Do I accept a Certified Document as a primary source and trust it outright or do I need to view the original the Document is transcribed from?

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    Welcome. @Amy You have asked a very important question that appears simple but which embeds a number of fundamental (and complex) issues about sources, documents, primary and secondary, evidence, proof, trust and more. This will almost certainly lead to a flurry of comments and suggested edits to your question. DO NOT BE DISCOURAGED. It is not personal criticism. That is how this site works to get the best possible form of question so that the answer is comprehensive. Just hold on and enjoy the ride.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 2:50
  • Amy, Is your work focused in a particular region of the world?
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 4:46
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    This particular question relates to whether I accept a Birth Certificate issued by an Australian State Government as Primary, seeing I have not seen where the details were copied from. I consider it relates to most official documents, as to whether they are Primary.
    – Amy
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 6:58
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    @Amy See the question "Why do historical and genealogical scholars differ in their approach to classifying sources?" genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/314/…
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 13:07

5 Answers 5


Amy asks, Is a Birth/Marriage/Death Certificate a primary source?.

Birth/Marriage/Death records (aka vital records) are source types. Many genealogists/family historians are trained to classify sources by whether they are in original form or a derivative, rather than to class one source/source type as a "primary source" or a "secondary source." This is because we work with the bits of information that exist in the records, and we know that all sources can contain errors.

There is a related question on the site that asks specifically why historians tend to classify sources as primary or secondary, but genealogists do not.

For answers to the question about how to distinguish between primary and secondary information, see: "What is the difference between “primary information” and “secondary information?”.The links referenced in questions and answers to that Q&A may be particularly helpful.

Note in particular, the response by ColeValleyGirl; emphasis added:

That distinction [primary or secondary source] is important to historians when assessing the quality and originality of a piece of work -- something written relying wholly on secondary sources would be judged to be of lesser value than something relying on primary sources.

However, [that distinction at the source level] isn't granular enough to help a genealogist assess the evidential value of a source (or more properly, a single piece of information within a source) when trying to determine e.g. the parentage of an individual.

Sources/records contain information. It is the information that is classified as either primary information or secondary information. 

Amy asks, "Do I accept a Certified [Document] ... and trust it outright or do I need to view the original the Document is transcribed from?"

There are several different concepts here.

(a) When these vital records are "certified," it isn't the birth, marriage and death information that is being certified. Rather, the authority certifies that the document or information matches the official record. 1

(b) All sources, including certified records, contain information that is subject to error, oversight and omission (vs. "trust outright"). I've appended my answer with some examples.

(c) You used the word "transcribed" to refer to what seems a certified document; I'm not sure I followed that part of your question. You might be referring to a certified records that are created from birth/marriage/death registers. Generally, genealogists/family historians prefer to work with records as close to the original as possible.

Example: The birth of my ancestor William Preston (1754-1842) was recorded in the town book of Chester, Rockingham County, New Hampshire and also Rumney, Grafton County, New Hampshire. Google Maps reports these two towns are about 80 miles apart.

When New Hampshire created its early vital record indexes, the two town clerks extracted information from the town books and submitted a certified birth record to the state; each reports a unique set of information, including that one of the records reports his birth a year later than the other.

Below is a graphic/comparison of the two certified records. To see a larger version of the graphic, click HERE. The graphic makes it possible to compare how different these certified records really are.

In my experience, different information on different records about the same person is not an anomaly. For the person who is the subject of this example, I have two different certifications of his marriage, and there are two different records of birth for his first several children.

enter image description here

1 Most of the jurisdictions I have worked with in the United States offer genealogists the option of ordering uncertified copies of these records at a reduced cost. If that option is available, I take advantage of it for my personal work.

  • I am baffled by your reference to "uncertified originals". How do you know that something is "the original" without the (implicit) certification of some authority that vouches for a chain of custody since its creation? If I show you a digital image, how do you know that I have not photoshopped it? Someone must warrant or certify that it is a true representation (or copy) of the record in question.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 3:43
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    I wonder if this is a United States concept of record access? Here's a link to information from the New York State Department of Health for Genealogy Records ... health.ny.gov/vital_records/genealogy.htm See the opening to the first section, "Generally, the New York State Department of Health provides uncertified copies of the following types of records for genealogy research purposes ..."
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 3:51
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    Gene, your link to the large version of the above graphic doesn't work. Perhaps you have some privacy settings preventing us from seeing it?
    – efgen
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 19:00
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    In some jurisdictions (e.g. Scotland), it is possible to obtain copies of birth, marriage and death register entries that have not been certified. Certified copies may be used as legally acceptable evidence, but un-certified copies are not accepted in a legal court. I have not seen an explaination of the differences between certified and uncertified version, but think that would be useful
    – Sue Adams
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 20:43
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    New Hampshire vital records can be copied multiple times: from the ministers book into the town records, from one town records book to another when towns subdivide, onto cards like above for the state returns when statewide registration started, etc. Each transcription introduces the opportunity for error.
    – Tom Morris
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 23:40

Amy asked "Do I accept a Certified Document as a primary source and trust it outright or do I need to view the original the Document is transcribed from?"

Accepting that it's really the information (evidence?) within a source that primary or secondary to family historians, I think it's worth reminding ourselves why we ask the question. As implied above, it's because primary information is generally more reliable than secondary.

