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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What is original anyway?

So what is a primary source? Or a secondary source? Or an original source? Lots of talk on the blogs about these things, and people refer to them differently. The problem is, you can hash it all you want, but there are very few primary original sources.

Am I a primary source for my birth? Well, technically, I was there. But I don't have recognizable memories until years later. While I do have a birth certificate which tells me when my birth was, if nothing else, I would have my mother to tell me what my birthday is. But would she tell me the correct date or remember the date?

Many times the vital or court records we look at are not the originals, so are they primary sources? Many of them are copied from another primary source. Land record originals were generally held by the individual owning the land and the courthouse only had a copy.  Who exactly gave the information to the county clerk in the 1800's for that death or birth or marriage? Did the clerk write it down correctly?

Bill Dollarhide had an interesting blog post a while back, that detailed exactly how the census was taken, and in fact the originals most likely no longer exist, as they were kept at the local level, created by the US Marshalls, before the Census Bureau was created. The "original" census pages we see now were copies of the originals. So this is how far removed that census information is from reality:

(1)Information provided by an unknown person to a US Marshall or Census Bureau employee....
(2)Who wrote it down as best he/she could trying to understand what that unknown person was telling them....
(3)The original census page being copied by an unknown individual onto another sheet to be submitted to DC...
(4)The copied census page being microfilmed, and then destroyed....
(5)The microfilmed census page then being digitized and uploaded to the Internet....
(6)A genealogist downloading that image to keep on their hard drive or to print out....

6 generations removed from the original (and possibly faulty to begin with) information about the family!
So don't ever wonder why the information on a census for a family is incorrect. I think it's a miracle that any of it is even close to being accurate.

Of course we could debate all day what a primary source is, or how many steps removed a primary source has to be for it to be considered a secondary source, and on and on. But that doesn't really get us anywhere, I suppose.

This is a quandary. And I suppose we have to realize the limitations of the documents we use, as well as our limitations in obtaining the "perfect" documents to properly source our material. We can only do our best, with what is provided to us or what is left to us after time has its way with those precious documents.

Copyright © 2013 Matt Mapes

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