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From: "Mark Tucker" <>
Subject: [APG] Confusion with the Various Definitions of Original Source
Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2009 01:38:28 -0700

There exists confusion in the current genealogy literature on the definition
of an original source.

For this discussion I would like to focus only on the definition of original
source and not derivatives, common derivatives (transcript, extract,
abstract), or derivatives that can be treated as originals (image copy,
record copy, or duplicate originals). I want to focus on the source - the
container, the person, the paper, the stone, the object. Not the
information contained in it (as much as possible) and its classification as
primary or secondary. Also I don't want to focus on how that information
relates to the research question (i.e. the evidence and whether it is
direct, indirect, or negative).

The 4 main sources that genealogists can turn to for a definition of
original source are: Evidence! (1997), The BCG Standards Manual (2000),
Professional Genealogy (2001), and Evidence Explained (2007). But using
these sources can be contradictory and confusing. Is this due to the
refinement of the definition over the years?

Let's look at some specifics.

On page 49 of Evidence! the word material is used instead of sources, but
the definition is useful:
"Original material, as defined by the purist, is based on firsthand
knowledge - be it oral or written."
The main criteria identified is: firsthand knowledge

As the GPS was formalized, The BCG Standards Manual defined original sources
(see page 8) as:
"the person or record whose information did not come from data already
spoken or written."
The main criteria: first occurrence of information

The next year, Professional Genealogy was published which includes Chapter
17, "Evidence Analysis". On page 333, we find the definition of an original
source as:
"In genealogical terms, original sources are those that meet two criteria.
They are made at or near the time of the event, and their informants are in
a position to know the facts firsthand."
So a two-pronged test must be passed in order for a source to be original.
Criteria: timeliness and firsthand knowledge

In 2007, the definition changes to focus on form as found in Evidence
Explained. The research process map inside the front cover has "form"
written under both original and derivative. We find a definition of
original source in three places:
. page 24: "Original sources - material in its first oral or recorded form"
. page 826: "original source: a source that is still in its first recorded
or uttered form."
. page 828: "source: . Sources are broadly classified as either an original
source (q.v.) or a derivative source (q.v.), depending upon their physical
The main criteria: physical form

So it appears that now a single-question test would be sufficient to
classify a source as original:
"From what was this source derived?"
If the answer doesn't reveal another source, then it is an original.

In an APG discussion (see
Elizabeth Shown Mills indicates that "Original sources can have secondhand
information." An example is an original death certificate that contains
primary information of the death but secondary information of the birth. A
question that I haven't seen answered is:
"Can an original source contain ONLY secondary information?"
What would be an example? If that case is true, then only the definition in
Evidence Explained is useful. Otherwise you mix the classification of
source with that for information.

Another point I want to bring out from Evidence Explained is the definition
of primary source found on pages 22-23:
. one created by someone with firsthand knowledge
. one created at or about the time an event occurred
Within this framework, contradictions abound between theory and practice,
causing ambiguous analyses and unreliable conclusions."

It appears that the reason primary source is discussed is to identify its
weaknesses and show why original source is preferable in genealogy research.
The problem stems from the two-prong test of firsthand knowledge and
timeliness. If a source came from someone with firsthand knowledge but was
created long after the event in question, the test would fail. Or, if the
source was create near the time of the event, but the informant had
secondhand knowledge, then the test would also fail. The strength of the
single test of physical form for an original source is its simplicity on
focusing on the object that is the source and not the informant, his/her
knowledge, or the information.

What is confusing is that what Evidence Explained defines as a primary
source with its problems is the same definition that Professional Genealogy
uses for original source.

My inclination is that this progression of definitions is a refinement of
understanding over the years and that the current accepted definition of
original source focuses only on physical form. And as the other three
guides are revised, they will share the definition currently found only in
Evidence Explained.

Now let me tell you the back-story that produced this examination of the
definition of original source. In a recent presentation aimed at teaching
beginning researchers the Genealogical Proof Standard, the question came up
as to whether a grave marker is an original or derivative source. In
preparation for the presentation (and as part of a study assignment for the
ProGen Study Group) I shared the two-pronged test defined in Professional
Genealogy, Chapter 17. Because it was a double marker and the wife died
three decades after the husband, the class questioned the timeliness part of
the test. I sensed that there was still a little confusion on this point
and have wrestled with this question since then. There has to be a way that
beginners can confidently determine if a source is original or not.

As it so happens, this month's ProGen Study Group assignment includes
reading the first chapter of Evidence Explained. That is when I noticed the
possible shift toward physical form and a single test. I had read the
chapter a few times before, but now I saw it differently. Now a single
test, that is something that I think beginners can understand!

So in the grave marker case, what would it be derived from? One answer
could be nothing, in which case it is an original. In some cases a new
grave marker is created to replace an old one. I don't feel that happened
in this case. It would be something to check out. When my mother passed
away, we worked with the mortuary to design the grave marker and then months
later it was created. We verified the paperwork and later the grave marker
to make sure all information was as we expected. So, was the marker
inscription a granite-carved extract from the original paperwork or more
likely a duplicate original? In either case, things are less problematic
and I feel comfortable classifying the grave marker as an original source.

Something else I noticed in my latest browsing of Evidence Explained.
Chapter 5 deals with Cemetery Records and on page 207 is summarized the
QuickCheck models which are grouped in three categories: Cemetery Office
Records, Markers & Memorials (Originals), and Derivatives. So it appears in
this case I don't have to worry about things too much and can call the grave
marker an original source because Evidence Explained classifies it as such.
I think that for beginners using Evidence Explained as a crutch is
acceptable as they gain confidence is classifying sources using the physical
form test. So my recommendation for beginners would be to 1) try to
determine if a source is original or derivative on their own and come up
with an answer, 2) look up the source in Evidence Explained and if original
or derivative is specified compare it with their answer. If they don't
match, try to determine why it might be the other classification.

Other chapters that appear to at least partially classify sources as
original or derivative (or image copy) are: Ch 6 - Census Records, Ch 7 -
Church Records, Ch 8 - Local & State Records: Courts & Governance, Ch 10 -
Local & State Records: Property & Probates, Ch 11- National Government
Records, and Ch 12 - Publications (Books, CDs, Maps, Leaflets & Videos).
Too bad there is not a growing master list of record types with
classifications as: original, derivative, image copy, duplicate original,
and record copy.

Now, two hours later, I have down in words what has been swarming in my head
for weeks. I look forward to learning from your understanding and

Mark Tucker

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