examining the verification process, it is essential to understand the
difference between primary and secondary sources. A primary record or
source is one created by an eyewitness of an event. Whether the writer
records the event as it occurs or describes it at a later time does not
change the fact that a record created by an eyewitness at any time is
a primary source. However, the period of time between the event and the
recording of the event could dramatically affect the source's accuracy.
Examples of primary sources are a midwife's journal entry describing
the birth of a child she delivered; a christening entry in a parish
register, recorded by the priest who performed the rite or by the parish
clerk who witnessed it. The oral testimony of a mother describing the
birth of one of her children would also be a primary source for that
A secondary source is based upon evidence gathered after an event
occurred by a person who was not an eyewitness. A death certificate
is a secondary source of birth data as well as marriage data, although
it is a primary source for verifying a person's death date and place.
A daughter's testimony about the date and place of her parents' marriage
is a secondary source because it is based on her knowledge of documentary
evidence and the observation of when her parents celebrated their wedding
Secondary sources are as valuable as primary sources if they contain
accurate descriptions of events. In general, however, primary sources
are more reliable descriptions of events, especially if the eyewitness
recorded his or her testimony at the time of the event.
Dates and personal and place names can be erroneously recorded in both
primary and secondary sources. When several conflicting names or dates
exist, the researcher should determine the earliest occurrences of the
names and dates in primary sources. Normally evidence from primary sources
would take precedence. If a census reported a person's age as 20 in
1850 and yet their birth record gave 1835 as the date, the birth record
would take precedence. Nevertheless, sometimes a primary source may
When in doubt compare primary sources with other sources, especially
records based on the testimony of close relatives of eyewitnesses: children,
siblings, spouses and parents.
When verifying oral or documentary evidence, it is not necessary to
evaluate every date, name and place. A researcher can take a sample
one in ten, for example of the dates, names and places
found in a genealogy or an interview and check them against primary
sources: birth, marriage and death records are examples.
Often during interviews oral historians will encounter descriptions
of events in a person's life or in the history of a family that are
turning points or points of contention or controversy. There may be
no single right interpretation of these events. In this case it is best
to interview two or three other persons about these events, trying always
to find witnesses who were present at the time of the event. If eyewitnesses
are no longer alive, the researcher should look for journals and letters
from these eyewitnesses. If no written testimony from them exists, the
researcher should interview two or three persons who had long and intimate
contact with the eyewitnesses.