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In genealogical research, what is the difference between primary information and secondary information. Why do genealogists bother with making such distinctions?

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Primary information is information provided by a reliable participant in, or eyewitness to, an event, or by an official whose duty was to record the event details accurately and in a timely manner.

There's an excellent description of the concepts of primary and secondary information, original and derivative sources, and direct and indirect evidence at the Board for Certification of Genealogists site; see http://www.bcgcertification.org/skillbuilders/skbld085.html

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Primary information is information about an event (e.g., a birth) that was obtained at the time of the event, and therefore is considered a much more reliable record of the event. Information about the same event that is recorded at a different time (e.g., a date of birth on a death certificate or on a tombstone) is less reliable because the person providing that information may have had incorrect information for any number of reasons.

Thus primary information is more reliable than secondary for establishing facts about the people you are researching.

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  • So a Death Certificate listing the birth date would be a Primary Source for the death date and a Secondary Source for the birth date of a person. Where the Birth Certification would be a Primary Source for the birth date. – Justin808 Oct 10 '12 at 7:49
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    @Justin808, sources are described as original or derivative. It is information that is primary or secondary. – GeneJ Oct 11 '12 at 0:38
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I am not sure that there is a useful distinction between primary and secondary information. Historians refer to primary and secondary sources with the definitions that have been used in the other answers.

See this document from Princeton University

All information is information but the weight that we give it may vary with the quality of the source that contains it. A birth registration is a primary source when the details are provided by a witness to the event (such as the midwife). Exactly the same information about date and name may be found in the local newspaper but that secondary source is (potentially) less reliable because the journalist was not there.

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    The same source may contain both primary and secondary information. There's an excellent example given by @Justin808 of a death certificate: the information recorded about the death will probably be primary information, but the information recorded about the birth will very often be secondary information. So it isn't possible to classify a source, only a piece of information. – user104 Oct 10 '12 at 11:41
  • It is possible to classify a source in the context of the event for which it is to be used. The death certificate is an excellent example of a document that is a primary source for information about the death, but a secondary source when considering the person's birth. The one document provides information about both, but the evidentiary value of that information is different in each case. – Fortiter Oct 11 '12 at 13:02
  • Your thoughtful answer inspired me to ask the question directly--why do historical and genealogical scholars differ in their approach to classifying sources. genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/314/… – GeneJ Oct 12 '12 at 20:31

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