This post is the second in a three-part series focusing on the concepts of evidence analysis as used in genealogy. The first post provided an overview of the evidence analysis process and discussed the concept of sources. This post picks up with evaluating genealogy information, which is the second category in the process.
Understanding the Types of Genealogy Information
After the source (the document itself) has been examined, the next category to consider is “Information.” Information is the data recorded on the source. Information must be analyzed because errors – both intentional and unintentional – occur and those errors must be reconciled to arrive at the best answer available for a research question. Again, this category is subdivided three ways: 1) Primary, 2) Secondary, and 3) Undetermined. The definitions for these types of information are:
Questions for Evaluating Genealogy Information
As in our previous article, Evidence Analysis Explained: Digging Into Genealogical Sources, we’ve provided a list of questions that will prove useful as you conduct thorough evidence analysis, this time in reference to evaluating genealogical information obtained from different sources and records:
When was the information recorded and who provided it?
Knowing when and by whom the information was recorded is key to sound genealogical research. If the informant was present at the event of interest and recorded the event’s proceedings soon after the event (primary information), then the information is likely more accurate than information recorded much later or by someone who learned about the event through another person (secondary information). The passage of time and the number of people information passes through both allow for more errors to appear in the reporting. Sometimes the informant for a record is not known and, therefore, the origin of the information is simply undetermined.
Where did the information come from if the informant did not witness the event?
If the information is secondary, can it be cautiously hypothesized how the informant acquired the data? Understanding the chain of information can help determine whether the information is credible. For instance, a death certificate may state that a daughter of the deceased was the informant. The birthdate of the deceased was secondary information, but it can be carefully assumed that the daughter obtained the birthdate from her parent, another family member, or perhaps family records like a family bible.
Did the informant have reason to modify the information?
The information on a source may not always be accurate. In some cases, the informant had a reason to provide intentionally inaccurate information. While most of the time the informant was honest in reporting the facts of an event, sometimes the informant may have modified the facts for various reasons. For instance, a bride or groom may have provided ages other than their own to avoid social or legal implications regarding their marriage. Knowing whether inaccurate data was provided depends on the accumulation of multiple documents that will provide accurate information.
Examples of Types of Genealogy Information
The date and place of birth as well as the child’s name on this birth certificate can be considered primary information because the certificate was likely created soon after the child’s birth. Note, however, that even primary information can contain errors; the child’s name was originally reported as “Martha Schack” but modified to read “Mathias Schmuck.”
Although the death information on this death certificate is considered primary information, the birth date and place is secondary because the document was created long after the birth and the person making the report was likely not present at the deceased’s birth.
Because this obituary does not name the informant, the origin of the information is considered “undetermined.”
As you dive into the exciting world of exploring your personal family history and learning more about your ancestors, keep in mind that not all genealogy information is created equal. By employing the concepts of evidence analysis in your research efforts and carefully evaluating the information garnered from various sources and records, you can help ensure your conclusions are sound and your family history is accurate.
We have carefully selected the members of our team at Legacy Tree Genealogists to make sure they are experts at analyzing evidence to draw accurate research conclusions. We’d love to help you with your family history, whether we’re breaking down brick wall mysteries, finding your biological parents, or just starting from scratch finding the stories about your ancestors. Contact us today for a free quote.
 Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906 (image and transcription), Division of Vital Statistics, birth certificate for Mathias Schmuck, 27 November 1904, certificate no. 22682, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, http://www.familysearch.org, accessed June 2019.
 Arizona Deaths, 1870-1951 (image and transcription), Arizona State Board of Health, death certificate for Inez Blanche Ashley, 18 May 1922, certificate no. 733, Maricopa County, Arizona, http://www.familysearch.org, subscription database, accessed June 2019.
 “John Baldwin,” The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), 15 August 1931, p. 10, http://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2019.
Arlene Waters says
In the example for Mathias Schmuck, you state that the date, place of birth, and the child’s name on the birth certificate are considered primary information, but you do not address the rest of the information such as the parents’ names, their address, occupation, and place of birth. How would you categorize that information and why?
Beth Harrison says
From the blog’s author:
Hi Arlene. What a great question! If we presume the person, Lena Steiner, making the report was the midwife who delivered the child we could presume she had firsthand knowledge of the names of the parents, their address, and the child’s place of birth. That would make those items primary information. As for occupation and birthplaces of the parents, I would be more hesitant to call those items primary information because it is possible Lena Steiner made an assumption about what kind of work the father did and where the parents were born.
Arlene Waters says
Thanks for the reply. So would you categorize the kind of work the father did and where the parents were born as “secondary” or “undetermined”?
I still find this somewhat arbitrary because you are comfortable assuming she was the midwife and had firsthand knowledge of the parents’ names and their address. But you presume that she assumed the kind of work the father did and where the parents were born. She could have easily asked them while filling out the form or assuming she was the midwife; she most likely would have talked to and observed the family on more than one occasion as the pregnancy progressed. At a minimum, as midwife, she would have had discussions with the wife and could have asked these questions or observed them firsthand. I am not trying to be picky, but I find it hard to decide where to draw the line because one can make both cases. I am trying to learn where to draw it because it seems somewhat arbitrary in some instances. Thank you.
Beth Harrison says
Thank you for your questions. If you set up a 45-minute consultation, you can receive answers to your specific questions, research strategies, and advice from a professional genealogist to help you with your research. If you think this would help, please visit our genealogy consultation page for more information and to schedule an appointment.