(From the Monthly Newsletter published by Ralph and Linda Miller, Area Advisers in New England – we thank them for letting us use their article)
In family history research, we use a variety of sources to get information – people, books, internet, religious and government records. All of these are “sources.”
Often we find conflicting information from different records. Ages may vary – a little or a lot. Name spellings may vary. Sometimes the differences are slight; sometimes they are major – completely different names or places, for instance. So which source is right? What information do we select and what do we discard?
Sources are classified as primary and secondary sources. Which type they are is determined by time – how soon after the event the record was made.
Primary source documents are records made at or very near the time of the event. Who made the record is not important – when it was made is the key factor. A birth certificate, for example, is a primary record for date and place of birth and the name at birth. A diary or letter could be a primary source – Susie had a baby last Tuesday, or I went to Harry’s funeral yesterday – both of these are primary source records for the event they describe.
Secondary source records are records that are made later. This is all the other records not made at or very near the time of the event. There is no specific amount of time that determines which kind the record is.
Most records are both primary and secondary source documents. A birth record, as stated above, is primary for the name, date and place of birth, and the mother’s name and occupation.. However, it is secondary for the mother’s age and place of birth. A death record is primary for the date and place of death, and secondary for other information – the birth date, birth place, parents’ names, etc.
Secondary records aren’t bad – we depend on them. Sometimes they are the only information we can get. But when there are conflicts, evaluate the sources to determine which is most reliable.
Government records are not necessarily more or less reliable than personal records like journals or letters. Again, it comes down to how close to the event the record was made. A letter that says “I went to Harry’s funeral yesterday” is a better source than even Harry’s headstone.
Likewise, a story from a letter describing an incident (such as a battle in a war) may be more accurate than a regimental history of the same incident written many years later.
Census records are always secondary records. They are good, but they are simply a record of what the enumerator was told about who lived in the house. They are very useful, but they are not primary for proper name, age or birth date, or place of birth. Still, they give a lot of information and sometimes are the only source available to us (vital records may not have been kept then).
Likewise, books are always secondary sources. They may contain information gathered from primary sources (or they may not), but they are secondary records. Internet sites with compiled genealogies are secondary sources. Even if they name the source they used, they are still secondary sources for you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them, just understand that they aren’t primary.
What records are acceptable sources for temple ordinances? We are asked to find the best information we can. If a better source is easily available, we should use it, but we do not need to rely only on primary sources – because many times they do not exist. New FamilySearch uses relationships as well as dates and places to identify someone. If Harry was John and Susie’s son, it is clear which Harry we are talking about, even if the birth date is a year or two off (Harry would probably appreciate that).
What if you find better information after an ordinance has been performed? You can always update the record in New FamilySearch, using either the “edit” feature on the detail view (if you submitted the information you want to change), or adding corrected information in the “summary” view (if someone else submitted the information you want to correct). You also can add notes to clarify, and you should enter the source with enough detail that someone else can evaluate your source.
Ordinances are valid even if dates, spellings or places are incorrect. Never re-submit a name for ordinances if the ordinance was done for the person but the date or place was wrong.