I know I like to rant about sources! It (or they) are one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to genealogy research. I recently came across an old set of notes I’d recorded including the following definition of primary and secondary sources and I thought it was appropriate to reprint it here. The source of this article was a UK-based website, http://www.explorers.mlfhs.org.uk/genealogy_george_explains.htm
What is the difference between a primary source document and a secondary source document?
In family history research we use two types of source material. They are considered either primary or secondary sources of information. A primary source document or record would be one that was created around the time of the event. This is always the best and most accurate record to find. For example:
• birth certificate
• marriage certificate
• death certificate
• census enumeration
• military record(s)
• gravestone (editor’s note – some define this as a Secondary Source)
• ships passenger list
(And some additions by JT)
• Deeds and other land ownership records
• Eyewitness newspaper accounts
• Family Bibles (if recorded by someone witnessing the event shortly after it occurred)
• Letters describing the events as they are taking place by a person involved
• Passenger list
A primary source document would have been created by someone with direct knowledge of the event and recorded at the time it happened. These records are considered very accurate and are the best source to find in order to make sure that your information is correct.
Secondary source records are those that were not created at the time of the event. These could be something like:
• old letters (editor’s note – If the letter was written after the fact by someone not present or otherwise directly involved)
• any second hand account of an event
Because things like books and letters tend to be the recollection of an event the information may not be entirely correct. Primary and secondary sources of material can be found in many types of places such as online, in libraries, archives or family history societies.