I need to explain how birth / marriage / death certificates are handled in England & Wales, because it's relevant to some of the responses above. There are basically 2 types of office that hold BMD certificates here. Superintendent Registrars' Offices (SROs) and the General Register Office (GRO). After the original certificates are completed, they are filed in the SROs. Every quarter (originally) the previous 3m worth of certificates were manually copied in each SRO and sent to the GRO - of which there is just one for England & Wales. (Please understand this is somewhat different for new certificates now that we have computers)

Accessibility for family historians to certificates is roughly like this:

  • GRO will supply a facsimile copy of any identifiable certificate it has (photocopy? print of microfilm? not sure);
  • Some SROs have no practical ability to deal with family historians;
  • Some SROs will deal with family historians and will supply a copy of any identifiable certificate they have - those copies may be hand-written or a facsimile (again - not sure if photocopy or what);
  • In all(?) SROs, access to the original certificates by the general public, including family historians, is strictly forbidden;
  • All copies (handwritten or facsimile) are certified copies;

There are a few exceptions to the above - don't ask about the various copies of marriage certificates, for instance, and I have seen a book of death certificates at an exhibition but one dating from the 1840s. And the legality of the last bullet can be debated but possession is 9/10 of the law.

OK - why explain all this? Because in all the circumstances above, physical access to the original document is not possible. Therefore, if Amy were to be looking for English BMD certificates, viewing the original is not feasible.

Should she treat the certified copies as containing primary info? Well, if the act of copying a document manually is judged to turn what was primary information into secondary information, then all the GRO certificates and all the handwritten SRO certificates become secondary sources and - unless the SRO does facsimile sources - there is no primary info. My point is that - if we declare this huge percentage of certificates to be secondary info, with no primary - what's the point of the distinction?

So - for these source-types, I take the GRO certificates and the hand-written SRO certificates (along with the facsimile SRO certificates) all to contain primary information.

Should she trust them outright? No way... I only said primary information is generally more reliable than secondary. Sources of error include:

  • the manual copying process (at least the SROs are charged with getting it right);
  • certificates not indexed leading to incorrect identification;
  • inaccurate data supplied to the registrar in the first place;

On the last bullet, my granddad's birth certificate (which I regard as primary info) contains a date for his birth but my mother (secondary info) was convinced the date was 3d out because his parents had left it too late to register his birth so they massaged the date when they talked to the registrar. As his baptism (some years later) includes a birth date 3d before the registered birth date, I am believing this family story (on the basis of secondary info) and "rejecting" the primary info (still written down in notes).

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    Understanding the beaurocratic system that created the certificate in the first place is important. Remember that the primary purpose of BMD certificates is not genealogy, but for the person(s) concerned to be able to produce legally acceptable evidence of the event. The laws governing registration systems are different in each country. In the UK you can look up current laws at legislation.gov.uk .
    – Sue Adams
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 20:33
  • @SueAdams I like Adrian's answer very much because it points out the value of seeking "more primary" records, but recognizes the practical notion that all records contain errors, omission, etc. It reinforces, too, that in different locations, we face different record circumstance (which you commented about also genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/1560/…
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 20:57

I don't know whether it's an Irish phenomenon, but with regard to the civil registration of births, especially the earlier ones (from 1864 on), the date of birth on the civil registration should be compared with the church baptism record. If there is a discrepancy, the church record is usually the more accurate.

This is, in part, due to the fact that there was a fine for late registration and also that the christening often took place within hours of the birth. As a result, I will always attempt to check both the church and civil registration.

As said above, I would usually purchase the 'uncertified' copy of the civil registration as it is has the same information as the 'certified' copy. They both come from the same source within the GRO (i.e. they are copied from the same, now digital I believe, record) onto different paper.

With this in mind, I tend to vary between the record being primary or secondary depending on when & where the event took place.

  • Welcome to Genealogy and Family History SE! +1 to get you started.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 16:05

ALWAYS view the original if you can - transcriber's have made mistakes since they started transcribing

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    This excellent principle depends upon the availability and accessibility of the "original" and the nature of the "copying". If I pay a fee for a Certified Extract of Birth from my local equivalent of a vital records agency, this government office stamps the new document and warrants that it is a true copy of their original record. Behind that claim is a checking process intended to exclude (as far as is possible) transcription errors. So a Certified Extract is afforded a higher status than other copies.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 3:01
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    @Fortiter So a Certified Extract is afforded a higher status than other copies. But is it Primary?
    – Amy
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 7:58
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    @Amy As you can guess from the range of views on this page, you will get several answers to that (including some who say it cannot be answered). My own view is YES a certified extract of birth is a primary source of evidence about that birth because the information it contains was provided at the time of the event by one or more persons with first-hand knowledge and you have some assurance that the information has not been altered since. BUT that does not mean I trust it "outright" as you ask, it means I give information from it a greater weight than that from other sources.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 9:29
  • @Amy See the question "Why do historical and genealogical scholars differ in their approach to classifying sources?" genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/342/7
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 12:46

I place more reliance on Certified Birth and Marriage records as primary sources because the persons involved were there to give the personal information at the time and place of the event.

Death records, I class as secondary sources, for everything except the attending physician's statement regarding the date, place, and cause of death.

  • The person reporting the death may not have even been present until days later. Look at the date when the official record was made and compare to the date of death.
  • The greater the distance in time, the more likely to have errors.
  • I have seen death reports made by a son, who gave the wrong maiden name for his mother (the wife of the deceased).

This type of error is common, so I use this additional information only as a point of departure for more research.

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