What is a "Primary Source"? Is there a Glossary link?

+5 votes
I am the son (Elmer-1185) of a GEDCOM imported sourced Profile (Elmer1191). From Ancestry.com.

Does that devolve to me sourcewise in anyway? Also, suppose I hold a true copy of my birth certificate. It sounds as though that is useless. Rather I need to cite a public birth record. Is the former any use at all?

So! Is the knowledge in my head any use? I can see my head knowledge assists me in knowing where to find these "Primary" sources but otherwise its not of any use to the Wikitree mission because my head knowledge will ultimately no longer exist

How can I prove pictures I have of my Father in 1915 are really him?

I have copies of newspaper clippings about my Mother's marriage, etc. is that any use as a source? I have a letter from my Father showing all my lineage back to 1600's and beyond. Is that worth anything as a Source?

Do I need to break this question up?
in The Tree House by W E G2G6 Mach 1 (10.4k points)

5 Answers

+3 votes
Best answer
Here is a good page on FamilySearch with a lot of tutorials (all free). I encourage you to set up a user ID with them - don't have to be an LDS member to do it - and then you will be able to download search results to an Excel file. Not an easy format to work with but better than nothing.


Halfway down the page are the beginning genealogy courses. The wiki is very useful in finding out what is available on a given topic.
by Rosemary Jones G2G6 Pilot (238k points)
selected by W E
+3 votes
Your birth certificate is a public record. Newspaper clippings are definitely a source. They are unlikely to have serious errors beyond misprints. But I tend to quote the contents rather than just leave it as a source reference.

But when it comes to a letter, the information in that would need sourcing.

The question of photos is a good one. The photos of my parents that I have are recognisably them when compared with other proven ones like passports. A couple of others say who they are on the back - I accept that that could be an error, It has to be a case of probability.

I've had a recent case of a photo of my mother (found in her effects) in Malaysia in 1938. I can prove that she was there then. But someone has pointed out that she is standing by a car with a registration plate that did not come into existence until 1946. I can prove that she was not there then. So what's the answer? I don't know.
by anonymous G2G6 Pilot (257k points)
I think a letter can be a primary source. Lets say I wrote my sister a letter today saying how much I enjoyed attending the wedding of her daughter on October 8th 2016. I was there, I was an eye witness and my letter is a primary source for the date of her daughter's wedding.
Yes. OK, there are exceptions.
+2 votes
Great book worth considering on the subject:

by Doug Lockwood G2G Astronaut (2.4m points)
I agree, this is a great resource for sources and understanding how to use them. I would also recommend the book Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas Jones and it's accompanying internet course, if you can get into it. Very challenging but a great way to learn about sourcing.
+4 votes
A primary source requires an eyewitness. You were not an eyewitness to your birth, but the doctor who signed your birth certificate was, so it is a primary source. You can be a primary source for your wedding or birth of your own child. A primary source is created at the time of the event.
by Jeanie Roberts G2G6 Pilot (127k points)
+2 votes

According to WikiTree's Sources Style Guide, "On WikiTree the preferred style is the Evidence Explained format, based on the Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS)."

According to the glossary in appendix to Evidence Explained,,1st ed. 2007, a primary source is 

  • “a traditional concept within the humanities that is variously defined as an original record, a contemporary account, or a firsthand account, but not necessarily all three simultaneously. The term is no longer used in sound genealogical analysis because any source (and any statement within a source) can be a combination of both firsthand and secondhand information. 

See also Evidence Explained blog page entitled A Basic Vocabulary for Historical Research, which distinguishes between:

  • source as "an artifact, book, document, film, person, recording, website, etc., from which information is obtained. A source is broadly classified as either an original record (q.v.) a derivative record  (q.v.)or an authored work (q.v.), depending upon its physical form."
  • information as "a statement offered by a source. Information exists in two basic weights, primary information (q.v.) ands secondary information (q.v.)." [Note that the author as recently added a 3rd 'undetermined' information category.

Lastly, see Evidence Explained blog's The Evidence Analysis Process Map visually supporting how:

  • SOURCES provide INFORMATION from which we identify EVIDENCE for ANALYSIS. A sound conclusion may than be considered "PROOF".
by D Amy G2G3 (3.0k points)

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