History and Law, Sources and Evidence

This incredibly helpful and well-written article “Evidence and Sources and How They Differ” by Donn Devine adds another level of confusion to the citation and documentation of citing sources in genealogy. The article is in Ancestry Magazine May/June 1997, available on Google Books.

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My summary: The concept of source comes from social sciences, history and is the means by which information comes to a researcher, the container or vessel. Primary sources are the earliest or first pieces of recorded information. Secondary are published works, electronic, copied, compiled or reflecting the conclusion of a researcher.

The concept of evidence comes from law as in wills and probates. Evidence is the physical form in which information is presented to the senses and comes in 3 forms

  • testimonial
  • documentary
  • physical

The testimonial and documentary evidence has to be given with formality or solemnity, like with an oath.

As with a historian’s source , a lawyer’s evidence can vary from reliable to questionable. Courts separate the evidence into inadmissible = not reliable; and admissible = worth considering with varying degrees of reliability.

The term evidence came into genealogy  with the 1979 book Genealogical Evidence by Stevenson. The book encouraged weighing and evaluating evidence. The legal concept of Primary Evidence was also in the book, defined as the best evidence possible.

Genealogists now speak of evidence and primary evidence. There is a tendency to use the term primary source for the material that contributed to the research but not for the evidence or primary evidence the conclusions were based on. When sources and evidence are used together without distinction sources are more likely to refer to secondary sources, and evidence refers to documents used to reach conclusions.

Proof is a name for a process, not the same thing as evidence, not a document or source. Stevenson’s book described levels of proof from his experience as a lawyer

  • absolute
  • beyond a reasonable doubt
  • ‘more probable than not’ the standard applied to most civil court trials.

How evidence is used to prove a point depends on if it directly applies to the issue, or if conclusions are drawn based on relationships to the issue. Direct evidence is a birth record. Indirect evidence is a man receiving an inheritance even though no birth record exists, just a census record with him in the home and the inheritance.

IN summary there are no absolute rules. To avoid confusion think of sources as the published works that lead you to reliable records. Use evidence for the records that support confusion and primary evidence when records are original.

I think genealogy is buried in fussy record keeping. The kind where several bits of punctuation have to be just so for any record to work. Maybe this is based on library cataloging of the 1980s when each and every bit of punctuation had to be entered in a massive string of chronological order designed to make records universally readable. I don’t know, just thinking about it.

When I entered the field of family history in Spring of 2015 I plowed ahead on Family Search.org [FREE] and Ancestry.com [$] clicking here and there, adding records, sources were auto created and cited for me. There was no need to document or cite anything, I thought. When my two trees were at 2000 people each and I was just getting a little concerned about how all these ancestors, records, documents, dates, names, media, citations, sources, how it all came together in an organized, easy to manage library.

In looking at some of the records and sources auto generated by Ancestry.com or Family Tree Maker I saw trouble. A lot of records were auto saved without any kind of source citation. *Anyone that enjoys genealogy knows that records and sources cannot be evaluated without a citation*. I’m reading this highly helpful article for the 3rd or 4th time.