Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Types of Records and Resources

Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

RObert WilbanksIn our everyday lives, we find paperwork to regularly be an overwhelming part of our day-to-day living. Whether dealing with the bank, the doctor, insurance companies, or filing a new deed, probating a will, filing for Social Security, or serving in the military, the bureaucratic process infiltrates every part of our daily existence. Throughout history, bureaucracy is an integral constant in any country around the world.

The fact is, as much as we hate it in our everyday lives, bureaucracy is a genealogist’s best friend. The bureaucratic process generates a great wealth of documents. A vast number of records. Records filled with detailed information about an individual or a family, their actions, their needs, and more. Many of these records become the primary resources for genealogical research. So it becomes important to fully understand what records are and how we interpret and use them.

Records primarily come in two types: Private and Public. They can be almost anything, in any format, from any place, in any time, recording any kind of information.

Private records are resources created by individuals, businesses, institutions or organizations that generate paperwork for record keeping purposes. There is no connection to any government agency. Examples of private records include the family bible, photo album, church records, medical records, mortuary and funeral homes, newspapers, and fraternal organizations, just to name a few.

Public records are documents created by government. These records are created by varying agencies at different levels of government and localities. Sometimes the same kind of information is collected through varying departments and jurisdictions; creating potential redundancy. Examples of public records include birth or death certificates, census records, military records, wills, deeds, tax records, and much more.

When it comes to these records, any records, we must become aware of the potential issues of completeness, legibility, accuracy, damage, destruction, loss, existence, availability, and accessibility. Additionally, if the records are created by national or local government, then we must be aware of the laws related to freedom of information, combined with the laws related to privacy, thus creating the understanding as to what records are open access or restricted.

The key problems with any records is determining whether they were created in the first place, and whether they still exist and are available to genealogists for research purposes. Before beginning any research, we must learn about the different types of records created by different institutions, organizations and government bodies with relation to localities, jurisdictions and government agencies. Location becomes significant whether it is a county or state in the United States, or the distinction between an ecclesiastical or civil division in Scotland. We also must learn where those records may be stored over the course of time, whether the documents are still current and unavailable, or have been designated and stored as historical and are available for access.

When using these records as part of family research, it is critical to not limit your understanding of the records from a strictly genealogists approach; meaning don’t strictly view records for the individual or family information you might find. These records were not created with the genealogical researcher in mind. Each type of record created served a different purpose or function. It is important to understand the context of that original purpose. From this additional approach, unique individual or family information can be understood directly or by implication

And lastly, it is extremely important to be able to determine the quality of the information found in each and every document and record. This quality of information is extremely critical. Our ancestors were imperfect, and therefore the information found must be deemed useable within reason. All records, and the information they contain, must be carefully assessed in whole, or in part, as either Primary or Secondary.

The term ‘primary’ refers to records, or the information contained therein, as being contemporary, or directly relevant, to the time of the recorded act or event in question. In other words, the information is specifically related to the event in question, being recorded nearly immediately at the time of the event. Thus it can be viewed as more likely factual, and thus more reliable.

Whereas the term ‘secondary’ refers to information being recorded much later, long after the actual event occurred, relying on the memory of one or more persons who were directly there, or relying on someone who heard the information secondhand from someone else who claimed to be there. Thus, this information can be viewed as either potentially reliable or highly questionable.

One of the best examples of the distinction between primary and secondary is the information provided in a death certificate. While the document itself would be categorized as primary, because of the document purpose directly related to the event of death and recorded at the time of death, the information within can be both primary and secondary. The information provided by the doctor as to date, time and cause of death would clearly be deemed primary. While the information regarding the decedent’s birth and parentage should be viewed as secondary. That information is not being provided by the decedent, but instead is being provided secondhand by someone who wasn’t present at the time of birth, or is providing the information in a grief-stricken state of mind, or whose memory has faded.

Clearly understanding these many facets regarding the records and documents used in genealogy is extremely important. Each and every record must be correctly accounted for, understood, assessed and referenced in order to research and record a more accurate family history.