Where can I find a specific definition of "primary sources"

+3 votes
I'm heartened to see how fussy this community is about sourcing. That said, I've seen some sources rejected that seemed to me pretty solid. Can anyone give a good, specific definition of what constitutes "primary?" OR direct me to a reference that answer my question? I'm very familiar with sourcing - my career was as an academic in the sciences -but this genealogical stuff is much less certain.
in Genealogy Help by Gary Spring G2G Crew (640 points)
retagged by Ellen Smith
George Fulton is right. Even primary sources can contain errors. When I took a beginners genie class the instructor said to find 3 sources for each event.  Some examples: my father's obit list a "daughter" (news to me), she was actually his niece.  Wrote to the church for a copy of my great grandfather's baptism (had the date), priest wrote back saying only had a baptism for an Emma, his name was Edmond. My grandma asked who was the sponsor, I said it was Frank, she said he stammered so Edmond sounded like Emma.  Also there was a write up in a genie book on one branch of my family, all the names matched up except the father who they listed as Tom but was actually John, and the list goes on.
One way to think of it is that primary sources are those made at the time the event happened while secondary and so on are done later or gathered from the primary - I also find that books with a bunch of families in them are fairly accurate for the names and dates close to when the book was made, but get a little wild the farther back they go.

2 Answers

+1 vote
Best answer

According to Help:Sources and Help:Sources Style Guide,  on WikiTree there are two basic types of what could interchangeably be called "sources" or "citations" and WikiTree's preferred style is the Evidence Explained format, based on the Chicago Manual of Style.

According to Evidence Explained

  • '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.' (Mills 2007, Appendix A, p. 827)
  • 'The term citation is not synonymous with the term source, and the two should not be used interchangeably.' (Mills 2017, p. 12)

Evidence Explained accordingly differentiates between three types of Sources (original records, derivative records and authored narrative) and three Information types (primary or 1st-hand, secondary or 2nd-hand and unknown). (Mills 2017, p. 12)

Evidence Explained further defines Sources as follows:(Mills 2017, p. 24)

  • 'Original sources—material in its first oral or recorded form.'
  • 'Derivative sources—material produced by copying an original or manipulating its content;'
  • 'Authored works—A hybrid of both original and derivative materials, produced by writers who study many different sources, reach personal conclusions, and present a new and original piece of writing.'

In summary, the term 'primary source' is a misnomer that should be phased out of WikiTree parlance and there is fundamental inconsistency between WikiTree and Evidence Explained whereby EE correctly views the terms 'source' and 'citation' to be non-interchangeable.

Edit: Show as 'EE correctly views'.

by D A G2G Crew (700 points)
edited by D A
+10 votes

I always find it good to go to the Help pages. See what you think.  The first link tells you what not to use:


And then it continues by suggesting the original sources you can and should use:

  • Birth records.
  • Death records.
  • Marriage records.
  • Family bibles with birth/marriage/death dates.
  • Books that cite primary sources. This would Include books that transcribe birth/marriage/death records as well as authored family histories or trees that cite birth/marriage/death records.
  • Military records.
  • Will and estate records.
  • Court records.
  • Burial records.
  • History books that would have collected information from the subjects themselves.
  • Newspaper articles with the publication name, date, and location.
  • A proof summary of multiple sources of supporting evidence used to draw a reasonable conclusion.

Also take a look at the link below to see how to cite various sources:


by Ros Haywood G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)
edited by Ros Haywood
Wow! That was fast. Thank you for your very useful and quick response!
Ros, I'm guessing that you were intending to say that the bulleted list represents sources we generally consider reliable, but it doesn't come across that way in the answer.  Could you perhaps edit that and add an intro remark to the list?

Done.  smiley

This list should be qualified a bit ... a couple of examples

  • A death record is a primary source for the death date, but not a birthdate.
  • Family Bibles would be considered primary for contemporary events, but not events transcribed from earlier records.
People here have railed against transcribed records, explaining how they are full of errors. Without a judgement on the quality of any particular transcription, I would personally consider them secondary, others clearly view them differently.
Bottom line: each record should be evaluated individually.
The list above is only Wikitree's examples of a primary source. A primary source is not defined by types of documents or lists. It  is defined by conditions which must be met to qualify it as a primary source. " A primary source refers to documentation or material presented by parties that were directly present or involved in the referred subject, while a secondary source refers to the documentation derived from the opinion or views of a primary source". You can check with international genealogical societies, but my experience suggests that they are compatible with the quotation above.

No one should be rejecting your sources; it is quite possible to fulfil the genealogical " standard of proof " with secondary sources alone. Primary sources do, however, provide a better quality of pedigree.
Absolutely, a bus ticket, a till receipt, a diary, a sampler sewn by Alice aged 9 can all be primary sources along with coventional  documents /registers recording baptisms, marriages, burials and wills.The first 2 perhaps less applicable to genealogy.) A family bible published in 1720 recording a birth in 1620 is a secondary source .(as are those recording generations in the same hand) An obituary might be a primary source for some facts; but what facts will depend upon who wrote it.
Well said!

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