Re: Genealogical Proof Standard

Jan Murphy

Before I address this, I'd like to drop in one more link to Dr. Thomas W. Jones' article Perils of Source Snobbery from OnBoard 18 (May 2012).

On Wed, May 6, 2020 at 2:55 PM Adrian Bruce <abruce6155@...> wrote:

The bit that I can't get my head around is that the US definition of
Primary (info) appears to depend solely on whether the knowledge is
first hand or not. So a 90y old mother would be regarded as providing
Primary info about the birth of her child 70y previously. Regardless
of any memory problems that might, or might not, apply. The typical UK
definition of primary puts an extra criteria (criterion?) about being
close to the event, so would regard the 90y old mother as providing
secondary info, directly encouraging a degree of scepticism about the
info being provided.

Note what Elizabeth Shown Mills says in Quicklesson 17:

Primary information: that is, information based on firsthand knowledge. Primary informants tell us about events or circumstances they personally participated in or witnessed. They might provide that information at or about the time the event occurred or at a later date. A time lapse might affect the quality of the recollection, but it does not alter the primary nature of the information.

Of course we take the time lapse between the event and the recording of the event into account.  But that's a separate issue from whether someone was an eyewitness to the event vs. having "somebody said so" knowledge.  And no matter what terms we use to refer to it, we have to correlate the information with other evidence and analyze what we've found.  If we're talking about a relationship found in a record, for instance, without analysis we're only doing kinship acceptance, not kinship determination (see Dr. Thomas W. Jones' handout for his FamilySearch class on Inferential Genealogy (PDF Download) (Wiki article) 

I have to say that code values in FH for original / derivative and
direct / indirect / negative from US practice would be most welcome.
(A lack of code values doesn't stop you thinking about those concepts,
of course).

Direct / indirect / negative evidence (i.e. "the dog that did not bark", which is not the same as negative findings "I searched but I couldn't find a record") applies when we are answering a research question. This might be more appropriate for a research report instead of flagging things up in Family Historian.  
However, even there, once I start thinking about it,
things start to crumble a bit. I did once ask in another place
(BetterGEDCOM? Don't think it was StackExchange...) about the IGI and
other indexes. The process of creating an index clearly creates a
Derivative. What is the information though? Primary or Secondary? It
doesn't make sense to drop it down to Secondary, because that's simply
repeating the fact that it's a Derivative. So that means, and this was
the consensus reply, the IGI and other indexes provide Derivative /
Primary info. This seems weird. In fact it then becomes (to get really
philosophical) difficult to see how information becomes Secondary
because the transformation it goes through is already taken care of in
the change from Original to Derivative. Something, I feel, is missing
from the definitions.

Mills says, in her article “Working with Historical Evidence,” [pages 180-181]:

 Above all, the researcher must resist the temptation to view “proof” as the sum of an equation. Validity cannot be calculated by a simple formula such as
Original + Primary + Direct > Derivative + Secondary + Indirect
Nor can validity be quantified by assigning points to these basic elements. Rather, the bottom line is this: Can the evidence drawn from this source’s information be considered accurate? Can it be trusted as a credible indication of what the original facts
were? The physical qualities of the source, the nature of the information, and the directness of the evidence are merely the skeletal framework upon which we balance our material while we apply the finer tests of credibility. Those tests will vary infinitely, depending upon the type of each source, the specific pieces of information involved, and our perception of their meanings.   
The situation can be summed up nicely by a phrase often used by Judy G. Russell:  "It depends."

If you have a derivative source such as the Massachusetts 5-year indexes of Births, Marriages, or Deaths, the information in the index is a pointer to the original records.  We have to take into account that the primary information in the original source has undergone at least one round of copying and perhaps more before we get to the printed volumes that we can view on Ancestry.  We need to understand the purpose for which the index was made (despite what many hobbyists might think, it wasn't created for genealogists to copy & paste into their databases). But the information in the index is still primary information.

Contrast this with the information in the NEHGS' Vital Records to 1850 books, which gathers information from a wide variety of sources. I have a birth date which can be found in the volume Vital Records of West Springfield to the year 1850 -- it was taken from a gravestone record (memorial inscription) in a cemetery. This is how I have a record for someone born in Germany before 1850 in this record of information from Massachusetts. Whichever way you look at it, this is secondary information -- the stone was likely ordered by descendants who were born after the event, it was created long after the deceased's birth date, and another layer or more of copying has happened in the creation of the printed volume.

Jan Murphy
Moderator Pro Tempore

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