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Genealogy Primary & Secondary Sources. How to Know the Difference

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Girl thinking about Genealogy

Why you need to know.

What Genealogists know about taking on their own Family History.

I think that if I could go back to my younger genealogy self, my advice

would be to slow down and build a family tree of quality rather than quantity. With the amazing development of online family trees with an abundance of sources that make it easy to fill that tree up fast, genealogists taking on their own family histories would be wise to take the time needed to make sure it is correct. How do we do that?

Consider the Source when researching your Ancestry.

Consider the source you have in front of you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who made the source?

  • Why was it made?

  • Was the creator of the source providing this information at the time it occurred?

  • Would they have direct knowledge of the information?

The answers to these questions are the basis for categorizing the source as Primary or Secondary. Knowing the difference between the two will bring clarity to your genealogy research.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary documents in genealogy research are original and direct sources of information that provide firsthand details about individuals, families, and events from the past. These documents were created or recorded during the time period being studied. They include things like birth certificates, marriage records, letters, diaries, photographs, and official documents like census records. Primary documents offer a direct connection to the people and events of the past, making them crucial for uncovering accurate and authentic family history information.

Examples of primary documents for Genealogy include:

1. Birth Certificates: These official records provide essential details about a person's birth, including their full name, date of birth, place of birth, and the names of parents.

2. Marriage Records: Marriage certificates or licenses offer information about a person's marriage, including the names of the couple, date of marriage, location, and often the names of their parents.

3. Census Records: These periodic population counts conducted by the government include valuable information about individuals and families, such as names, ages, relationships, occupations, and sometimes birthplaces.

4. Diaries and Letters: Personal writings like diaries, letters, and journals provide insights into the daily lives, thoughts, and experiences of ancestors, offering a more intimate understanding of their lives.

5. Photographs: Vintage photographs capture images of individuals, families, and places, giving a visual representation of what ancestors looked like and the settings they lived in.

These primary documents serve as foundational sources of information for genealogists, helping them piece together accurate family histories and stories from the past.

Genealogists use Primary Sources for their Family History Research

When conducting historical research, genealogists often rely on primary documents to gain authentic and unbiased information about past events and better understand the people and societies of the time. It is, however, essential to analyze primary sources critically to consider their context, authorship, and potential biases in interpreting genealogical events accurately. For some new ideas about accessing primary sources, Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places by Laura Szucs Pfeiffer offers some great ones.

What are Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources are scholarly works and interpretations that analyze, interpret, or summarize information and insights derived from primary sources. Unlike primary sources, secondary sources are not direct or firsthand accounts of historical events or phenomena. Instead, they are created by researchers, who have analyzed and synthesized primary source material to provide a broader understanding of a topic or to present their interpretations and evaluations.

Examples of secondary sources for Genealogy include:

Here are five examples of secondary sources often used in genealogy research:

1. Genealogy Books: Books written by genealogists or historians that compile and interpret information from various primary sources to create comprehensive family histories.

2. Family History Websites: Online platforms that gather and present genealogical information, often based on the research of multiple individuals or organizations.

3. Academic Articles: Scholarly articles published in journals that analyze and discuss genealogical topics, often based on research utilizing primary sources.

4. Documentaries: Video presentations that explain and explore genealogical stories, using primary source materials as the basis for their narratives.

5. Historical Biographies: Biographical works that focus on specific individuals from the past, using primary sources and historical context to provide a detailed account of their lives.

These secondary sources offer insights, context, and interpretations of genealogical information gathered from primary sources, making them valuable tools for researchers and those interested in understanding their family history.

Secondary sources are valuable because they synthesize and contextualize information from multiple primary sources, helping readers to understand complex historical events and issues. Genealogists use secondary sources to build on existing research, analyze different perspectives, and form their own interpretations or arguments. When using secondary sources, it's essential to critically evaluate the author's credibility, and potential biases to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented.

Let's say someone has conducted extensive research on their family's genealogy, collected various primary sources such as birth certificates, marriage records, and census data, and then compiled all that information into a book. This book would be considered a secondary source because it presents the researcher's analysis, interpretation, and synthesis of the primary source materials.

The family history book might include narratives about ancestors, timelines of significant events, family trees, and possibly even photographs or illustrations. The author would have used primary sources to trace the lineage and relationships of family members across generations, and then organized and presented that information in a coherent and understandable manner.

Readers interested in their family history could refer to this secondary source to learn about their ancestors, their origins, and their place in the family tree. However, when using this secondary source, it's essential to verify the information by consulting the original primary sources cited in the book to ensure accuracy and reliability. Sometimes errors or inaccuracies can occur during the research process, so cross-referencing with primary sources is a crucial step in genealogical research.

eBay for Genealogy

Use Secondary Sources used for Researching your Genealogy Carefully

Secondary sources have differing levels of reliability depending on again, who made the source and what their motivation was. When using secondary sources, with the purpose of building a family history, should always be considered carefully. These are the sources that can get genealogists researching their ancestry off track. In some cases, a secondary source can provide valuable information that you can rely on. In some cases, however, results can be wrong, which can have a domino effect on your family tree.

This book, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking offers an in depth look at sources for researching your ancestry. Additional resources for sources are, and

Cuzens Genealogy

Robin Stewart is the founder of CuZens Genealogy. She is a retired teacher and school administrator and lives with her family in California. She has been researching genealogy since 1983. Her passion has always included the pursuit and preservation of family history and designing creative digital solutions for organizing information. Why? Because genealogy matters.

For more information about CuZens Genealogy visit:



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