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Sources and Evidence

There are hundreds of sources you should consider to help you in your family history search.  Each source will provide you with some kind of evidence you want to document a family event. A family history is born from events that occur in the family; a birth, marriage, or death.  A researcher should understand that there are differences between the source and the evidence. 

The source can be anything.   It is any method by which you obtain your information.   It can be a document, or a story from a relative.    Sources will have levels of accuracy and are either original or secondary.

Original sources are made by someone who was present at or near the time of the event;  a death certificate produced by a physician.   Most genealogists will considers a photocopy of an original document an original source.  Secondary sources are those that were created much later, and are not original; a published family history, and extracts of records for example.

Evidence is something that provides proof of a question, or event.  It establishes the fact of the event.   The evidence produced by the source also has levels of degrees.  It is either primary or secondary evidence

The primary evidence is evidence that can stand-alone or is firsthand, and is directly related to the event.  It answers a question for an event.  When was the death, for example.  The death certificate becomes the original source with the primary evidence, for the date of death.

Not all events can be proven with original sources.  Secondary sources have to be used because no original source might have been available at the time of the event.   These secondary sources provide secondary evidence or a conclusion to be inferred about the event.   Secondary evidence will not give you a specific fact, but rather allows you to come to a conclusion.  It is compiled from other sources or from a source written long after the event occurred.  For example, a census record, an original source, can give you information for the child's birth, which is the secondary evidence.

An example of both would be that a death certificate that could provide you with a date of birth.  It is a secondary source and secondary evidence to a birth, but an original source and primary evidence of the death.

A genealogist must be very careful of secondary sources.  More than one secondary source should be used for evidence, and the evidence should not come from the same source.   For example, a date of death given in a newspaper article that was used as the source in a written family history.  You have no idea if the date given in the newspaper article is correct.  There might have been a typographical error in printing, and you have no idea what source was used.

You may wonder why know all this?  As a genealogist doing your family history, you are keeping a record of your family's important events, a record of your ancestors and decedents.  You want this record to be accurate, and you want the proof of the events to a degree of certainty.   You do this with sources that will provide evidence and proof.  Your work will be judged by the records that you use to prove an event.   Be sure to keep accurate and organized records, and cite your records in your work.

*This information researched and written by Susanne M. Saether
Email: Susanne


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