Is this a Primary Source for my family tree? | The Nosey Genealogist's: Help Me With My Family Tree
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Is this a Primary Source for my family tree?

by Nick Thorne, The Nosey Genealogist on March 20th, 2016

ManuscriptWhat actually is a primary source when it comes to family tree research?

Does an interview with an ancestor in a newspaper count as a primary source?

In my family tree, for example, we have my 2x great grandfather, Henry Thomas Thorne, being interviewed by the Dartmouth Chronicle in November 1904. This was on the occasion of his retirement after forty years on the railway steamer across the River Dart.

I would argue that the actual newspaper article fits the criteria to be a primary family history source as it, supposedly, is a faithful reproduction of his words.

But what about where a newspaper, or magazine, has written a factual account of an event in which an ancestor had been a part of and which was published at the time of the event? This is perhaps a bit more tricky. The press are often liable to put a spin on the way they present an item to their readers. Can this article be taken as a primary source, for our family history, when it is subject to the interpretation of the author?

My view on this is that what we have there is a derived primary source. It is the same principle as a census transcript is a derived primary source, or an abstract of an ancestor’s last will and testament is a derived primary source. I wonder what others think?

If the article had been written some time after the event, then this would definitely make it a secondary source. So a piece about the Victorian history of Dartmouth, and published in the 1970s, is obviously a secondary source – interesting as it maybe for its insight into the social history of an ancestor’s town.

A primary source, I have always been taught, is a document or physical object that was written or created at the time, or perhaps close to the time of the event or period that we are examining. These can be the original documents or the first-hand accounts of an event, or time period, that someone has lived through. Primary sources are valued by the researcher for being the most reliable in furnishing them with good information. Even though this is the case we are still aware, however, that primary sources can also contain errors, so any information we glean from them needs to be be corroborated.

I believe that a derived primary source is a source based on something that is a primary source. Examples of these would include the transcriptions of census records or an abstract of a will or an obituary. Here someone has copied the information from one source to create the derived source and so there is the chance that mistakes may have been made. It may have been unintentional but wrong information can so easily be copied and therefore it is always good practice for the family historian to check the original document where ever possible.

My conclusion is that the article, about my ancestor’s time sailing on the railway ferry, would be a primary source. However, I have only ever seen a typed transcription of this actual article and as such this makes it a derived primary source. If I, or another, were to use the article to then write about Henry Thorne’s time on the steamer, then this would be a secondary source.

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One Comment
  1. I have a newspaper article which is an interview of “an old time settler”, my great grandfather (b1856, d 1953). I was surprised by some of the things written and when I questioned my uncle about them he said they weren’t true, that his grandfather was just kidding around with the interviewer and that he liked to make up new versions of events. So even what I would consider to be a primary source isn’t true. This episode has coloured and I think improved how I look at all sources in my genealogy quest.

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