For genealogical purposes, documentation is the supplying of documents or supporting records or references. While it may seem like a daunting task, it is vital that the researcher find a primary document for each and every fact he/she uncovers while researching.
What is a “primary document” or “primary source”? It is described as a document that is created at or very close to the time of the event. A good example of this kind of source is a birth certificate. It is done at or very near to the time of the actual event, the informant is most often the mother who just gave birth, and it is signed by the doctor or midwife who delivered the child. Some other examples of primary sources include deeds and land records, wills and probate records, court records, marriage records, and death records.
A “secondary document” is one which was created after the fact, whether a few weeks or many years. These sources would include letters, county histories, genealogical books of one family’s history, and most of what is on the Internet, to name a few.
Many documents contain both primary and secondary information. An example of this would be a death certificate in which the date and cause of death are certainly primary information, but the information about the parents and birth date of the deceased are usually being given by an informant who was definitely not present at the time of those events. (The exception would be, of course, the record of the death of a child in which a parent is the informant.)
The census is another example of a source containing both primary and secondary information. The place of residence and the household members at the time can be considered primary information, while the ages and most other information must be considered secondary information. The accuracy depends completely upon the person giving the information and then upon the enumerator’s reliability in recording that information. There is no way to know if the informant was the head of household or his/her spouse, one of the children, or possibly even a neighbor, thus there is no way to determine the accuracy of the information given. (We are told that the 1940 census – which will be released in April of 2012 – will have a mark indicating which member of the household was the informant, which will help tremendously in determining the veracity of the information!) Another point to be made about the census: The relationship of the household members to the head of the household was recorded only in the 1880 and later censuses. For information gleaned from the 1850, 1860 and 1870 censuses, we can say for certain only that the person was a member of the household but must corroborate the relationship (such as son or daughter or the household head) with other sources.
Researchers must also use caution when using sources such as a family Bible or letters/correspondence containing genealogical information. The copyright date of the Bible should be checked against the family data recorded in the Bible. If the copyright date is later than some of the dates entered in the family history, the information has obviously been recorded sometime after the actual event and thus must be considered secondary information. Another clue to look for is the color of ink and the handwriting. If the entries are made in different ink colors and more than one handwriting is observed, it is probably that the information was recorded at the time of the event and can be assumed to be primary information (provided, of course, that it was entered after the copyright date.) On the other hand, if the entries are all made in the same handwriting and in the same ink, it is probably that the information was all recorded at the same time and sometime after the event. This is not to say that the information is invalid, but that it should be confirmed by other sources.
Letters and correspondence are wonderful sources of information, but again caution must be used. These must be examined on an individual basis. If the writer gives general information covering a span of time, such as a list of the children of an ancestor and the birth and death dates, this must be considered secondary information. However, if the writer states that he/she was present when the event such as a birth or death occurred, the information may be taken as primary.
It is always wise to corroborate any primary source with another primary source if possible, but it is absolutely essential when using secondary information. This is not to imply that secondary information is inaccurate, but simply that it must be confirmed.
New researchers may be confused where the term “documentation” is concerned. Quite often we hear that something was found on the internet, in a county heritage book or family genealogy book and is therefore “documented.” These sources are indeed documents of sorts, but are not considered “documentation.” Very simply put: information is NOT documented unless at least one primary source or two or more secondary sources are given. County heritage books and family genealogy books are wonderful resources for family stories and even for family genealogical information, but the information cannot be taken for fact or considered accurate unless a source of documentation is given and that source checked.
We are aware that this seems like a tremendous amount of work to prove one fact. However, what researcher would want to waste time (sometimes months or years) researching and building on a fact that turns out to be in error? For better to take the time to check it out in the beginning!
Remember: Genealogy without documentation is mythology!!