Friday, January 20, 2012

Follow-Up Friday - in which I Confess to Using Derivative Sources

I really enjoyed the Thomas W. Jones seminar last weekend, and wrote about it in SDGS Seminar Review - Four Thomas W. Jones Presentations.

One of my comments was:

"The idea I found most intriguing was that an index is not really a source to be cited, whether it's in the back of a book, or an online searchable database with names, dates and places. Researchers should use the index as a finding aid and obtain the original source record since indexes are derivative sources with secondary information."

Reader David Newton commented on my blog post, saying:

"That a false choice. Indexes to books are not sources to be cited because the book in question is available automatically. Indexes to things like birth registers and the like can be sources to be cited legitimately because the registers themselves might not be available or only available after the payment of more money etc.

"If I had not cited the GRO in England and Wales' BMD indexes as a source for my family tree I would have not known where I got an awful lot of information. I do not have the certificates so I cannot cite them and the registers themselves are not open to public inspection so I cannot cite them. In the 20th century these indexes alone can sometimes be used to reconstruct significant proportions of the trees of unusual names as they contain mother's maiden name information for births and spouse's surname information for marriages.

"They are not a perfect source, but at the moment they are the only one I have for significant proportions of my tree. Just because they are derivative sources with secondary information does not mean that they should not be cited where access to the source they are derived from is not possible/has not taken place yet."

My response is:

1)  I was just reporting what Tom Jones said, not that I totally agreed with it.  He used an example of a California Birth Index available on (and other sites).  The birth index provides only the child's full name, the birth date, the birth county, and (usually) the mother's maiden name.  He noted that these were all clues for the child's birth information, but the "primary" information is recorded in the birth register at the county level from which birth certificates are created by the county and the state.  The Birth Register is the "original source," the Birth Certificate is a derivative source (treated as "original" by many researchers and heritage societies) and the online birth index is a derivative source (several times removed from the original source).  The birth certificates are available for a fee.  If a researcher wants to obtain direct evidence and primary information for the name, date, place, parents, etc. for a birth in California, they should order the Birth Certificate.  In this case, the records are available, but there is a fee and a wait time.

2)  Thomas W. Jones professional work is in proving difficult to solve cases.  He routinely uses derivative sources, like indexes and databases on microfilm or online, as finding aids to the original sources with primary information that will solve his research problems.  He is usually spending someone else's money to do this.  His advice in his presentation was absolutely correct, but I think he, and other professional researchers like him, realize that researchers like David, myself and many others have to use derivative sources in order to work on our ancestral problems.  

3)  David cites the situation in England with respect to births, marriages and deaths since 1837.  The actual register entries for the events are not available for public inspection, and the researcher must obtain a certificate from the GRO, for a fee, in order to obtain primary information from an original source.  There are, however, publicly available register indexes with the name, approximate date, and registration district to use as a finding aid for researchers.  In some cases, the birth is also recorded in parish registers after 1837, which are available in repositories or on microfilm.  In this case, similar to the California case, the records are available, but there is a fee and a wait time.

4)  There are some U.S. states and countries where vital records are not available due to privacy restrictions, except the person named, some family members, or legal representatives can obtain access to vital records certificates or registers.  In this case, the researcher will have to wait until the restrictions expire or are lifted by law, or use alternative resources (census, directories, family papers, etc.) in order to obtain vital records information.

5)  True confession:  My family tree database is full of derivative source material derived from published books (including what I consider authoritative works, such as Anderson's The Great Migration Begins series for 1620-1633 New England immigrant colonial families), online databases (including the Massachusetts Vital Records Index, 1841-1910, the California Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes, Find-A-Grave, USGenWeb transcriptions, etc.), and even online family trees.  The database is a working file - it's where I put my event assertions (birth, baptism, marriage, death, occupation, residence, census, burial, etc.) and where I select a Conclusion from those assertions based on my analysis of the available evidence.  Not every conclusion has been the result of a "reasonably exhaustive search."  I also discard assertions that have been superseded by higher quality information (e.g., a census record might indicate a birth in "about 1857" .but a death record might provide an exact date).

6)  Many published books provide footnotes referring to "original sources" (e.g., English parish registers, German church records, town records, vital record certificates, land records, probate records, etc.).  
and these are the "finding aids" for researchers to go find to raise their source quality from "derivative" to "original."  Some researchers cite the published book (derivative source) that they use, and add a phrase such as "citing Charlestown Town Records, Volume 1, Page 46" to lead the reader to the original source.  

7)  There is merit to pursuing the "perfect" source but we often have to settle for the "good" source.  I understand Tom Jones comment, and realize that he tries to pursue the "perfect" because that's his job, and is the ideal "best practice" in genealogy research.  In my opinion, the next best "practice" is to use authoritative published books and periodicals, and online databases, to obtain "good" information, and cite it, and then to strive to find the original source information.  But there is only so much time in the day to pursue these issues.

8)  Thank you, David, for the extensive comment, and I agree with you that there are some original sources that are unable to be viewed, or are expensive to obtain, and that derivative sources in books or databases have research value.  

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Copyright (c) Randall J. Seaver, 2012


Richard Brashier said...

Very true about the UK and the indexes there. They are actually an invaluable source of information. Obviously nothing beats a certificate of birth or marriage but it can help rule out many pretenders and confirm your choice.

David Newton said...

Something that is even sillier about the situation in England and Wales about the access to registers is the situation with marriage registers.

What I said about the registers themselves not being open to public inspection is perfectly true about birth, death, civil partnership and adoption registers. The stillbirth registers are even more tightly controlled and there is not even an index published for them. However it is not true for certain copies if some marriage indexes.

If a marriage takes place in a civil venue such as a register office or a hotel registered to perform marriages then the registers are not available for public inspection. If a marriage takes place in an ecclesiastical venue then very often the copy of the registers in the venue is available for public inspection. Furthermore for these sort of venues said registers are also often eventually deposited in local record offices. However the copies of the same registers sent to the local registrar and by them onto the GRO are not open for public inspection because according to the GRO it is "illegal". To see how many marriage registers are actually available for public inspection consider the recent collections of parish registers and non-conformist registers made available by Ancestry for the London area and for the counties of Dorset, Warwickshire (less Birmingham), West Yorkshire and the Liverpool area and then extrapolate that situation to the whole of England and Wales.

Even if the register has not been deposited at the local record office and is still at the church in question, if that church is Anglican it can be inspected upon payment of a fee as determined by the General Synod in statute.

It is a ludicrous situation to have all birth and death registers and a significant proportion of marriage registers locked away from public view with information in them only obtainable upon payment of a fee for a certificate. Very rarely is it necessary for genealogists to have certificates for their work, with the most common reason being work with things like tracking down relatives for probate cases or intestate estates. The Scottish situation is much preferable in this case where certificates can be obtained in much the same way as in England and Wales, but where images of the registers themselves are available after statutory periods there for privacy have expired. In the case of Scotland it is 100 years for births, 75 years for marriages and 50 years for deaths. The only problem with Scotland is that the index itself is not available for free and is instead locked behind a paywall at the Scotlandspeople website.

The situation in certain US states is even more ludicrous with showboating legislators locking things away for spurious "privacy" reasons.