Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?

“Just how accurate are the memories that we know are true?” “All our memories are reconstructed memories.”

– Scott Fraser, in TEDtalksDirector, “Scott Fraser: The problem with eyewitness testimony,” online video, uploaded 10 September 2012, Youtube (http://www.youtube.com : accessed 12 September 2012).

As genealogists we often look for ways to categorize the records we are using. We call sources original or derivative, based on the generation of the format we are using. We call information primary or secondary, based on the involvement of the informant in the events being reported. These designations are arguably an important aspect of our analysis of facts and details that appear in the records we find about our ancestors.

But how important are these designations, really? How much do they affect a record’s accuracy?

Is primary information necessarily more reliable that secondary information?

Our first sense would be “of course.” Someone who was an eyewitness to an event would be a more reliable source that someone who did not witness the event. This may be true, but just how much confidence can we have in primary information? Can we consider the testimony of an eyewitness inherently reliable?

This is where we must be more careful in our analysis of records. As Scott Fraser explores in the video below, the memories of even eyewitnesses can be flawed in surprising ways. This is no less true in our family history research than in a murder trial. “The brain abhors a vacuum,” Fraser remarks. “The brain fills in information that was not there, not originally stored—from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to you as the observer after the observation. … It’s called reconstructive memory.”

Making the designation between primary information and secondary information is a useful exercise in our process of records analysis. It is important to consider the involvement of the informant in the event being reported. However, it is equally important to consider other factors, for example:

  • how much time had passed between the event and the creation of the record;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the event;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the creation of the record;
  • what potential biases may have affected the reporting of the event, either intentional or unintentional.

As genealogists, finding records may seem like the bulk of what we do. Yet I consider the skilled and knowledgeable analysis of these records to be just as important, if not more so. Finding a record is a small part of the process; understanding the record–what it says and what it doesn’t say, its reliability, its significance–is vital for us to achieve reliable and accurate results.

In other words, determining the reliability of even an eyewitness’s testimony is the only way to determine the accuracy of our conclusions. Part of this process is understanding and considering the nature of human memory.

Take a look at this video for a more detailed exploration of the subject:

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 13 September 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dave on September 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Just find the lyrics to “Someone in a Tree,” a song from Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Pacific Overtures,” and you can see how unreliable primary information can be. The song deals with how three or four observers view the same event in different ways. Of course, timing can also be an issue, as illustrated in the song — the observers are all describing the event years after it took place, so memory also factors into the comparison.

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  2. Two persons standing side-by-side witnessing any event will tell a somewhat different story of the event. Excellent reminders, Michael. Thank you. And, as any period of time elapsed before the story it told, it will be different from that told at the time. Human nature. Been there, done that. Enough said. ;-)

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  3. Posted by jkmorelli on September 13, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Michael, I want to share an example of “distorted truth” of primary information which supports your thesis of your post. This past year in a Genealogy & Family History class at the University of Washington, our instructor shared an article published on 12 July 1964, “An American Family in Vietnam”. In it the author, Ed Kiester, described the family as being “calm, cool and collected,” and how they carried on an active social life. Liz, the mother, “barges around Saigon on her bicycle…”. Six weeks after the article was published (unfortunately the instructor did not say where it was published nor write it on the article), that family was removed from Vietnam as the war escalated. How did the instructor know this? Because the family Mr. Keister was writing about was my instructor’s aunt and uncle. Upon further exploration, it was determined that the author often wrote for the US Army and at that time there was a concentrated effort to portray the US as being only benignly involved as advisors. Do you have to be careful of primary sources? You bet! This particularly egregious example illustrates that there can be motives by the author which we may or may not realize. Even county “mug books” and newspapers written at the turn of the century were trying to portray their communities not as they are but rather as they wish they were.

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  4. You make some really good points here. I have this problem all the time with census records since in the US at least, only one household member provides the information for the entire household. I remember that on my 24th birthday, I received a card from my mother wishing me a happy 23rd birthday…oops. Mistakes happen.

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  5. [...] Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists? from Planting the Seeds [...]

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  6. Posted by Jade on September 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Nice reminder, Michael. Personally I also try to keep the tale of the three blind men and the elephant in mind.

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  7. Are primary records the same as some kind of memory or gossip or biased news article? I think a vital record or even a census record (sometimes!) is less likely to be messed up than these examples. The hard thing I find is when there are no primary records (say, early colonial America) and a genealogist is forced to review other information sources and try to come up with the best informed guess. And don’t forget another primary source criteria….the closeness of the informant to the event. A father’s report of a death of child last week has a more authority than say, a census report which may have been reported by a neighbor.

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