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

Methodology, Sources and resources

Study the locations where your family lived

Researching the places where your families lived can add depth to their stories but there is a more important reason for doing location research. Sources about your families vary by location and you can use your knowledge of locations to find sources and help you identify which sources are likely to supply the best information.

Researching locations

Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are unsure about the location of a place. In addition to maps, it also provides helpful information the history and geography of an area. However, it rarely has much detail about historical jurisdictions and genealogical sources, so you will need to dig deeper.

The FamilySearch wiki is, in my view, the best place to start when researching locations for family history. It has a page for each country, with maps, research guidance and information about how jurisdictions have changed over time.

Cyndi’s List is another great resource. It contains lists of websites by location. See for example, the list for Poland.

Recording information about locations

Where do you store all the information you gather about a location?

My preference is to incorporate as much of my research as possible within my family history software, as that makes it easier for me to find and use. Fortunately, I use Legacy Family Tree and it allows you to attach notes and media to each location. You can access this feature by clicking on a location then selecting Edit, or by opening the Location Master List and editing the location from there. You can then print out the Location Master List with the notes, by ticking the box that says ‘include location notes’.

Extract from a Location Master List in Legacy Family Tree software, illustrating how notes can be added to a location

I also have a folder on my computer called Places, with subfolders for each of the countries or continents that my ancestors came from or lived in. I store copies of documents about those places in these folders, such as maps and research guides.

You could use a spreadsheet in Excel (or similar program) to summarise the key information about locations, such as the commencement of civil registration, languages spoken and addresses of repositories. If you are not keen on Excel, Word or PowerPoint could also be used.

Recording your location research online has the added benefit of making your research available to you wherever you go, provided you have an internet connection. Online family trees tend to be person-focused with little to no scope for adding location notes. However, you could create a free-space profile on Wikitree, create your own website, store your files in cloud storage, or just rely on the FamilySearch wiki place page.

Whichever method you use, it is a good idea to have a standard format, as that makes the information easier to locate and compare information. The FamilySearch wiki place pages provide a good model for the types of information you might like to gather when researching locations, such as maps, a list of states/regions/provinces, record types available, gazetteers, history, jurisdictions, languages, social life and customs, local research resources, societies, online resources such as websites and Facebook pages. You might also like to include lists of books, journals, journal articles.

Sources and resources

Citing an archival source

One of the challenges when using archives is how to cite their materials as the source of your information. Archival materials are unpublished and come in a wide range of formats. In addition, each archive organises their collections differently, so you need to investigate their organisational system and the identifiers that they use in their catalogue.

Citation format

My usual method for citing sources is to use the following six questions and place the answers in that general order in a citation. This puts the author in first place, which is useful in a bibliography that is sorted alphabetically.

My six question model for source citations:

  1. Whose work is it (author)?      
  2. What is it?                      
  3. Who created it (if not the author)?
  4. Where was it created?
  5. When was it created?
  6. Are there any additional details required to find it again?    

This method does work for archival sources, as shown by the following examples:

An unpublished diary held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

John Augustus Milbourne Marsh, unpublished journal commences 1 September 1848 on ship from England to Australia, Item 2/301, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

A photograph held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

Anonymous, John Willoughby Bean (b1881 Bathurst NSW Australia), unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

However, some archives suggest a different citation structure. They suggest that the name of the institution or repository be in first place in the citation, followed by descriptor information such as the record series and alphanumerical codes used in their catalogues.

Some, such as the NSW State Archives and the UK National Archives, omit the name of the creator of the source altogether or suggest that the information is optional in a citation. I do not agree with this. It is important in family history to understand who created a source and naming them in a citation should not be optional. It is also important to understand the nature of the source and a citation without the title of the item does not meet our needs.

Putting the repository in first place is not a problem if the creator of the source is clearly named, such as in this example from the NSW State Archives:

NSW State Archives: Supreme Court of NSW, Probate Division; NRS 13660, Probate packets. Series 4-152266 James Smith Hollisen – Date of Death 15/12/1927, Granted On 26/06/1928.

Further guidance

If you are using material from a family history archive, you may be able to gather information to help with your citation by examining other material that was donated with it, and looking for a record of who donated the material and whose family history it belongs to.

Some archives provide guidelines for citing their materials. You should use their guidelines, but bear in mind my suggestions in this article about providing more information about the creator of the materials and a clear description of the materials.

