Sunday, September 15, 2013

Questions about evidence and sources

Ann asks:
”In reviewing your blog this morning I have two questions.  How do you define direct or indirect evidence? Also, is a copy of a census report, marriage license, etc. on the internet considered an original source?”

Direct evidence is something that answers the research question directly. Indirect evidence is two or more pieces of evidence that answer the question indirectly. For example, let’s say your research question is, “Who was John Doe’s father?”  If James Doe’s will states, “And to my son John…” Then you have direct evidence that James is John’s father.

Think of indirect evidence as circumstantial evidence.  Here are the indirect evidence pieces to the puzzle.

  • James was the right age to have been John’s father.
  • There are no other Does in the same county that are the right age to be John’s father.
  • In the 1840 census there is a child in James’ household that was the right age to have been John.
  • John and James lived on adjacent pieces of property.
  • James was listed as a witness on John’s marriage license and several deeds
  • John was the administrator of James’ intestate estate.

None of these things by themselves answers the research question directly, however, you can take several pieces of indirect evidence and build your case.

Now to your second question.  Digital images and photocopies are considered original sources as long as you are convinced that the image has been reproduced faithfully and that there have been no alterations.

There is another type of copy that you need to be aware of and that is handwritten copies.  For example, when someone wrote a will you do not see that original will in the will book. What you are looking at is a copy that the clerk made. The person who wrote the will kept the will.  When the man died, the executor would present the original will in court. You will sometimes find the original will in the loose probate files.  That is why when you look at a will book, you see the signatures of the testator and the witnesses in the clerk’s hand and the word {seal} next to them. The county clerk signed the men’s names for them on the copy in the book. If you were to look at the original will it would have the signatures of the actual men so you want to check the loose probate packets.  You always want to check the loose probate files anyway because you never know what little goodies you might find.  You have this with deeds too. The original deed was in the possession of the person that owned the property. The clerk made a copy in the deed book.  These are still considered original documents because they were recopied by someone whose job it was to render the information accurately. Unless you have some reason to suspect that the copy has been altered in some way you can label it original.

Another thing you need to be aware of are tax lists and census records. If you see a tax list that is in alphabetical order it has been recopied by the tax assessor. Census records were often recopied.  If you are doing an evidence analysis you might want to note the possibility that these were copies so that your reader is more clear on the situation.   I label these as derivative because there is no way to know if the person that originally took down the information is the same person that recopied it. 

[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 29-31, sections 1.24, 1.25, 1.26, 1.27.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. ok a question about scanned image as original source as you stated here
    "Digital images and photocopies are considered original sources as long as you are convinced that the image has been reproduced faithfully and that there have been no alterations.[1]"
    would you consider cropping lets say a 1920 census that was originally microfilmed to where it is only the census and not all the black border from the microfilm alteration of the census and/or with todays programs clearing up the image, i.e. sharpening or adjusting the darkness/contrast to make image more readable a case where it is no longer original?

  2. Cropping off the black border caused by microfilming isn't much of an issue but when you start making enhancements then you are on thin ice:) I would definitely make a note of this in the source citation that the image was enhanced to make it more readable. The risk you run into is when you use photo editing software it does change the image. There is a chance that it would alter it enough that you would start seeing things that really aren't there or miss things that are. Let's say you were looking at the actual census page (the paper version) and the name you see is Ball. Looking at the page it looks just fine. Then the page is microfilmed and then a digital image is created. Then you enhance it and now it looks like Bell. At that point it is definitely derivative. Putting a correct name on the type of evidence isn't as critical as understanding what things can affect the quality of the image and being able to assess whether or not you have any of those issues.