Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Original or Derivative Source? Bible Records

I was sitting in Warren Bittner's class at the SCGS Genealogy Jamboree on Sunday morning, titled "Complex Evidence: What Is It? How Does It Work? Why Does It Matter?" and he said something I immediately disagreed with - and now I'm wondering if I've misinterpreted something in the Source, Information, Evidence, Genealogical Proof Standard discussion..

The issue in his case study was a handwritten family Bible record - Minnie Bahre Bittner recorded her own 1865 birth many years later.  Warren called it a "Derivative Source"  because the information was recorded well after the facts involved, and the fact that the Bible was printed and purchased well after the Birth event in question.

I have always considered that a handwritten document, even with information recorded well after the events recorded, was an Original Source.  So I went to my copy of Evidence! Explained to review the Sources section (Section 1.14 in the First Edition).  It says:

Sources are artifacts, books, digital files, documents, film, people, photographs, recordings, websites, etc. Sources are classified according to their physical form:

"Original sources—material in its first oral or recorded form. Examples: the testimony of someone relating events that he or she personally experienced or witnessed; or an original document created by a party with firsthand knowledge of the information recorded.

"Derivative sources—material produced by copying an original or manipulating its content; e.g., abstracts, compilations, databases, extracts, transcripts, translations, and authored works such as historical monographs or family histories."

In the case of entries for children in the Births, Marriages and Deaths section of a family Bible, written in a mother's or father's hand, I have no doubt that the information recorded was based on firsthand knowledge of the informant.  But what about her own birth?  Was this record the first oral or recorded form?  I don't know - it is possible that it is the only recorded form of the information, or it may have been copied from another document that was subsequently destroyed or has not yet been found.  If it was a copy, then it may have been a Record Copy which may be treated as an Original Source.

In Warren's case study, there were church birth and baptismal records that confirmed the date of birth - those church records are also Original Sources, I think.

Of course, the names and dates in the Bible record is Secondary Information, since it was recorded in the Bible many years after the event, and the writer of the information was not a participant or eyewitness to the event.  The information in the Bible records are also Direct Evidence for the births.  

I have two sets of Bible records with family information on them.  In both cases, they provide the only source for some of the events, were written well after some of the events, and they provide the only Direct Evidence I have of the full names and births and marriages of the persons involved.  I have classified these records as Original Source, Secondary Information and Direct Evidence in my analysis and proof arguments for these families.

To me, whether the Source is Original or Derivative does not depend upon the classification of the Information or Evidence provided by the Source.  I think that it's either an Original Source or a Derivative Source based on the nature of the work itself.  

A complicating factor in this discussion is the nature of a family Bible - the printed book itself is clearly a derivative source (due to revision, translations and interpretations over thousands of years), but what about the handwritten information on the family event pages provided in the Bible?

Am I wrong here?  I would appreciate discussion and commentary on this point for my own education and that of my readers.

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Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver


Unknown said...

Randy, I agree with you that the entries in a family Bible are an original source. If you were looking at a transcription of the entries, that would be derivative. The evidence provided by those entries is direct evidence of the date of the event (whether birth, marriage or death). What needs to be considered carefuully is (to quote EE) "the informant's degree of participation or knowledge." Although someone certainly was present at their own birth, their knowledge of the event is secondary.

Elizabeth O'Neal said...

I was also in Warren's class that day. I believe his point was that even though the person in question was present at her own birth, she did not have the mental capacity to know and understand it at the time it was happening. Thus the entry was made "after the fact," and thus, derivative.

Also, he commented that the copyright date on the Bible was well after the date of all but one of the children's births, hence making those derivative. Not sure I agree with that.

Personally, I think it's half and half: original information about the children's births, since the mother would certainly have been present at those (although not in the best frame of mind, from what I know of MY experience!), and derivative about one's own birth, and in this case, the birth location of the spouse. But I'm not sure I would want to argue any of this with Warren! ;-)

Elf Flame said...

I think the point of what he's saying, if I understand, is that things written in the bible may well be wrong. We know that a lot of people didn't really know their birth year when you go back far enough. They may have written down in the bible the date they'd always assumed was theirs, but that doesn't mean they're always right, though derivative work isn't always wrong, so that follows, too. As for others' birth dates, that's derivative too, simply because you can't be guaranteed that the person had the book with them at the birth (if they were even there at all), and they may remember a day or even a year wrong, so relying on what's in a bible is shaky at best, and misleading at worst.

