A Writers Block –

A Writers Block –

29th April 2021 0 By admin

What are Primary and Secondary Sources:

Sometimes you must stop research and start writing things down, plenty of documentation and data but how to put it into words, that’s a challenge. For the last month I have had writer’s block starting blogs and then deleting them. So, while I ponder my next subject I decided to write about a simpler subject and to keep my monthly blog going.

What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Genealogists and Family Researchers talk a lot about sources in genealogy, and we talk about evaluating sources and deciding which ones are best or do they have provenance (a guide to authenticity chronology of the ownership, custody, or location of a historical object).

When we talk about sources and the validity of their information, we need to know two terms: Primary Sources and Secondary Sources.

Primary Sources: These are records that were created at the time of an event.  For example, a birth record is created either at the time of the birth or within a few days of the birth.  The information is typically provided by someone who was present at the birth.  Birth records are reliable when it comes to information such as the date and place of birth, the name of the parents, and the name of the child.

Additional primary sources would include:


Death certificates


Burial records (where was the person interred)

Secondary Sources: These are records that were created about an event and/or after the event took place.  The majority of records fall into this category.  A great example of a secondary source is a census record.  The census records tell us the ages of everyone in a household, birth places, heritage, etc. However, this information is all reliant upon memory of the informant.  Ages are notoriously incorrect on census records.  Birth places can be very vague.  The information may have been given by an unreliable source.

Everyone is always happy to see their ancestor included on records, but sometimes the information on that record may have to be accepted with some healthy scepticism.

You must consider the reason a record was created, and you may understand why there are some flaws in the data.

Other secondary sources would include:


Local history

Published (and unpublished) family histories.

Land registry


Military records

Court or other legal matters.

Many times, two different record types will state similar information about an ancestor, yet the information is not totally the same. If there is a conflict then we need to evaluate which source is more likely to be correct.  A primary source will typically trump a secondary source because it is more likely that the record made at the time of the event by someone who witnessed the event will be true and correct.  A birth record should definitely be more trusted than a census record or an obituary when looking for information about a birth date and place.

To make things more interesting, some records can be considered both a primary source and a secondary source.  For example: A death certificate typically includes information about parents and a birth date and place.

The death certificate would be a primary source for the death information, yet a secondary source for the birth information.  Ultimately the goal is to have a primary record for every vital event in our ancestors’ lives, but many times that is just not possible because the records just do not exist.

In these situations, a secondary record can provide a lot of details that would otherwise be missing from the research.


James Wheelock Baptism 7 Feb 1864


1849 Death Certificate Timothy Wheelock

Example of Secondary Source

1699 Abraham Wheelock Naval Record E190-59-1_Page_1

1699 Abraham Wheelock Naval Record E190-59-1_Page_2


Register of Voters 1952