Methodology, Sources and resources

Analysing derivative sources

One of the key principles in family history is that we should aim to use original sources wherever possible. However, derivative sources have an important place in our research too, so we need to learn how to use them effectively.

An original source is the first version of a source. It is usually created close to the time of the events depicted in the source, but not always. A derivative source is a source created from an original source or from other derivative sources. It is usually created some time after the events depicted in the source, but again, not always. A national or state newspaper reporting on an event which had already been reported upon in the local paper, is an example of a derivative but contemporary source.

I like to categorise derivative sources as copies, transcriptions or compilations.

A copy may be a photocopy, photo or microfilm. It involves minimal changes to the source. A transcription is a written or printed copy, and changes are more likely to occur. A compilation is a derivative source that is based on more than one source, so it is least like the sources on which it was based. A family history book is an example of a compilation.

Of course, it is more complex than these three categories. Copies can be made from copies; transcriptions from copies; copies from transcriptions; extracts from compilations, and so on.

This extract of a birth certificate contains an image from the original register as well as added text (NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, birth certificate, James Hen, 1878/024215)

Derivative sources are often regarded as less desirable than original sources. This is because the process of derivation increases the chance of changes and errors in the information, and because the creator of a derivative source is less likely to have first-hand knowledge of the event or context of the event.

However, there are benefits in using derivative sources.

  • They are generally more accessible than original sources.
  • Technology, such as optical character recognition (OCR) and image enhancement, creates derivative sources that are more legible than the original sources.
  • The creator of a derivative source may have access to new information or provide new perspectives on the information.

Analysing a derivative source

The approach to using derivative sources is similar to any other source. First you need to evaluate the source, then evaluate the information and then evaluate the evidence.

The two key differences when analysing derivative sources are:

  • It is critical that you understand the nature of the source. Is it a copy, transcription or compilation? And, how far is it removed from the original – is it a copy of a copy of a copy? This information affects your analysis of the reliability of the source and the information it contains.
  • It is also important to examine where each piece of information within the source came from. Derivative sources often contain information from a variety of informants or sources, which means that the quality and reliability of each piece of information will vary. Do not make the mistake of only evaluating the reliability of a derivative source as a whole.

For more guidance on analysing sources, click on the category ‘sources’ on the right side of this screen, or jump straight to these articles:


Analysing name variations

Name variations are common, even within families, and it is not unusual to find a name spelled differently in different sources. However, dismissing these variations too quickly may result in your family history becoming inaccurate. It is important to analyse name variations carefully and gather sufficient evidence for each conclusion.

Four main reasons for name variations

Lack of standardised spelling

The spelling of names has never really been standardised, by which I mean a common agreement to spell a name a certain way. Instead, we have common spellings, which may or may not be passed onto subsequent generations.

The spelling of names may vary between related family groups, between locations, change over time or even vary within a single family group.

For example, my maternal grandmother’s surname was Rusten, but the first arrival in Australia on that line spelled it as Rushton and different families have spelled it as Ruston and Rustin.

Nicknames, middle names and abbreviations

People may be known by names other than those given to them at birth. They may use this name all of the time, or just some of the time, or assume it at a certain point in their life. Or, they may be called different names by different people. Sources might record them by their given name or by their nickname, or by an abbreviation. If you are lucky, they will use abbreviations that are in common usage, but not always.

Accidental variations during source creation

Name variations commonly occur during the process of creating a source document. Errors can occur in all sources, including original sources. However, the likelihood of errors increases with derivative sources. Errors may involve minor spelling substitutions or more substantial alterations.

For example, my father’s 4x great grandfather, Patrick Dwyer, is often recorded in sources as Patrick Dyer and in an index to immigration records on Ancestry he is listed as Patrick Ayer.

These types of errors are particularly common when names of non-English origin are recorded by English speakers. (See Kate Bagnall’s article about Chinese names in Australia)

Deliberate changes

Deliberate changes are not as uncommon as you might expect. A person may change the spelling of a name, translate it or transform it, or adopt an entirely different name. Some cultures use different names in different circumstances, while others change the surname with each generation.

