Why Original Versus Derivative Matters

[This was originally published on my old blog site on 14 February 2015]

On page 24 Elizabeth Shown Mills in  Evidence Explained (2007, Genealogical Publishing Company) defines the following terms:

  • original sources as “material in its first oral or recorded form.”
  • derivative sources as “material produced by copying an original or manipulating its content.”
Reasonable researchers may slightly disagree about whether certain specific sources are original or derivative. And that’s ok. It really is. The genealogy world will not end.
What’s important is that the researcher thinks about the source that they are actually using, how it was created, and how it came to their possession. Did they see the actual deed the owner signed giving their ancestor ownership to a certain piece of property? Did they see the record copy of that deed in the county recorder’s office in the courthouse? Did they see a microfilmed copy at the Family History Library of the record book? Did they use a published transcription of the book made by a local genealogical society? Or did they see an abstract of title for the property in question  which was compiled from extractions made from the record copies of the deeds? Whew.
Making that clear is what really matters.  Letting others know exactly what you used really matters.
I tend to take a conservative approach–original is the first time something is written down and derivative is everything else. Usually original items are a will or deed an ancestor actually signed, the baptismal certificate signed by the pastor, etc. I just find that use of the phrase easier and more consistent. Anything that doesn’t meet this “first time criteria” is derivative. Once I start making exceptions to that “first oral or recorded form,” I start getting confused. I don’t like being confused.
Describing something as original or derivative is not the same as evaluating its perceived reliability. Some original sources aren’t worth a pewter of warm spit and some original sources are highly credible. If your analysis of a source only hinges on classifying it as original or derivative, then you simply need more hinges.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s crucial for researchers to understand the difference between original and derivative sources. But it’s important to acknowledge that reasonable researchers may see a variety of shades of gray between those seemingly black and white definitions.
And that’s ok. If a researcher clearly explains exactly what they used (eg. The Family History Library’s microfilmed copy of the county deed record book) then others can use that to base evaluation decisions.
And if you don’t know what source you used, it matters little whether you classify it as original as derivative.
That’s classified as dreaming!





3 thoughts on “Why Original Versus Derivative Matters

  1. Great blog piece … it certainly puts a flashlight on several pieces of “documentation” … I will muse on this for a while. I might come back later to share my observations as it relates personally, and also, I might have a few questions to ask. Thanks.

  2. Here is a personal scenario, I call it “the missing link” … a missing link on multiple levels. In the mid 1800’s A hand full of families with the last name of Meyerhoff (one family is my Gr Gr Grandfather) immigrated from Germany to Randolph County IL … Initially all the families attended the same (German Language) Church. Births, Deaths, and Marriages are recorded, in German, to the Church “Book”.

    So here I am in 2017-2018 trying to research and sort out the multiple families with the same last name.

    My blueprint starts with the research from an Aunt that did genealogical research about 10 BC … I call it 10 years Before Computers … namely the 1970’s…. She didn’t have access to the German Church Book back then. It was her missing link. (And my found link)

    I compare my Aunt’s research, mostly pre-immigration documentation, against outstanding work by a few people that has done research within the last decade, involving the same Meyerhoff families.

    However the recent researchers were able to use a source which was a German-to-Engilsh translation of the Church Book (too bad she passed before the translation was published), the translation was published in the 1980’s and very few people have access to it. I got to see the translation, at the Randolph County Genealogical society, but they didn’t allow me to copy/photograph the book.

    The “translated” copy no doubt can be classified as a DERIVATIVE. I have searched and begged for those with access to the Derivative/translated version to copy or lend a copy for me to study. No avail. No luck with the National Archives, State sources, or University archives either. Using the Family Search method of normal and “browse published collections” have turned up nothing … but I was lucky enough to accidentally find online through their site, a microfilm of the German copy of the book. Ouch, it wouldn’t let me view the pages from home. Ok I went to one of their churches and was able to view it. OMG I feel like I found the Holy Grail of my family. I think I am the only person in the world that knows that this microfilm exists.

    Many missing links from the pre-immigration to the post immigration were connected. I’m in awe and almost afraid to share what i found.

    Also, I found a name in the Church Book where I am convinced that the translator made a mistake in translating a last name. This changes a branch of the family tree. Or should I say, it reconciles the difference between my Aunt’s pre-immigration documentation vs the trees by other reputable researchers using post-immigration sources.

    And this situation is an example of the difference between the DERIVATIVE vs the ORIGINAL.

    But wait ..as defined .. a microfilm copy is a derivative of the original. Can’t a microfilm be every bit as reliable and valuable as the original?

    But let me step back a moment … the “Original” Church Book, written in the “old” German script .. is probably a derivative in itself is it not? As it seems as if the Pastor, or secretary of the Church has transcribed daily records in a monthly/quarterly/yearly basis to a “official” journal called the Church Book.

    Therefore the “Original” could be a “book keeping” derivative of “daily receipts”. Perhaps?

    Many thanks to you for your blog.

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