Examples and reasoning for original and derivative sources

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Melite's picture
Examples and reasoning for original and derivative sources

I'm still having trouble grasping the concepts behind original and derivative sources and primary and secondary information. Reading the explanations and the usual examples, they make sense to me, but when I'm actually looking at what I have in front of me, I doubt I'm doing anything right. There's also different usage of these terms, even within the context of genealogy teaching resources, that muddies the waters for me. (For example, seeing many certificates explained as "original" specifically in the sense of "not a derivative source", or reading something that seems to conflate original sources with primary information.) I've been starting over the proper way with all the documents from family I can get my hands on (practicing with the easy people and records!), and would like to classify some of them, explain my reasoning and what I believe to be the background of the source's creation (beginning to realize just how key that aspect is), and see if I'm correct, as I could really use the feedback. I don't have any knowledgeable contacts to ask about these things, so I hope this is okay. Hopefully, down the line, this can help someone who has the same problems as I have. So, here goes:

  • I have a number of modern state birth certificates from family members, all of which are derivative, because they were assembled from the state's information into certificate. These were created through information gathered by the hospital, which is then given to and stored by the state, and turned into a certificate format for the parents and then further copies upon request.
  • However, I also have a state birth certificate which appears, to me anyway, to be something different - it's a photocopy of what I presume is actually the form used to gather the information for a birth record. It (not the photocopy but what was photocopied) was signed by the mother and attending physician to confirm its accuracy. So, is this still the same kind of derivative as the other birth certificates? Or is it closer to an original, an image copy?
  • I have a few heirloom records created by hospitals to document a birth, which are also derivative, because they came, again, from whatever records the hospital took.
  • On the other hand, I have one such heirloom record which, along with the derivative form describing the birth, also has a number of empty fields for information about the parents, which one of the parents then filled out afterwards. If you are simply writing down information about yourself, that's not derivative, right?
  • I have a few Catholic baptismal certificates, all of which, yet again, are derivative, because the content would have been recorded in baptismal registers, which were then referenced in creation of the certificate.
  • Then I've got another church record (Swedenborgian, if that matters, as I've no idea if different denominations have different practices), a certificate for a marriage. This is not a mailed-to-you-later sort of certificate, but was signed and dated at the wedding by the couple, the minister, and the witnesses. That's really all it contains - there's not much to be derived from anything else, and at most I would think it to be sort of... simultaneous with any marriage register. Would this then be an original?
  • I have various handwritten letters, each of which would be an original, because they were not taking an existing document and reassembling it in some fashion or other. The same goes for the empty envelopes from the collection (which seem to be missing their contents, but are still useful for residence info), as these would be originals as well.
  • I have a family member's old address book. This... I am not sure. I suppose I consider the creator to be a compiler of sorts, but it seems strange to consider this a derivative work, because... what does it really derive from? Their knowledge of the contact information for their loved ones.

It's a lengthy post, apologies, but I wanted to make sure I'd "done the work" and shown it before asking. I'd be extremely grateful to have my errors pointed out or to know if I'm on the right track, here.

EE's picture

Melite, this response will also be long—and in parts—because you raise issues that deserve more than cursory thoughts.

You write:

>There's also different usage of these terms, even within the context of genealogy teaching resources, that muddies the waters for me. (For example, ... reading something that seems to conflate original sources with primary information.)

Yes, there are different usages of these terms. For the most part, the variances occur between different fields. For example, historians (my academic field), attorneys, and reporters speak of "primary sources" and "secondary sources" in ways that definitely conflate original sources with primary information.

Because you are aware of the significant differences, I'm assuming you are a genealogist—that being the discipline that evaluates the physical source (original, derivative, or narrative mixtures) separately from each information statement that a source makes (primary or firsthand information vs. secondary or secondhand information).