When creating a source citation for archival material, remember the reasons for source citations and include all the necessary information to achieve those purposes. You might like to read my earlier blog posts on this topic: Four good reasons, Part 1; Four good reasons, Part 2.

A few archival guidelines:

National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet No. 7, Citing archival records.

NSW State Archives

UK National Archives

Sources and resources

Explore the photographic collections of archives and libraries

Photographs make a wonderful contribution to a family history, but not all of us are lucky enough to have a large collection of family photos. Fortunately, we can use the collections of archives and libraries to supplement any photographs that we may have.

It is possible that an archive or library may hold photographs of your family, particularly if they are local to the areas in which they lived. The chances are fairly slim, but don’t let that stop you from trying!

Do not despair if you cannot find family photographs, as there are others that can be useful in your research. Photographs of places where your ancestors may have lived, for example, are a great way to get a feel for what their lives were like.

You should also look for photographs of unrelated people who lived around the same times and localities, as they can provide information about your ancestors’ lifestyle, such as the hairstyles and clothing styles that were in trend at the time or the types of homes they may have lived in. Examining photographs of people with similar occupations may also provide useful insights. Just be aware that there would be differences depending upon income and cultural group, and that a single photograph is not evidence of a lifestyle.

Many archives and libraries hold collections of photographs. Here a just a few Australian examples:

The Pictures collection of the National Library of Australia focuses on Australian people, places and events, from early European exploration of the South Pacific to contemporary events. Search their catalogue using the advanced search option and limit the format option to ‘picture’. Type in your search term and date range. If the image has been digitised you should be able to view it online.

It is difficult for me to choose a highlight from such a large collection, but perhaps you might be interested in their collection of photographs by John Mulligan, if you are researching Australia in the 1960s. For my own research, I found some great photographs about the early tobacco industry in Australia.

State Libraries also have large photographic collections. The NSW State Library, for example, holds over two million photographs documenting the lives of past and present Australians, their society and buildings and landscapes. They also have digital images of artwork, some of which cover the period before photography was available. Search their catalogue and limit the format option to ‘picture’. The catalogue contains information about whether you can view an image online or in person.

My favourite photographs in the NSW State Library are the Holtermann Collection of the goldfields in the 1870s, but you should also check out the First Fleet artists and their collections about the immigration experience.

Schoolboys and teachers, Hill End 1870s, Holtermann Collection, Mitchell Library (NSW State Library) (Identifier YOKBGLV1)

Archives also collect photographs, although their collections are often smaller than the libraries and they may not have as many available online. The NSW State Archives, for example, has thousands of photographs produced by government agencies. Some of their photographs are published on Flickr and some are available online through the NSW State Library catalogue.

My favourites in the NSW State Archives are photographs around Sydney Harbour (NSW), particularly the Industrial School ships, the Vernon and Sobraon.

Family history libraries and archives may also hold photographs. The archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists, for example, has over 40,000 photographs. Unlike the libraries mentioned above, their collection is not limited to Australia and you will find photographs of places such as England, Ireland and Scotland. You can search the catalogue using the advanced search option and limit the results by setting the classification to ‘photographs’. The society’s photographs are not available to view online, but you can order copies through the catalogue or make arrangements to view them in person.

My favourite photo in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists is this one (below), but other favourites can be viewed on the Highlights page.

Daguerreotype c1847, probably John Marsh, Harrison collection in the Society of Australian Genealogists (being accessioned)

Don’t forget to explore online archives too. The Internet Archive, for example, has over four million images. You can also extract copies of photographs from the digital books that they hold. This website will probably be of more use for generic photographs of places, or activities such as logging or carpentry.

Using the images

One of the benefits of using photographs from a library collection is that they have been catalogued by a professional librarian and the catalogue entry provides all the information you need for a decent source citation and caption. The quality of catalogue entries for archives is variable and may not provide you with sufficient details.

Libraries and archives usually do not provide specific copyright information for each photograph. It is up to you as the user to determine whether copyright applies and to comply with the applicable regulations. In Australia, photographs taken before 1955 are out of copyright. However, copyright is not an issue if you are just using the photograph for research purposes and do not publish it. Putting a photograph online is usually considered publishing.

Even if there are no copyright restrictions, a library or archive may still request that you acknowledge them if you use a photograph from their collection. See, for example, this page from the NSW State Library about copyright and acknowledgements.