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:

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.

Sources and resources

Going beyond online family trees

Most of us consult online family trees on sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch, but there are other places to find family trees too – in family histories that have been deposited in libraries and archives.

Compiled family histories are a great resource, because they don’t just contain family trees. They may also have associated materials such as letters and original documents. This extra information provides context – the histories behind the trees. It may also provide extra evidence to support or refute your conclusions and extra details to enrich your stories.

Where do you find compiled family histories?

Libraries that specialise in family history tend to have the largest collections of compiled family histories. In Australia, for example, the Society of Australian Genealogists’ library contains close to 5000 published family histories and the Genealogical Society of Victoria holds over 2000. Local libraries and large generalist libraries may also contain some, but their family history collections tend to focus on ‘how-to’ books and registers, rather than the end result of research.  

Archives may also hold compiled family histories and family history collections that contain family trees, but it depends on the purpose of the archives. Again, the archives of family history organisations are your best bet for finding compiled family histories.

Online collections of books, such as the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust and Google Books, are also good places to search for family histories. The relevance of these books to your research will vary depending on which countries you are researching. For example, I haven’t found much relating to my Australian research but I have found some great resources for my Jamaican research.

FamilySearch has been digitising family histories in its own collection and collections of major libraries and research partners. They have over 375,000 digitised publications in their Digital Library.

The FamilySearch wiki also provides information about compiled family histories for some locations. See for example, United States Compiled Genealogies.

Accessing compiled family histories

The biggest challenge in accessing compiled family histories is identifying them in the catalogue. It is pointless searching for ‘family history’ or ‘genealogy’ as that search will bring up all books in the field, including guides and indexes.

Family history libraries do tend to make clearer distinctions in their catalogues between different types of family history books and may even give compiled family histories a separate classification to help you find them.

Archives tend to allow you to search their catalogues for your ancestors by name, which may help you find compiled family histories; and some libraries (such as the Genealogical Society of Victoria) have an online name index that achieves the same outcome.

Accessing digital copies of compiled family histories can present a challenge, due to copyright restrictions. Older publications are easier, as they are out of copyright. I find that visiting a family history library in person is usually the best way to access compiled family histories.

Family history indexes provide bibliographies of published family histories. Some countries have published indexes and some have online indexes. In Australia, for example, Family History Connections has an online index of over 10,000 titles. Indexes are great tools and may help you overcome the deficiencies in library catalogues.

Using compiled family histories

Compiled family histories are derivative sources and their contents need to be treated as research leads, not as ‘truth’ or ‘fact’.

If you use the stories in compiled family histories in your own work, don’t forget to include an appropriate source citation.