A better method of family history research is to use both these types of sources together in an analytical way, using knowledge of the sources to examine and weigh up the evidence you’re presented with. Start with the facts presented in primary resources, but be aware that there can be mistakes in them, even official sources such as birth certificates, and that conflicting evidence occurs sometimes because of simple clerical errors.
Reading this magazine and other expert advice in books, or by taking a course, will give you a great all-round knowledge of genealogy, and so you’ll know which indexes and databases are the most reliable.
However, any evidence is only as good as the person providing it and the further away evidence is from an original document, or the person you seek, the less weight in general you can put on it.
Once you’ve gathered up all your information, take time to analyse the detail provided by each document and record it in turn. Any trees drawn up by other people that do not show where the information comes from should be put to one side and treated with caution, as well as information taken only from an index, such as the parish register indexes on familysearch.org.
To help you get your thoughts in order, write a chronology of events, and make a note beside each event to say where the information has come from. Remember that websites by themselves are not sources, but are publishers of information, acting rather like libraries, so make sure you include greater detail such as type of record, its date, where the original is held, and an archive reference code as opposed to a web address.
Start with the GRO certificates you have acquired and write down the people, event date and the exact addresses. Then comes the census, any probate documents, images of original parish register entries and other authenticated images of original documents. These will form the basis and backbone of your ‘case’.
Next, add in the information from anything that remains without a source, such as the family tree, any family stories as well as index information that needs to be checked with the original, like parish register information, or details from the GRO index to BMDs. These need to be followed up but they still count as clues. Add them to the chronology with a note about needing verification.
Now you will have both primary and secondary information in your chronology and can begin to tease out the possible and the probable from the impossible and improbable. If there are conflicts in the evidence, it is now simple to examine the sources side by side and consider which source is more likely to be correct.
Your evidence is only as good as the person that is providing it