RANKING THE RELIABILITY OF RECORDS
Judge Edward F. Butler, Sr.
NSSAR Genealogist General
Legal Evidence and genealogical records are very similar. In each there are three types of records: primary, secondary and tertiary. A Successful genealogist will understand the difference.
Primary Records or Sources: These are documents or entries created at the time of the event by someone who was present with a special knowledge (for example, birth or death certificates, by the doctor who attended the patient). These types of records are considered reliable and most likely accurate. Note however that each has information, such as the father's place of birth that is not within the doctor's knowledge of the doctor. Thus, even in primary records, some of the information may be less reliable. In the above example the information may have also come from the father, who would have been listed as an “informant” on the certificate. All official records such as marriage licenses, divorce decrees, adoptions, etc. are considered primary records.
Secondary Records or Sources : Records that were recorded after the fact by someone who was familiar with the fact, such as an autobiography, memoirs, or a family history based on personal knowledge. Some professionals consider Federal Census' as secondary records.
Tertiary Records or Sources (Third Party): Records that were recorded on heresay by someone who wasn't there and based on something other than a document. Obituaries and newspaper articles are examples of documents that can be either secondary or tertiary records (depending upon who wrote the article). If, however, the obituary was written by a family member it would be considered secondary. The problem for the genealogist is that you have no way of knowing who prepared the obituary. Accordingly, you must give it less weight, unless it is filled with facts about the deceased and his family. In that case it can be presumed to have been written by a family member and a Secondary Source.
Mixed Records: In the military records and pension records that can be obtained from the National Archives, part of the documents will be primary, such as muster rolls, official correspondence, etc. The sworn affidavits to obtain pensions are filled with “to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief”, etc. Clearly these affidavits are less reliable, and secondary evidence; although, there may be parts of the affidavit that are clearly within the knowledge of the affiant. Affidavits may be a secondary record in part and a tertiary record in part.
Experts tell us that when doing research, we should go to the primary records first. Obviously, first-hand information is always better than second-hand information or hearsay. A birth record is better than a census, and secondary sources are better than third party records.
Junk Genealogy: When reviewing applications for the Sons of the American Revolution, there are some documents that can only be described as “Junk”. These include family group sheets, information from the International Genealogical Index (IGI) from the Morman Church, and non resourced family histories. The latter are junk unless there are documented footnotes, endnotes, or within the body of the book the author reveals that he obtained the information from census records, wills, guardian records, deeds, tax records, etc. To the extent that the source of the information is revealed, the fact documented is reliable. If the book is well documented, facts for which there is no citation specifically given, may be considered reliable.