who had been killed in action in 1917, before his nieces, our mothers, were even born. This opportunity to exchange stories and photos is one of the things I love about finding new cousins via online trees. Another more distant cousin sent me a memoir written by his late aunt. It included information about family relations and tensions relating to my great grandfather and his birth family – information I simply never would have found any other way. Again, beware, though! A diary entry and a memoir is the writer’s ‘truth’, which on occasion may differ from the reality.
Moving on to secondary sources, these tend to be published works in which the author describes, summarises, discusses or in some way draws upon information gathered from other sources (primary or other secondary). A secondary source may be produced many years after an event. The author may have had no physical connection whatsoever with the original event; and yet with the benefit of distance, hindsight and objectivity, the author can present an overview that adds context to our own research, helping us imagine our ancestors in their setting. Examples might include historians’ texts based on research about a person, locality, event or period of interest; literature contemporaneous to the time/ events; and modern historical novels or films based on sound research. Unless you are actually reading a book about your ancestor, such texts are unlikely to refer specifically to your family, but they can provide a fantastic backdrop to your research. While reading recently about trench warfare and the Western Front, I decided to watch a couple of films about the First World War to help me visualise what I had read: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) and War Horse (2011). The depiction in both films of ‘No Man’s Land’, the area between the opposing trenches helped me to imagine the utter horror of ‘going over the top’, even down to the placement of coils of barbed wire laid by the troops to make an attack more difficult for the opposing side. Joey the ‘War Horse’ is seriously injured when he becomes entangled in one of these coils. In this example, my reading and the films were secondary sources, but both helped me to understand the conditions and horrific reality of life and death in the trenches for my own kinsmen. They enhance what we find in primary sources. Sometimes secondary sources include great photos and maps, or direct quotes from primary sources, guiding us to them so we can examine them for ourselves. Reading about the 3rd Battle of Ypres, where my aforementioned great uncle Joe was killed, I learned of diaries kept by his commanding officer and was able to locate these and read this factual account (primary source) of Joe’s final weeks, days and hours – even though he wasn’t mentioned by name. Other published works may be memoirs written by people who were there. Strictly speaking these are primary sources, but we can use them in the same way we use secondary texts, to help us understand the context and reality for our family.
To summarise, then, primary sources are the original records made at the time of an event. They provide us with the essential data for our research. We simply could not progress without this information. The historian’s and genealogist’s mantra is always to get as close as possible to the original source. Today, often this means using online digital surrogates – photographs of these originals. However, although these records can help to pad out what we know about our ancestor – their occupation, maybe a physical description, evidence of regular drunk and disorderly behaviour, perhaps, and so on, they do not in themselves provide depth and context. What was life like on a prison hulk? Why were so many people in the north attracted to Nonconformity in the eighteenth century? What were the stages towards universal suffrage, and what can I deduce from the fact of my ancestor’s right to vote in a specific period of history? For these and many more questions and themes our research can benefit enormously from secondary sources.
In the second part we will move on to derivative records, starting with certain types of records that appear to be originals but in reality are copies.