(Update, 2019: The standards in genealogy have been updated and have been modified from what was written below. Please consult the newest standards, the book is referenced below.)
I have had some wonderful discoveries in bibles over the past year. I want to share them with you along with some thoughts on evaluation.
Definitions and References
In genealogy, its important to know the definitions of the terms used to evaluate evidence. We need to discern whether something is:
*an Original or Derivative Source
*Primary or Secondary Information
*Direct or Indirect Evidence
If you want to improve your genealogy skills, learn these concepts. Buy a copy of the newest Genealogical Proof Standard, written by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (can be purchased from Amazon).
I also suggest the book “Genealogical Proof Standard” by Christine Rose. I’m going to only talk about the first two in the interest of keeping this post long and not really long.;)
- An Original Source is the very first–the original–record of an event (such as a birth certificate).
- A Derivative Source has to copy its information from an original source. An example is a book of transcribed vital records or online transcribed databases.
An important point to remember is that derivatives always introduce the opportunity for errors. Typically, an original source is regarded as more reliable than a derivative source.
The terms Primary vs. Secondary Information refer to the quality of the information.
Primary information was made by someone in a position to know firsthand usually at or near the time of the event OR made in writing by an officer charged by law, canon or bylaws with creating an accurate record (like a court clerk who records marriages).
Anything else is secondary information (for example, all census records are secondary). Typically, primary information is regarded as more reliable than secondary information.
So one of the goals in genealogy is to research in as many Original Sources and as much Primary Information as possible.
That might sound simple, but it can quickly get very complicated. A death certificate is an original source, but it can contain both primary (the death dates) and secondary information (the birth dates and the parents of the deceased).
An original source, generally deemed more reliable, could nevertheless contain incorrect information.
When evaluating evidence, you want to ask yourself who wrote the information, when and why. All of this serves our purposes of understanding the sources as completely as possible, so we can reconstruct our families accurately.
Holt Bible Deaths
This year my cousin Lester Holt shared copies of a Holt Family Bible, which belonged to his grandfather.
For a frail bible, its a great idea to take pictures of the family pages. That will ensure this valuable family heirloom is handled as rarely as possible.
However, be sure to take a picture of the publishing page so you can know what year the bible was published.
Let’s say a bible was published in 1948. If it contains dates from the early 1900s, those obviously could not have been recorded at or near the time they happened, which affects how you evaluate the data.
Here’s a page of deaths from the Holt Bible:
I am fairly sure who wrote this-either the mother Ila or the father Samuel.
I know why–to record the important dates in their family.
But, the copyright/publishing page was disintegrated or missing.
This means I have no idea what year this bible was published. This means I don’t know when the dates were recorded.
I don’t know if they were copied in as they occurred or in bulk entries after the fact. That’s an important distinction.
This bible is clearly an original source. But for something to be considered primary information it ideally should be written down as the events are occurring or a short time afterwards.
Nevertheless in this case, these are likely two parents noting births and deaths of their children, which they are likely to have known firsthand.
Holt Bible Births
Now notice a page from the births:
The first six look like they were entered all at once don’t they?
Consider that the information in this bible does not conflict with birth or death dates I have from other sources. That’s an important point.
This gives you a sense of all the things you have to think about.
Below is the cover from a Prather Family Bible that was shared with me last year by my cousin Laverne Prather. This belonged to her mother Sarah:
Luckily, I was able to copy the copyright page:
Sarah diligently copied vital information for all of her kids, and all of the events happened after 1903. This gives me an added level of assurance.
This page of dates appeared opposite a page of names:
I discovered both of these bibles when I wasn’t looking for them. Twelve years into my research and the spirits are still sending me pleasant surprises. Both of these sources contained some new information that I didn’t have.
Take the time to learn how to evaluate evidence from the many excellent books available on the topic. Many sources, as you can see from the examples above about the bible entries, have some special criteria that is useful to know.
Remember that if you come across a family bible, digitize it so that the data can survive even if the book does not.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.