Telephone Directories -- derivative or original source?

 
 
 
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northernmama1
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Telephone Directories -- derivative or original source?

Would a 1950 telephone directory be considered a derivative or original source?  I am just not sure whether int would be considered a copying of information from maybe a prior printing and written information supplied by residents or an original because perhaps someone collected the information and printed it in an original compilation/format.

I am leaning towards derivative but wondered if there were other thoughts about this.

Angela

 

EE
EE's picture

Angela, an annual telephone directory, at its compilation and release, was an "original source." That said, we're still left with questions about the reliability of any piece of information we take from it. We can't just say, "Okay, it's an original, so I can trust it."

This, of course, is why we appraise our source—a physical container—separate from the information within the source. (See "QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map.") With telephone directories, we would like to think that the informant was the head of the household, the person who established the phone line, and that the details provided are reliable. They likely are. Certainly, we might have more confidence in a telephone directory than a city directory for which canvassers took information from neighbors, landlords, and whoever. But we don't know who gave the data for the phone directory and even the clerks in the telephone offices, while compiling the directories, made typos.

The Editor

ACProctor
ACProctor's picture

I admit that I've had problems with classifying some information as either 'primary' or 'secondary', and this example seemed like a good one to frame my question (apologies for hijacking the question). I appreciate the distinction between the two categories of information, but sometimes information might have been provided by a primary informant only to be subsequently manipulated to the point where it may not be as reliable as that originally given. For instance, errors are often made when compiling a telephone directory, and more so before the advent of computers. This would contrast with informtion in the original hand of the informant, or other original form as conveyed by the informant.

A recent case I encountered involved the Electroal Register of England & Wales, where my family home showed totally the wrong family for a given year, despite the information submitted by my parents being 'primary'.

This is obviously a grayscale as some sources involved more manipulation than others. You suggest that a telephone directory is 'original' rather than 'derivative', although the information supplied by the informant obviously underwent some transcription and collation before the directory was compiled. So, from the roadmap point-of-view, the source is 'original', although the information may still be derivative (which isn't a category catered for).

Is there a way to indicate that level of derivation/manipulation applicable to primary information? Such cases don't really fall into the 'secondary information' category, but the 'primary' category alone may not convey that level of unreliability.

Sorry to be a PITA.

Tony

EE
EE's picture

Tony, if we apply the 3x3 Evidence Analysis Process Map to our evaluation, then the information is not "derivative." Original record vs. derivative record apply only to the source. Or the source could also be a narrative that integrates both.

As you go on to say, information would be either primary (firsthand) or secondary (secondhand)—but the informant could be unknown. That third option is the situation we encounter with most directories and censuses. The fact that we consider the informant unknown would then be a flag that the information's credibility has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it.

The Editor

ACProctor
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Re: the 3x3 map, I did acknowldge that the source is being considered 'original', but also that the concept of "derivative information" isn't catered for by the map, and that's the essence of my point. In cases where the informant is known -- my parents would have provided first-hand information for those Electoral Registers, or to establish a contract with our (non-Bell) telephone company -- the source information is effectively a derivative form of that submitted. The associated register or directory would have have involved some amount of manipulation since it didn't go straight from the submitted information to that 'original' form of the source, and I don't see how the 3x3 map offers a way to assess that amount of manipulation.

Tony

EE
EE's picture

Hmhh.  Under the 3x3 (and the 2x3 that preceded it) "derivative" information is "catered to" or addressed. It is secondary (secondhand) information. It is information passed on by someone who was not a participant in the matter and therefore did not have firsthand knowledge of the details. That type of information is not called derivative because that term is used as a descriptor for the source that contains the information.

On the other hand, isn't it a given that every published work has undergone various degrees of manipulation? And every manuscript, which could have been revised any number of times prior to the version that we find? And every database, which could have been created in multiple ways from any number of other data sources?

The bottom line, I'd argue, is that it is impossible to quantify the exact trustworthiness of any source or any piece of information.We can devise general labels that encompass a range of characteristics, and we can learn the strengths and weaknesses to consider; but it's impossible to nail down any piece of information to some immutable point on a sliding scale.

 

The Editor

northernmama1
northernmama1's picture

I agree, the information within could very easily be flawed and should be analyzed carefully. 

Thank you for the information. 

EE
EE's picture

You're welcome!

The Editor

dsliesse
dsliesse's picture

I would have to agree 100% that the phone directories of the era in question are primary information.  Keep in mind that in those days there was essentially only one telephone company (there might have been some smaller ones scattered around the country, but for practical purposes we're talking about Ma Bell) and they supplied all the information.  There was no informant, so to speak; the information came from the telephone company's records.

That doesn't negate the possibility of transcription errors, of course.  And that's why it could be argued either way about them being original or derivative -- they're transcriptions of the phone company's records (which could also be wrong in the first place; I'd think they'd have the numbers right, but names and addresses could be close enough that nobody cared about correcting them, back in the day when mailmen didn't quibble about whether an address is formatted exactly correctly).  The phone company almost certainly didn't do the printing, either, although it could probably be considered the publisher.

EE
EE's picture

Good reasoning, Dave.

The Editor