Research Tip 12: Evaluating Written and Oral Evidence
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Before 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 child's birth.
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 anniversary.
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 be wrong.
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.
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.