I don't have many notes based on bibles in my own work (though not for lack of trying) but I would always believe another source over a bible. All the bible information would give is what one particular person (or family) believes is true, and may have many inaccuracies, no matter how carefully kept.

Family Curator said...

I was also in Warren's session and have been thinking about the Bible example. I understood that the birth records could not be "original" because the Bible itself was not in existence at the time of the supposed birth; I believe it was printed some years later.

I suppose that a birth entry made by a father or mother in a Bible clearly published before the birth date would qualify as an original source. Is that correct?

Eileen said...

If her parents recorded her birth in a bible they owned at the time of her birth (which they may have) that would have been an original source. Then if they parents got a new bible and copied the information to the new bible that would be a derivative source. In her case, her birth date is heresay, so to speak, sinc eshe really was not aware of it at the time.

To me the purpose of original versus derivative is the validity of the data. Even her parents could have made an error when copying information over to a new bible.

The further away an event is recorded the more liklyhood that an error creeps in.

Of course, after all this there is no guarantee that a "typo" wasn't made in the "original" source either but, hey, it is the best we have.

Unknown said...

Interesting discussion! It sems to me, considering the arguments on both sides, that this becomes a judgment call for each of us. This is my "Pirates of the Caribbean" approach... The categories are guidelines, not rigid laws. Their function is to help us as we seek to resolve conflicts and develop sound, reasonable, and coherent conclusions.

Dave said...

This is why genealogists don't typically use the term original and derivative "source". We usually discuss "information". The handwritten bible is an original source. No question. If i go out and buy a bible and start putting in my family tree, the bible will still be an original source. If someone copies the information, it becomes derivative.

Note, there is no discussion of the veracity of the information. Doesnt matter. Original refers to the source itself, the tangible thing. To qualify the data we talk about primary and secondary information. Bibles are usually secondary, but some information may be primary. If the author recorded the bitths of their children as they were born, its primary.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a derivative source as it was entered into the bible by someone who would only know the information by some other source. A person has no way to know their own birth date and place unless it was told to them. In court, I think this is called hearsay evidence. I have a family bible and while the bible belonged to my great-grandparents, the entries were made years later by my grandfather and he incorrectly entered the maiden name of his grandmother in a marriage entry he wrote in. Had the entry been made by the married couple it would have been entered correctly.

Kay Rudolph said...

An earlier comment noted: "If i go out and buy a bible and start putting in my family tree, the bible will still be an original source. If someone copies the information, it becomes derivative." In this case, someone went out and bought a bible and copied hearsay information into it. If I copy a list of names and birth dates onto a blank sheet of paper, no one would question for a minute whether the list was original or derivative. What's the difference between copying a list onto a blank sheet of loose paper and copying it onto a blank sheet of paper in the flyleaf of a bible? But really, whether we call the bible entry an original source with secondary information or a derivative source with secondary information, is less important than our recognition that this is secondary information and can't be relied upon to the degree that a source based on primary information can be.

Geolover said...

I completely agree with Eileen and Anonymous (12:00 AM PDT). What was written in the Bible, in your example, was not from first-hand experience as newborns do not take notes on the event (yet, anyway!). It was information related to the writer from another source, which could have been verbal or written.

Kay is also right ("this is secondary information and can't be relied upon to the degree that a source based on primary information can be"). Very large numbers of people did not know their own birth-date, and large numbers of parents did not know such a date, much less have a written record of it. I know of a relative who simply did not believe his official birth record because his name was not on the hospital certificate (many children were not named the same day as born)!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the two deletes! Having issues this morning.

As Dave tried to point out, the confusion comes when saying original and derivative.

If I write a letter it is an original source. If someone copies my letter, the copy would be a derivative source. So, the person bought a Bible and wrote information in it, thus it is an original source for the written information, unless we know that the information was copied from some other list. If the person knew this information firsthand and wrote it in the Bible without copying it from some other source, then it is original. If the Bible entry had copied information, but the last birth (the one closest to the publication of the Bible) was written in at the time, then the Bible is original to that last birth. But even then, you can't know for sure if the info was copied or entered as known.

What needs to be argued is not whether the Bible entries are original or derivative, but whether the information is primary or secondary. If the person who wrote information into this book was present at the births of those written (aside from herself), then her knowledge is primary information. If, however, she was told about or somehow learned about the births, then the information is secondary.

And as already mentioned, her knowledge of her own birth is secondary information, as she was not capable of knowing the time and place of her birth until she was older and someone told her of the event.