When to Use Derivatives or Originals: Here's a Crib Sheet

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Researchers are always cautioned to use the best sources possible. Ideally, we’re told, that means original records created by informants with primary (first-hand) information.

That guidance is sound. But when a project involves hundreds or thousands of documents—many from a distant locale and record sets that aren’t imaged online—somehow, somewhere, we have to compromise. In choosing our compromises, we need to make sure we don’t end up compromising the validity of our conclusions.

If you’re struggling with how and where to draw the line, here’s my own “crib sheet” based on a few decades of mistakes, stalemates, and aha! moments.

Use derivatives:

  • As a preliminary survey to create an “overview” before deep-mining the resources of a region.
  • As a finding aid when the original records are not indexed.
  • As a finding aid for locating “buried references,” when the original indexes cover only the principal parties—as with land patents, deeds, legal suits, probate cases, or church registers.
  • When working “The FAN”—a situation in which we need as much data as possible, as expeditiously as possible, about every known family member, associate, or neighbor of the person under study.

Consult the originals:

  • For every document used to build a proof argument for identity and kinship. We can’t build anything on shaky ground.
  • When the quality of a derivative raises questions—say: illegible spots, irrational words, or indicators of carelessness.
  • (Always!) When no derivatives exist. We can’t make decisions based on just what’s randomly published and brush off the rest because they aren’t convenient to access. A valid conclusion cannot be made from just some of the evidence.
  • When we publish in a peer-reviewed journal, where we are expected to use the best-quality sources available.


IMAGE CREDITS: PresenterMedia (https://presentermedia.com/index.php?target=closeup&id=3271&categoryid=135&maincat=clipart : downloaded 26 June 2018), item 3271; used under license.

HOW TO CITE: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "When to Use Derivatives or Originals: Here's a Crib Sheet," blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/quicktips/when-use-derivatives-originals-crib-sheet : posted 26 June 2018).