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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Understanding Sources
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 17, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Sources. In genealogy we use them all the time. In fact it is second nature to use them so we often don't stop to think that we are actually working with sources of information. As a result we sometimes don't think that what we are basing our ancestral tree on is a source.

I have seen much confusion of late about sources. Many people think it has to be something like a book to qualify as a source. Others don't understand the importance of citing sources as they progress in their research. I thought that while the year was still young, and we are all trying live by our New Year's resolutions, now is a perfect time to take a closer look at sources and how genealogists use them.

A source can be anything.

What is a Source?

A source, as it applies to genealogy, is any method by which we get information. That means it could be a tangible document such as a book or a census record, or it could be less tangible, such as a phone call with a relative. Ideally, regardless of the source, you will want to make sure to have some form of a hard copy. A photocopy of the census page, written notes from the telephone conversation, a printout from the Web site you visited. And you will want to cite your sources so that you, and those who read your information, know how you came to your conclusions.

Sources, the information we base our familial conclusions on, come in many different types and many different levels of accuracy. While you will often see references to primary and secondary sources, recent publications have helped to define this more completely.

Classifications of Sources

As I mentioned, records are being classified a little differently. In Professional Genealogy edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG and published by Genealogical Publishing Company, there is a chapter on evidence analysis. Donn Devine, the author of that chapter talks about the development of three sets of criteria:

  • original vs. derivative sources
  • primary vs. secondary information
  • direct vs. indirect evidence

Original sources, what many refer to as primary sources, are those that were made at or near the time of the event by someone who was present at the event in question. On the other hand, derivative sources are those that were compiled or created at a much later date. Published family histories, for instance, would be considered derivative sources.

Primary information is the statement made either in writing or orally by someone who was present at the event. This does not mean that the information stated is true. For instance, an eyewitness of a car accident may say things one way when interviewed right after the accident, but may describe the events differently in court some time later. Secondary information comes from statements made by those not present. You could equate this with a form of gossip or the family story that you are related to George Washington.

Finally, there is direct and indirect evidence. Direct evidence is information that answers a question. For instance, you wonder when your great grandfather was born. The birth certificate would contain direct evidence of this by giving you the date of birth. Indirect evidence does not give you a specific date, but it may supply you with information that allows you to draw a conclusion. Returning to the census records, they supply you with an age. When you gather records from multiple census years on a given individual or family, you may be able to draw a conclusion as to when the individual was born.

In Conclusion

As you can see, there is more to a source than just calling it a source. As we use different types of sources, our skills at classifying those sources and evaluating them become better. Going beyond the standard "primary source" vs. "secondary source" is the first step in that learning process.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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