Analyzing Original and Family Sources (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Sources and Information[edit | edit source]

A Source is the means by which we discover and receive information (data).

Original Sources[edit | edit source]

An original source is the first recording of an event whether oral, written, artefact-based or image-based. One source can provide several pieces, and different types, of information. Facsimile microforms, photographs, photocopies or reliable, unaltered digital reproductions are considered equivalent to an original source. Original sources are more likely to be accurate than any subsequent derivations and are therefore the preferred types of sources for genealogical research. However, it is often the case that a derivative source is more available to the researcher than an original one. This allows the researcher to perhaps access it sooner and probably more quickly, but it does not excuse her from eventually searching and viewing the original.

Derivative Sources[edit | edit source]

Derivative sources include any that are not original, and include the following:

  • Transcripts
    These can be made at different times by different people for different purposes and using different technologies. There may be several transcripts of the material you wish to search and undoubtedly some will be more accurate than others, some more detailed than others (and sometimes more detailed than the original!) When two separate transcripts agree with each other it increases their reliability.
  • Translations
    One of the commonest examples is translation of early Latin documents into the modern language of the country to which they refer. The researcher is wise to examine these carefully as not all translators are of similar expertise. Indeed not all ancient scribes were equally capable of rendering their parishioners’ names and circumstances into correct Latin either, so care has to be exercised on both counts.
  • Abstracts
    These are summaries of the contents of a document for a particular purpose. Not all were done with genealogists in mind, but many were.
  • Extracts
    Extracts are selected portions of an original record, perhaps only those referring to one surname, or one town. They may or may not be abbreviated.
  • Indexes
    These are a special kind of derivative source that should not be quoted as a ‘source’ but used only as a finding aid for one. They may be produced by hand, typewriter or computer, and may be the work of one person who never bothered with proofreading all the way to a professional-level triple-checked process. Some index compilers were a bit shaky on their alphabet, others used phonetic spelling or had trouble with ancient or illegible handwriting. Indexes take many forms from the contemporary margin type, annual calendar, slip and card indexes, book(let)s, fiches, CDs, or online forms. With modern technology many indexes can be manipulated to sort by different parameters, or searched for specific terms. Some indexes come with the original source, others separately, whilst some may be held by persons who do look-ups, perhaps charging a fee.
  • Compiled Records
    Compilations are collections of information drawn from different sources. They may be a rearrangement of original material and/or they may contain the compiler’s conclusions or synthesis of genealogical problems. All genealogies, family histories, local histories, books and websites fall into this category. They are the work product of a third party and not a first-created contemporary record or document.
  • Primary Information
    This is information reported at the time, or very soon after, by someone who was there. It is a contemporary, eye-witness account, and is usually more reliable than secondary information.
  • Secondary Information
    Any information provided later, or by someone who wasn’t actually there, is classed as secondary. It is generally less reliable than primary information.

There is no strict dividing line between the two, and it should be appreciated that one record can contain both primary and secondary information. The techniques involved in evaluating genealogical sources (original and derivative sources) as well as primary and secondary information. are discussed extensively in the National Institute for Genealogical Studies course Methodology-Part 5: How To Prove It, and in the book Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians by Brenda Dougall Merriman.

Using Family Sources[edit | edit source]

Family sources, whether oral, written, visual or archaeological, are the first ones we are urged to search for. They may not always be close at hand, but they are more or less guaranteed to be our family, and whereas archives will be around forever, our aunts and grandpas won’t be. Descendants who haven’t caught the genealogy bug have an annoying habit of throwing away items that they view as ‘old junk’. It cannot be stressed strongly enough how worthwhile it is to chase up all relatives and ask for facts, documents, photos, and memorabilia. It will be likely that these things are definitely from your family. But be especially careful of the identification of photos—some may be friends, music hall stars or Royal Family—collecting their photographs on cartes de visites was very popular. Find the 2nd , 3rd , 4th, cousins who may have been given the family bible or photograph album to take to Australia or North America when they emigrated. They may also have letters written by your ancestors, and what treasure troves they can be.

Most oral family information is derivative; exceptions would be the first telling of an event the teller took part in or witnessed, soon after it happened. Family stories and tales that have passed through several generations are prone to exaggeration in some instances, or to the omission of certain details when social stigmas were attached. Family sources such as photos, artefacts, letters, diaries and other documents are original sources.

The Five Main Original Sources of Genealogical Information

Countries vary, generally 19th century
Civil Registration (Vital Statistics•)
Countries vary, generally 19th century
Parish and Other Religious Registers
England 1538, Europe 17th century
Wills and other probate materials
12th century
Lands Records
Pre-1066 in England and Europe: earliest colonization elsewhere.

•North Americans are cautioned against the use of the term Vital Statistics in Britain, where it has a completely different meaning relating to a lady’s figure!

The first three concern the whole population and that is why they are so important. Indexes exist for all on the list. When we look closely at the list of five main original records we see that the first two of them disappear as we proceed back through the 19th century. Of the remaining three which have the potential to take us back several more centuries, probates apply to a only a very small portion of the population in early times, but to the majority in more recent times, of course. Land records do not apply to everyone either, but to a far greater percentage of the population in North America than in Europe. Errors can occur in any source, although they are far less likely in legal ones like probate and land records. It is strange that of the five main sources the two most reliable ones are those least used by genealogists! They should be better utilized. Prior to the mid-19th century there is only one major source that concerns everyone—the parish registers. In order to be able to access these we must use family information, civil registration and census with maximum diligence and efficiency to ascertain our ancestors’ parishes in the early 19th century. This leads, then, to our overall strategy for utilizing the main original sources. There are, of course, many other original sources as well as hundreds of derivative ones. In most cases they relate to only a certain section of the population, such as apprentices, sailors, taxpayers, or those appearing in court records or newspapers, but they can all provide valuable corroborating evidence for constructing a pedigree and in building up a picture of your ancestors’ lives.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.