Categories of Genealogical Information

There are three main categories of genealogical information: primary, secondary, and indeterminable.

  • Primary information is information reported by an eyewitness to the event, either at the time of the event or many years later. Therefore, is a death record recorded four days later by two men who lived on the same street as the deceased primary information? I would say for the death date, yes. If they didn’t directly see the person slip from life’s grasp, then they likely saw the priest arrive to give the final sacraments, heard the weeping, or saw the civil official come to verify the death. That is primary information of the deceased’s death date.
  • Secondary information is hearsay. Therefore, an Italian-American descendant who says the Mafia killed their great-grandfather in Palermo in 1904 is likely stating information they heard passed down through their family. Unless they have the death record providing evidence of the ancestor’s violent death in this city or some Italian court records documenting the murder, then it is likely hearsay.
  • Indeterminable information comes when we cannot determine who might have been the informant, therefore making it impossible to say with any accuracy what type of information it might be. In the death record example above, would a neighbor have primary information of the deceased’s parent’s names? Maybe or maybe not, making this information indeterminable or at the best, secondary, if it can be determined that they were told the information by someone else.

As in U.S. documents, different pieces of information within a record can be different types of information. Cultural context and the practices behind the records need to be considered.