Historical scholars classify sources as "primary" or "secondary."

In genealogy, scholars classify sources as "original or derivative," information as "primary or secondary," and evidence as "direct," "indirect," "circumstantial," "negative" and so on.

The references above show there is a distinct differences between historians and genealogists about the categorization of sources. Why is this different distinction pursued by genealogical scholars?

2 Answers 2


From the references you provide, the distinction between "Primary" and "Secondary" sources made by historians seems to depend on whether the source is a Primary Source

written or created at the time under study

or whether it is a Secondary Source that

interprets and analyses primary sources

such as a book written by a historian about e.g. a a period of history or the life of a historical individual.

That distinction 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, it 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.

It matters to us whether we're dealing with an Original source or a Derivative, e.g. a copy or transcript or abstract made from the original, which might be incomplete or inaccurate. And often we're assessing every statement (or lack of a statement) to see how it bears on the puzzle we're trying to solve, which is why we need to be able to assess each statement individually to understand when why and by whom it was set down (primary versus secondary information). And finally, we need to be able to classify that piece of information in terms of how it has helped us reach a conclusion about e.g. a date or place of birth (direct, indirect etc.)

I don't say these aspects of sources aren't important to historians, but -- to generalise -- we're looking at very detailed pieces of information often associated with "historical nobodies", while historians are rarely (if ever?) trying to determine the exact birth-date and parentage of an agricultural labourer called John James in 19th century Wales. And so the discipline of producing proof statements to support the very granular assertions we make as genealogists and family historians has encouraged us to formally classify things at a more granular level, since the simple Primary Source/Secondary Source distinction isn't sufficient for us.

[I wonder if there's a useful comparison to be made between how genealogists and detectives classify evidence?]

tl;dr version: We tend to be working with sources in a different way to historians.

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    Granularity seems to be in there somewhere. I'm guessing that a primary source could (to a historian) appear to be small scale compared to the topic under investigation. Compare WW2 as a topic to Monty's battle plans for El Alamein as a source. All the battle plan source fits well inside WW2. But if I'm investigating a precise birth, a death certificate source doesn't fit "inside" a birth event.
    – AdrianB38
    Oct 23, 2012 at 21:30

There may well be a discrepancy but doesn't the choice of citations seem to make the issue look paticularly strong? I'm certainly aware of primary/secondary being used in connection with sources (rather than information) by genealogists but I'm not sure whether this is lazy terminology or harking back to some less-refined definition.

Here's an interesting thread on the subject. Note the words used in the 3rd paragraph of the leading post (http://bettergedcom.wikispaces.com/message/view/Better+GEDCOM+Requirements+Catalog/35761560) :-)

I don't have an answer to the question itself but I would certainly like to hear the perspective of some historians.

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