Even within genealogical literature, however, we do find confusion and contradiction. Anyone can write and publish a book to give advice. If they self-publish, their manuscript may not have been vetted by colleagues to remove points of confusion.  If their instruction manuals are published by a major publisher in the field, then we would hope that the publisher as well as the author commissioned critiques and revisions before the work went to press. However, book publishers today are being financially squeezed to the point that quality-control manuscript reviews may not happen. With regard to the points you are questioning, we see that problem with a decades-old and highly respected manual that was recently revised by the author who has not stayed active in the field. That author was trained years ago in the old concept of primary vs. secondary and the author's attempt to modernize the language did create confusion that would have benefitted from peer-review—which  the revised manuscript did not get due to publication costs and the publisher's deference to the author's long-standing reputation. Reviews of the revised edition have not yet hit the journals, but the book will surely be faulted for that problem by the reviewers. 

As thoughtful researchers and students of history, we will always find conflicts between authors and instructors. That is one reason why young historians, for example, take "historiography" classes--to teach them the pitfalls they can expect when using various authors. That is also a reason why book reviews in scholarly journals are so valuable: those reviwers, by and large, point out flaws that we need to consider when using those books.

Specifically to the case at hand, the instruction you find in EE and here at EE's website stays consistent with the standards and language of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the practices and language of major journals such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. EE's guidance also aligns with that of Dr. Thomas W. Jones's manuals, Mastering Genealogical Proof and Mastering Genealogical Documentation, and with blogs written by disciplined genealogists such as Judy G. Russell (The Legal Genealogist). We each explain concepts in our own words and provide different examples, but the underlying principles and language are consistent.

The Editor

EE's picture

Melite, just now—as I started through the rest of your message with its specific examples—I sense that you are asking how you should "label" each type of record you describe or whether you have labeled each correctly. While EE's "Evidence Analysis Process Map" lays out the common labels applied to sources, information, and evidence, merely "labeling" a source or a data-point is not the end objective. Each of these "labels" are there to prompt us to think.

Each label's description is asking us to think about the source. It's asking us to think about the information statement we want to take from the source. It's asking us to think how our interpretation of that information statement might contribute evidence to help prove the accuracy of a conclusion.

In each of your bullet points, you are doing that thinking. You are doing it very well. The evaluations you have made on each will help you understand that source much better and help you make much more reliable conclusions with each point you want to accept or prove. I see no flaws in your reasoning. But I'm not going to go back and hang my own labels on each item or give you "yes" or "no" on each decision. Too many researchers (not you, obviously; but I do hear from many others) want easy answers that shortcut the difficult thinking. Thus, they feel that once they've hung a label on a source they can either accept it or reject it based on the label they decided upon—and the nuances of the source's strengths and weaknesses are then ignored. We're better off if we leave your discussion as is and let others reason through them also.

You have definitely "done the work." Don't question yourself. Save those doubts and those questions for each source you use. If you continue this kind of analysis with everything you use, you will end up with conclusions that withstand the test of time and—ideally—new discoveries about each person you are studying.


The Editor

Melite's picture

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response! It was very helpful.

I liked reading your perspective on publishing and on the manual you mention. One of the stumbling blocks I've encountered is in trying to determine if a writer is using terminology in a more general sense (or the historical sense, etc.), or more in line with current genealogical research - and if the latter, whether it is used in a correct assessment or not. EE has been my go-to for arbitration as I start out, and I intend to familiarize myself further with the journals and other writers you list.

I don't know enough about history as an academic field, but historiography sounds like a fascinating subject. Thank you for pointing it out for me, as I'm definitely going to seek out some reading material, just out of personal interest!

You're correct in that my question was about the labeling - prompted by the software I've been using. The necessity for avoiding black-and-white thinking makes sense to me, and I view the label more as a fuzzy category and a quick indication or shorthand for something more complicated. The issue for me was that I kept looking through the examples of others and wondering if I didn't have the right understanding of what is actually meant after all. Figuring out at what point something can be considered original, "in its first recorded or uttered form" (to borrow from EE!), has given me some issues. (I'm very much prone to overthinking things.) I couldn't tell if I'd taken it too far (or not far enough).

I appreciate the encouragement and will continue to work at this! The book and this site and forum together are a goldmine.