Evaluating Research Data

I’m reading North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History and have recently finished the first chapter, which is “Evaluating Research Data.”  These are some of my notes from this chapter.

Primary Records

Primary information is found in records created during the time period of the events they document; data in records created after that time is secondary.

It seems so simple, doesn’t it?  I’ve read a lot about primary and secondary information and I understand the difference, but sometimes the nuances get confusing.  This chapter gave useful information on ranking both types of data within the designations of primary and secondary, as well as tips to help keep me sane.

To be primary in relation to a defined event, the record and event must be contemporaneous.  Contemporaneous in this context means within the lifetimes of witnesses to or participants in the occurrence in question.  It does not mean simultaneous.

Evaluating Primary Data

The most valuable witnesses are those:

  • for whom the event was a central part of life
  • who were competent to testify
  • who created the record closest in time and place to the event
  • whose purpose was to document the event and its details

Ranking Primary Sources

  1. Original record (this includes microfilm, photocopies, etc.)
  2. Authoritative transcriptions – transcribed by a trained expert
  3. Contemporaneous official copies – e.g. wills, deeds, etc. that are entered in government record books
  4. Other contemporaneous accounts – e.g. newspapers, tombstone inscriptions, oral history, letters.  “If information in these sources conflicts with documents of higher rank, the dispute must be settled with evidence from other primary records.”

Secondary Records

Evaluating Secondary Data

  • Accuracy – look for sources that present the facts correctly and, preferably, include accurate interpretation of the facts.  Sources that include mistakes should be avoided; trust nothing without verifying from a better source (ouch – I know I have mistakes in my data.  I’m working on weeding them out).
  • Completeness – all data that a reasonable person would expect should be there
  • Documentation – i.e. source citations
  • Presentation – the data should be presented clearly and logically

Ranking Secondary Sources

  1. Transcriptions
  2. Abstracts
  3. Documented compilations
  4. Selected (i.e. incomplete) transcriptions and abstracts
  5. General histories
  6. Undocumented compilations (no rank) – these should only be used as clues

Mixed sources include both primary and secondary information.

And finally, the quote that keeps me sane:

The line between primary and secondary sources is fine – genealogists should not become enslaved by minute distinctions.

Helen F. M. Leary, “Evaluating Research Data,” North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, Helen F. M. Leary, editor, Second Edition (Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996), 3-16.

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