Some examples:

My maternal 4x great grandmother, Mary Ann Leonard, took on the surname of her stepfather Thomas Foran and became Mary Ann Foran.

My paternal great grandmother, Bertha Hawkins, took on the surname of her biological father and became Bertha Dixon.

My father’s name was changed from Barry Flanagan to Barry Hawkins when he was adopted.

My maternal great grandfather changed his name from James Hen to James Hend in the 1890s, when anti-Chinese sentiment was high in Australia.

Search strategies

There are many articles online about search strategies that deal with name variations, so I will just list the key strategies:

  • A Soundex search or wildcard search may pick up variations that are not found using an exact spelling search.
  • Try a surname-only search to avoid variations in first names.
  • Consult lists of common nicknames and abbreviations.
  • Use different repositories (indexes) and sources.
  • Search alphabetical lists to pick up variations you may not have considered, e.g. all surnames starting with Rus.
  • Try common variations, such as single letter, double letter, different vowels and misread letters. Consult spelling substitution lists.


Substantiating conclusions where name variations are involved can be quite a challenge, as they tend to be unpredictable and you will rarely a formal change of name document. I was lucky in two of the four examples I provided above, as the name changes were formally documented in government records.

So, how do you analyse name variations and reach reasonable conclusions that the person is the same or that two people are related, despite the variation?

It helps if you treat name variations as inconsistencies. The Genealogical Proof Standard requires that inconsistencies be resolved. Resolution in this case means establishing that the person is the same in each source and that the name variation is not evidence of a different identity.

Be careful of assumptions. Gather your evidence, rule out other explanations and verify your conclusions.

Record all variations in the name of the person that you are researching and record the name as it was spelled in each source. Of course, you will need to choose one name to be the primary name for your family tree. There is no rule guiding this choice. Perhaps the most common options are to use the name recorded on their birth record, their death record or the name the person used most often.

Analyse name variations using similar strategies that you would use to determine if two people with the same name were same person:

  • gather more sources and more evidence
  • identify the informant and consider how likely it was that their information was reliable
  • consider how the information was recorded
  • correlate the information using reliable sources
  • consider whether the person was in the right place at the right time, if they had the same occupation, were the same religion and so on
  • learn everything you can about the person, look for patterns and investigate any doubts you may have.

Most importantly, put the information into context and broaden your search. Use timelines, sources that record family groups (such as census documents) and apply the FFANs technique (Family, Friends, Associates and Neighbours).

If a name change is linked to an event or identifiable timeframe, find evidence of that event or sources from that time period to see if they explain the name change.

Finally, remember that source citations merely document where you obtained the information, such as how a name was spelled. They do not explain a name variation or provide evidence of identity. You will need additional documentation that sets out the evidence that you relied upon in reaching your conclusion that the person using the different name variations was indeed the same person.

More information

NSW State Archives Change of Name Guide

AIATSIS guide to indigenous names

Baxter, Carol, Help! Why Can’t I Find My Ancestor’s Surname, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Article on the Anglicisation of names


Develop research leads with timelines

Family history research problems are solved by discovering research leads – clues to the information you need to investigate to reach reasonable conclusions. Timelines are an indispensable tool for this purpose.

You use family tree charts. You create family history reports. You use standard numbering systems, a hierarchical format and bullet points.

These formats are very useful for a lot of reasons, but they can also inhibit the creative thinking which is required for problem solving. Which is why we need timelines.

Timelines make you document information in a structured manner that encourages you to see your family history information differently. Timelines structure information by time and location.

Creating a timeline

Family history software and online family tree sites generate automatic timelines for individuals, based on the information you provide.

These simple timelines are useful for standard analysis, but for complex problem solving it is better to create your own.

Timelines created in Excel are perhaps the best option, as they can easily be amended for different questions and circumstances without creating an entirely new timeline. The sort and filter functions of Excel greatly assist with analysis of the data.

A problem solving timeline needs to include family members and associates of the individual who is at the centre of the research question. Information about these family members and associates could be the key to solving the problem.

The essential information for a timeline are:

  • People
  • Place
  • Date
  • Event.

