Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sowing Primary and Secondary Confusion

Attorney, genealogist, and prolific blogger James Tanner continues to use obsolete terminology, which understandably creates confusion.

In a recent blog post, he lists a number of common genealogical sources:

U.S. Federal Census Record
Official State Birth Certificate
Official State Delayed Birth Certificate
International Genealogical Index
Ancestral File Family Tree
Church Parish Register
County Assessors Recordings
City Tax Roll

and then asks which of them are primary sources.

He concludes, I think correctly, that the question makes no sense. (It's like having to say whether every car on the road is either black or white, when they're almost all gray!) And then he draws the very odd conclusion that the problem lies in any attempt classifying sources, information, and evidence. But the real problem is that the distinction between primary and secondary sources is much too coarse for clear genealogical thinking.  A more useful distinction among sources is between original sources (first reduction of information to writing, such as a parish register) and derivative sources (a copy of an original or an earlier copy, such as a published index to the parish register).

Sources contain multiple pieces of information, each with somewhat different origins and quality and credibility. "Primary" and "secondary" are more usefully applied to those pieces. In a birth certificate, for instance, the information about the time of the birth is primary, coming from an eyewitness, whereas the information about the parents' birthplaces may well be secondary. No wonder we can't decide whether the certificate is primary or secondary; it contains both primary and secondary information!

Information is not evidence until we ask a question. Direct evidence answers the question directly, indirect evidence offers a clue but does not directly state the answer.

No reputable genealogist claims that these classifications are the be-all and end-all of evaluating and analyzing evidence. They are just the beginning. But it is an important beginning. Just as we can't carve wood well with a blunt chisel, we can't think clearly about these topics while using imprecise terms like "primary source."

In fact, direct evidence can be mistaken. Primary information can be mistaken. Original sources can contain false information. No serious genealogist thinks otherwise. These are not magic keys, just better tools. Even a sharp chisel won't work if you don't know how to hold it. The National Genealogical Society Quarterly is filled, issue after issue, with well-thought-out arguments that often show that what seems to be high-quality information is in fact false. Their reasoning is based on the Genealogical Proof Standard, which for some reason Mr. Tanner does not mention although it is the only proof standard in genealogy.

To learn the proper terminology takes some time and practice (as Bart Brenner demonstrates in a recent meticulous blog post). And once it's learned, the irony is that we don't need to verbalize it in every analysis, any more than we think about balancing on a bicycle most of the time. But knowing and using the terminology allows us to see, for instance, that when we have a derivative source in hand (say, an abstract of a probate case) we need to go beyond it, if possible, and read the original probate file from which it was derived. This is not because we are sure the probate speaks only truth. It's simply because the act of copying from the original has the potential to create errors and to omit important details. Again, no reputable genealogist says that all original sources are correct and all derivative ones are mistaken. 

Tanner arrives at a reasonable conclusion: "We also need to remember that within the same document or record part of the entries may be trustworthy and others may not. Every piece of evidence needs to evaluated on the basis of its consistency, historical context, timeliness and believability." Corroboration and resolving contradictions are key as well. And understanding original vs. derivative sources, primary vs. secondary information, and direct vs. indirect evidence is the first step in this ongoing process.

Tanner quotes a judge's instructions to the jury as a model for genealogists. It's a good step. A more complete list of considerations in evaluating evidence, specifically designed for genealogy, is readily available in Chapter 1 of Elizabeth Shown Mills's book Evidence Explained. I have no idea why Tanner would discuss this subject without referring even in passing to the acknowledged authority in the discipline.

James Tanner, "Primary and Secondary Sources: Who do you trust?," Genealogy's Star ( : accessed 12 November 2012).

Harold Henderson, "Sowing Primary and Secondary Confusion," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 14 November 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Bart Brenner said...

Harold, thanks for mentioning my blog post. While I appreciate many of the observations and conclusions drawn by James Tanner, you are correct that his approach to genealogical evidence is confusing. He tends to view genealogical evidence as a sub-set of legal evidence, hence the confusion. As you note, his failure to connect with genealogy standards detracts from his work. Thanks for your observations.

Sonja Hunter said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post. I immediately thought about some of the early 20th century divorce records I have looked at. While information about the marriage presented in the bill of complaint is from a primary source (one of the spouses), I never assume everything stated is completely true. As divorces were apparently more difficult to obtain then (no irreconcilable differences), it seems natural that some people might exaggerate to ensure the divorce was granted. As you point out, you need to consider the source (and context) for each piece of information.

Harold said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Bart and Sonja. It does help to furnish our minds with as many different ways of being skeptical about records as we can retain!