Is my source the document or where I obtained it?



Up until now, I have recorded the source of an event, such as marriage, as where I obtained the document eg Registry of Births Deaths Marriages, date obtained and respective location. I then include the Certificate type, registration number, town etc in my notes.

I have been considering this lately and wonder if the Marriage Certificate, in this example, would be the Source and my notes reflect where I obtained the document.


Posted 2019-04-02T03:37:17.487

Reputation: 1 102

2Your source is the document. Where you obtained it is a repository. No time now but I'll work this up into an answer if nobody beats me to it, later – ColeValleyGirl – 2019-04-02T05:28:47.607

@ColeValleyGirl -- The Repository is where the original document lives. Where you obtained it might be the repository, but it might not be. We desperately need a good term for 'source-of-source' aka 'where I got it'. I tend to use the term 'vendor' from my retail background but that is far from ideal. – Jan Murphy – 2019-04-02T17:10:35.313

Sorry @JanMurphy The repository is where the document you consulted lives, not the original document. The two may be the same but often aren't -- if I consult an image at Findmypast, that is the repository for that image -- the source of a source may be at the Worcester archives, but the repository for what I consulted is Findmypast. – ColeValleyGirl – 2019-04-02T17:12:15.153

@ColeValleyGirl Whichever side of the 'Ancestry is not a repository' chasm you fall on (I've argued both ways over time), the principle is 'cite what you see'. I hope we can agree on that! – Jan Murphy – 2019-04-02T18:02:38.837

@Jan absolutely -- cite what you see. – ColeValleyGirl – 2019-04-02T18:05:32.090

At risk of being shuffled off into Chat, finding out where the original document lives is becoming fraught. Some of our paper census documents live down a salt mine just up the road from me. Which? No idea. The paper 1939 Register for England & Wales seems still to be at Southport, nowhere near Kew who accessioned a digital version of it. If you correctly cite what you see then the most useful thing is to record where you got it from. Ancestry or Chester Register Office or... For a short time I recorded where it was as "My Shelf" but swiftly concluded this to be no help to anyone. – AdrianB38 – 2019-04-02T18:33:41.763

@AdrianB38 I do sometimes cite the repository as 'Personal holdings of <person X>' -- for unique documents that nobody else has an version of that seems the most useful thing to do. – ColeValleyGirl – 2019-04-02T18:56:16.580

@ColeValleyGirl - for stuff like family Bibles, medals, diaries, that's sensible. However, I was citing BMD certificates as "My Shelf" until I realized how pointless it was. – AdrianB38 – 2019-04-02T19:00:01.563



My recommendation for source material is to record the source document as a source in your source list, and link that to the person/place/website where you got it as a repository in your list of repositories. This is the way the GEDCOM specifications recommends. Most genealogy software at least loosely follows GEDCOM and will keep your sources and your repositories separate for you.

GEDCOM Version 5.5.1 defines a repository in two parts:

A Repository Record: contains the name and address record of the holder of the source document. Source repositories can be formal or informal. "Informal repositories include owner's of an unpublished work or of a rare published source, or a keeper of personal collections. An example would be the owner of a family Bible containing unpublished family genealogical entries."

A Source Repository Citation: is a pointer from the source record to the Repository Record along with all the information and notes to describe how to find the source in the repository (e.g. call number, specific url, etc.)

So you've got:

United States Census, 1910:  is your source document
Page 31, Line 10:  is your "where within source" description  is your repository
Specific url:  is your source repository citation

For an informal source:

Smith Family Bible:  is your source document
Page 14, paragraph 3:  is your "where within source" description
Mabel Smith:  is your repository (person you got it from)
Received from Mabel in 1984 at her house, 111 Front St, London

What is extremely useful to do when you know it, is to record the source of the source. If for example, the source itself indicates it was obtained from somewhere else, you should add a source and repository for where it came from.

This is important to do when obtaining informal information, such as an email that states that the birth date supplied was from the person's birth certificate. Or that a specific piece of information from an online family tree was taken from another specified family tree or maybe from an interview of a specific relative or maybe from a document you do not have access to.

By recording sources (and repositories) of sources, and possibly even carrying that through 2 or 3 or more levels (source of the source of the source of the...), you can build up of master list of sources and repositories, some of which you have personally seen (be sure to note when you obtained/saw each one), and others which you will one day attempt to inspect yourself if possible. This would allow you to verify that the secondary source correctly interpreted and presented the record and also allow you to see if there may be other pertinent information in the primary source that the secondary source did not provide.

Followup: (This is in response to Adrian's comment regarding personal holdings and ColeValleyGirl's note that it should be used for unique documents that no one else has.)

The repository that you supply should be where you got the item, but only if that place still has the item and a researcher would still be able to find it there.

If the item has disappeared, or it is a unique item that was passed to you, then you should state yourself "Personal holding of …" as the repository, and indicate (in a source of the source) where you got it from with a note that the original source is no longer available and when it became no longer available.

This will often apply to websites, people who pass away, records that are lost, etc.


Posted 2019-04-02T03:37:17.487

Reputation: 16 148

A (possibly) special case of personal holdings are e-mails. In general, downstream researchers won't be able to see e-mails that were sent (or forwarded) to you, so it's important to cut and paste the citable portions into the citation text. It's a little funny that information imparted via a phone conversation is treated as an "interview with", but e-mails are treated like letters. – cleaverkin – 2019-04-02T20:02:26.800

"The repository that you supply should be where you got the item, but only if that place still has the item and a researcher would still be able to find it there."

I assume this is at time of aquiring. Should anything be done if it was identified some time in the future that the document was no longer available from the repository? – Darren – 2019-04-02T22:14:57.640

"What is extremely useful to do when you know it, is to record the source of the source. If for example, the source itself indicates it was obtained from somewhere else, you should add a source and repository for where it came from." I am not sure how I would link one source to another, using as example Family Historian, Roots Magic, Find My Past. – Darren – 2019-04-02T22:20:27.503

Good points, Darren. 1. Well, we specify where someone can find the source when we document it. We can't spend all our time after that continuously checking if all our sources are still valid. But if we do happen to find one or more have changed, we should then update them, noting when the item became no longer available. 2. Most programs will not have direct ways to record a source of a source. But if your program lets you link more than one repository to a source, you can use that. Otherwise, you could use the note field in the source and/or repository citation to indicate the linkage. – lkessler – 2019-04-03T04:47:26.687

1Re 1 - future non availability from a repository. In my view there is no obligation on anyone to keep checking where sources are. Should you happen to find out that a repository has closed, say, then it's entirely reasonable to make some sort of note - perhaps add "closed" in () to the repository name. However, I would not alter the repository from the old to the new value as this implies that you've seen the source there, which simply isn't true - the risk is that the documents saying what's moved where are wrong - stick to informal notes – AdrianB38 – 2019-04-03T09:31:24.400


  • Re Source of the Source. It would be nice to daisy chain them, but I don't know of any software that can. In my software, Family Historian, the publication data for a source record gets a lot bundled into it. For instance, I might say that something was published by "FindMyPast, collection 'Wessex parish registers', citing indexing by FamilySearch of transcript by Fred Bloggs, 1890, of lost original". Yes, it's a free format essay and I could probably tighten that particular example up given time, but that's the basic idea.
  • < – AdrianB38 – 2019-04-03T09:44:18.640