Additional information, such as source citations and notes about your analysis, can also be useful.

Analysing a timeline

When analysing a timeline, ask the following questions to develop new research leads:

Types of errors to look for:

  • baptised before birth
  • buried before dead
  • had a child after they died
  • in two places at one time
  • woman having child after age 50
  • married when aged less than 16
  • had a child before age 16

Use mind mapping for research problems

Mind mapping is a tool for visually displaying information and the relationship between the information. The process of creating a mind map can help the research process and the mind map diagram then forms part of your research documentation.

Mind mapping can be used in family history to:

  • clarify research questions
  • analyse sources, information and evidence
  • develop research leads, and
  • evaluate conclusions.

What is mind mapping?

Mind mapping is a method of generating ideas from a central theme or idea. That central theme or idea is placed in the centre of the page and you work out from that point in all directions to create a diagram of related ideas, keywords, information and questions.


The examples in this post were created using an online mind mapping tool for clarity, but I recommend you try pen and paper as it makes the ideas flow more naturally.

Why use mind mapping?

Solving research problems is not just about gathering more sources. You need to improve your research process through more detailed analysis.

A formula for a better research process

Mind mapping helps you expand your thought processes and generate more ideas. Generating more ideas is central to problem solving.

More sources

To get the best research outcome, you need to conduct a reasonably exhaustive search.

A list of the principles of genealogical research

Mind mapping helps you conduct a reasonably exhaustive search by expanding your list of sources and encouraging you to examine different versions of a source from different repositories.

Illustration of a mind map based on a research question generating a list of sources
Step 1: Put your research question in the centre hub, then add nodes of the hub listing a variety of sources that could provide the necessary information
Illustration of a mind map based on a research question generating a list of repositories
Step 2: For each source, add two or more repositories

More analysis

Before conducting more research, you need to analyse your existing information and your research question. This helps you establish a ‘solid foundation’.

Mind mapping can be used to:

  • question the interpretation of sources you already have and the information and evidence they provide
  • look for inconsistencies
  • assess the reliability of sources and information
  • examine your assumptions and document them clearly
  • generate hypotheses to test.
Analysing a research question and the evidence using a mind map
Extract from a mind map analysis, based on a research question

Solve a research problem by examining what you already know

When you have a research problem, it is tempting to go and gather more sources. What you should do, however, is slow down and prepare before you do any new research.

In my earlier article, How to tackle a research problem, I described the process of analysing and clearly defining a research problem. This process helps you identify more precisely what you are trying to solve, why it is important to solve it and what you need to know.

But you also need to examine what you already know.

Yes, that sounds obvious and I am sure you already do that to some extent. But if you spend more time on this step, you are more likely to have success with your research.

Scoping before you research

Scoping involves gathering and reviewing information that you already have which is relevant to your research problem:

  • your family tree
  • your research notes
  • copies of sources that you already have, such as birth certificates
  • any analyses you have already conducted, such as Tree Health Assessments, mind maps or timelines
  • relevant research plans, and
  • evidence summaries and arguments.
Examine your certificates again, taking note of informants, witnesses, occupations, locations and any other research clue.

If you are using DNA evidence, gather:

  • a list of your matches at fourth cousin or closer
  • predictions of ethnicity
  • any predictions or hints provided, such as ThruLines and Common Ancestor predictions, and
  • any DNA analyses that you have already conducted.
Check all the DNA research hints for research leads to be investigated

Analyse all of this information in depth to develop new research leads:

  • Is the information relevant to your problem?
  • How complete is the information?
  • How adequate are the sources you have used?
  • How reliable is the information?
  • What conclusions have you already reached?
  • How reasonable are your conclusions?
  • Does the existing information, or your conclusions, raise any doubts or concerns?
  • Where are the gaps in your research?
  • How does your family tree, and your conclusions, compare with other researchers?
Start with a solid foundation

Scoping helps to establish a solid foundation of knowledge from which you can identify research leads and conduct new research.

If you are prepared to spend more time on scoping, you will probably find information that you did not notice before, or had forgotten; as well as gaps and inconsistencies. Use that information and analyses to revise your research questions and your research plans.