GEN-MEDIEVAL-L ArchivesArchiver > GEN-MEDIEVAL > 2000-08 > 0966963125
From: Bernard Schulmann <>
Subject: Primary and secondary sources
Date: Tue, 22 Aug 2000 09:52:05 -0700
> To give an example, I have seen some genealogists refer to published
> parish register transcripts (even very high quality ones) as secondary
> sources. On the other hand, if a historian cites a highly regarded
> critical edition of a contemporary medieval chronicle whose manuscript
> is unavailable for examination (which I think is an analogous
> situation), I do not believe that that historian's colleagues would
> accuse the historian of using secondary sources, simply because the
> original manuscript was not consulted.
Actually it would be considered a secondary source. Having worked with primary documents
and published versions of the same, there are major differences.
1) Errors occur in transcription, especially when done by people who are not 100% up on the
background of the primary source.
2) Published versions leave out all the extra bits. I have foudn some of my best
information from hand written notes in the margins - these do not normally make it to
published versions of documents.
3) With the document in front of you instead of a copy or a transcription you are one
interation closer to the information and inferences you make will be closer to the source.
> Thus, I think it would be more appropriate to think of transcriptions,
> abstracts, and translations of such sources as being primary,
No it is not. As soon as you translate the information, you have dramatically changed it
and can glean the same understanding as you do from the orginal document.
A primary source is one that is either an original document (paper and microfilm copies are
normally still considered primary) or an original conversation with someone (since everyone
from the Gen-Med era is dead, the second is moot here)
A seocndary source is anyone that works from the primary and offers the information in a
different form. As an example, when I worked with the 1891 census records I inculded much
of the information in my paper, but even where I included all of it still was a secondary
source as I had transcribbed the information.
The quality of secondary sources needs to be measured, some are good, very good, some are
utter crap. Without beiong able to tell the difference one will always run into trouble.
As to tertiary sources is term I never used.
Bernard v. Schulmann
|Primary and secondary sources by Bernard Schulmann <>|