Studying  family history very quickly brings us into contact with a wealth of fascinating material. No sooner than we get started, we are dealing with masses of  data, whether it is online or painstakingly collected from an archive . The material comes in all sorts of guises but how do we sort out what we are looking at?

Is it original, primary, secondary or tertiary material and how do you know?

    • Sorting out the type of material you are looking at in the first instance may seem tedious but in doing so it changes the way you deal with the  ‘facts’, that you unearth.
    • The truth of documents are often determined by who wrote them, their motivations etc.

So when we think we have an original document, what exactly does that mean?

    • An original record or source is one based on first hand knowledge, something directly involved in the event. Generally they are linked, recorded or created at the time of the event. For example for a marriage there may be a number of original source documents, a certificate, a photo or a first hand account written by someone who was there.
    • Be cautious though, make sure that what you think is an original source document is really the original. A certificate bought from the General registry Office is a transcription from the registrars book and is therefore not original.

Sometimes the document can be original but the information it contains is not.

Consider this letter, written from Eygpt to her mother at home in England,  my Great Aunt  describes a family tradgedy she has heard about, a suicide. She had read about it in a local ex – pats newspaper. The letter is an original document, it’s contents are derived from other sources, which, in themselves are distant from the event. The story was incorrect in the newspaper but was included in an original document.  Therefore treat with caution.

The copying and re – copying of information is like a game of Chinese whispers, the story becomes more scrambled the further from the original event it is repeated.

This is why copying information from one family tree to another is a very dubious business. By all means use other trees to provide alternative lines of investigation but look at the original record where possible.

    • Digitization of material has brought to us the ability to examine original documents with relative ease and it is important to do so, you might interpret the same document in a different way based on your own core of family knowledge.

Historians talk about Primary, Secondary and Tertiary material but what is it?

    • Primary material is original material, first hand accounts as described above, close to the event but remember it can contain secondary material within it.
    • Secondary material is always taken from primary material, it is material based on primary data that is repeated sometimes with modifications, often compiled at a later date and may be altered to fit an alternative view. It can look like primary data. Transcriptions fall into the bracket of secondary material.
    • Tertiary material, which is what we produce when we write our family history, is material drawn from many different sources. It is often a distillation of the primary and secondary material. So history books are tertiary material, combined with opinion and assumption.

Why is it important to define the material we work with?

It’s often hard to find absolutes when exploring history, so much that is written relies upon opinion and assumption that when we find material that is original, primary data, it’s a little nugget of gold amongst what may often be Fools Gold. We should treasure it !

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