I’m writing a book on Advanced Family History for The History Press which is due out at next year’s Who Do You Think You Are Show and I’ve spent some time thinking about what records are and why we keep them. I could find very little written about this topic at least in regard to post-medieval records. In the end the paragraphs below didn’t make it into the book, but I share them below in case readers have any comments:
Records can perhaps be divided into two types active and passive. We might say that they are active when they provide evidence that a particular action took place and was recorded be for legal, business or personal purposes. From July 1837, for example, births, marriages and deaths have had to be registered by law in England and Wales. And it is basic business practice to note down when invoices are issued and paid. Photographs, letters and memoirs are also records of evidence as they confirm a particular event. A family holiday may be recorded in postcards, photographs and even remembered in an autobiography written years after the event. Active records, because they record actions or decisions, are more likely to survive than passive records.
Passive records those which were used for planning and analysis, where the evidence of a particular action is not required or assumed. Any notes you make while working out where ancestors should sit on the family tree fall into this category. More seriously The National Archives has file after detailed file planning the D-Day landings in 1944, in which almost every eventuality was accounted for. And afterwards it is often sensible to analyse what went well and what didn’t, so that lessons can be learnt for the future. War diaries are kept, for example, so that official historians can examine what each unit did under fire. Also included are working papers, such as drafts of novels or scientific workings.
Occasionally there are overlaps when sets of records fulfil both functions. Account books not only record payments made and received but can be analysed to reveal a company’s or a family’s financial state of health (see below). RAF Squadron Records Books record each operational flight made by individual aircraft and show which aircrew flew in which plane. But they were have been examined by academics studying particular campaigns or losses of aircraft Indeed they are divided into the daily “Summary of Events” forms (Form 540) and the more analytical “Detail of Work Carried Out” forms (Form 541).
A particular study might well involve both types of records. Research into the loss of The Titanic could use the blueprints of the ship’s construction and the voluminous enquiries into the disaster conducted by the Board of Trade and the US Senate, which are both examples of passive records of planning and analysis. Also under consideration might be the passenger and crew lists and copies of wireless messages, which are active records, showing who was on board, the survivors and those who drowned, and that messages had successfully been sent.
Traditionally historical sources have roughly divided into two: primary and secondary. According to Arthur Marwick: “primary sources are sources which came into the actual period of the past which the historian is studying, they are relics and traces left by the past while secondary sources are those accounts written later by historians looking back upon a period in the past.”
In practice, primary sources might be regarded as being original material, such as registers and files, while secondary sources is material which provides background rather than unique information about your ancestors. Unique is the key word here for secondary material is usually printed and available in multiple copies in libraries and elsewhere. Reference books, for example, are secondary material. There is some overlap, such newspapers and directories which can provide unique information about individuals but which are available in multiple copies.
I am not sure that the divide between primary and secondary sources means very much in family history. Our interests and goals are very different to those of traditional historians. We are less concerned with secondary sources, for example, as we are searching for names which may not always be found in reference books. More importantly the divide is meaningless for a number of key genealogical resources, such as newspapers and directories. As printed items both newspapers and directories are not unique (a criteria of secondary sources), but they refer to contemporaneous events (so primary).
The divide in genealogical record sources should perhaps be between “direct” and “indirect” sources. Direct sources are by far the most important because they directly describe our ancestors. Photographs reveal what our ancestors looked like, baptismal registers record individual baptisms, while muster rolls list sailors and soldiers one by one. Directories and newspapers are also direct sources, because they include names, but both of course they can be used indirectly. For example directories often include descriptions of the towns which they are covering as well as list all the innkeepers, while newspapers will graphically describe the flood in which an individual was drowned.
Indirect sources are unlikely to mention individual ancestors, but can provide important background about their lives. War diaries and regimental histories may well describe a unit’s activities but not mention individuals, although they are a key source to understanding an uncle or grandfather’s wartime experiences. Maps too are important as they can show the area where an aunt lived or the land she owned. You are unlikely to use indirect resources when you begin your family tree, but you may turn to them as your research progresses or if you decide to research an interesting forebear in depth.