Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Specify the Source of the Source

Specify the source of the source
Image: frenta. Used with permission.

Citations have two purposes: locate the source and indicate its strength. This series of articles explains what we must do to accomplish these purposes for genealogical sources.


Specify the Source of the Source

Genealogists must generally use copies of records rather than the originals themselves. Genealogists use a fancy term, derivative sources, for copies.1 Records on microfilm, the Internet, and in publications are derivative sources.

The strength of a derivative source depends on the strength of the source from which it was derived. (The strength also depends on the type of derivative, but that’s the topic for next time.) Since a citation should indicate source strength, a citation of a derivative source must specify the source of the source.2

Consider the following online sources of Kansas marriage records. Without knowing the sources of these sources, it would be difficult to judge their strengths.

Database Title Source of the Source
Kansas Marriages, 1840-1935 “Original and compiled records.”
Kansas, County Marriages, 1855-1910 “Marriage registers and records made by county clerks.”
Leavenworth county, Kansas, Marriage Records, 1900-1920 “104 through 110 in the collections of the Leavenworth County Genealogical Society.”
Kansas Marriage Index, 1854-73 “LDS microfilms and local newspapers.”
Kansas and Kansans, Vol. 2 Published book.
The annals of Kansas Published book.


In future articles we’ll develop citations for these sources. Next time, we’ll talk about types of derivative sources.


Series Summary

So far in this series of articles we have spoken of these purposes and principles for genealogical citations:


     1.  The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, ed. Helen F. M. Leary, (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2000), 9.

     2.  Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 47-8, 52.


  1. Derivative sources and copies of sources are not the same thing. A derivative is a new work derived from a source, while a copy (like a microfilm) is a copy (which is not to say it is an accurate copy of the original).

  2. Insider,

    In line with the comment above, I think you might do better to stick with terminology established in EE!. Calling something a "source of the source" is non-standard. More properly, it is the format of the source, and an element of a source citation. Even if you see a need to expand the meaning of an established term, I would prefer to see modifiers attached to that term rather than coming up with a new term that will confuse some readers and detract from efforts to use standardized terms in genealogy.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    I'll take a look at the ProGen page, but I think your use of "copy" is too restrictive. Think about how the term is used at large. "Clerk's copy" "Hand copy."

    I need to give this more study.

    -- The Insider

  4. Mike F,

    The attempt is to use "Source of the Source" in the same way as EE! pp. 94, 166, 301, 348, 404, 427, 446, 577, 630, 783, 786, 824.

    What do you think?

    -- The Insider

  5. Insider,

    Perhaps I read your post too hurriedly, but in looking at it again in your "source of the source" column, I see mainly what to me would be descriptions of the type of compiled source cited (i.e. the format).

    Looking at a handful of the pages you cited in EE!, one first notes that Ms. Mills' uses quotations around "source of the source". And then that that nebulous term seems to refer to either repositories (i.e. Such-and-Such Library) or in individual database on an online site, or a generic cited source. Also in the reference in the glossary on p. 824 where she says "source of the source" is used by some in preference to "indirect source", one should note that "source of the source" is itself not listed with its own glossary entry.

    I guess I am being too literal-minded in the way I view the specific examples you used, but it still seems to me that "source of the source" is non-standard (i.e. not having an accepted definition and preferred use) even though Ms. Mills lists various ways it is often used by others. And a term like "cited source" (since we often say 'citing XXX') would suffer the same possibilities of misunderstanding as "indirect source".

    Perhaps also I am being obtuse and your point was in fact how others vaguely and incorrectly label a "source of the source".

    A side issue that springs to my mind, and possibly deserving of its own discussion, is the topic of a genealogy of sources in relation to derivative sources. One is often cautioned to seek independent sources, but without digging into various derivative sources it is often not obvious on the surface that several often-cited local sources for a certain family in fact spring from the same older derivative source which itself is of dubious value in that it does not cite its own sources. Tracking down such a genealogy of sources is very tedious but also illuminating. For example in regards to the names of wives not otherwise cited except through family lore, can one find the earliest family group sheet with such an assertion?

  6. Dear Mike and other commenters,

    I have some conflicting objectives for this series and I'm starting to think that is why you are encountering problems.

    The objectives:

    1. Show beginners how easy it can be to cite and historic record collections.

    2. Convince and that they need to shoulder the heavy lifting, so that citations to their collections can be easy for beginners.

    3. Convince non-beginners that what I am showing beginners is credible (for citing and historic record collections).

    4. Convince users that Mills citation guides are absolutely necessary for citing archive sources.

    5. Pass on some insights I gained during a year's study of citation issues.

    From the comments I'm getting, I fear I'm providing too much detail to accomplish #1 and not enough to accomplish #2.

    I'm going to push forward with my approach for the time being, although it just occurs to me that articles could have a section at the end for experts.

    Thank you all for your help,
    -- The Insider

  7. It looks to me as though the earlier commentators go hung up on your chart rather than the examples you gave below the chart, which are pretty standard. I was taught--and teach others--that the whole idea of sources is to enable others to track your research and verify your "facts,"
    which your examples clearly do. I would agree with those who question the use of words like "derivative" when teaching newcomers.

  8. Dear ProGen Referencer,

    I've checked and found Natalie Cottrill is advocated the same division of concepts that BCG does, separating source type (original vs. derivative) from information type (primary vs. secondary).

    However, she's deviated from the standard taxonomy by adding a 3rd source type: "copy of original."

    I think there is merit in making three divisions as she does. Photographic copies are closer to originals in evidentiary value than to textual derivatives. I wouldn't be surprised if BCG makes this change in the future.

    Until such a change, I think it confuses people to deviate from a standard taxonomy (the present situation being a case in point), so I will continue to use the genealogical standard.

    -- The Insider


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