In this post I share my thoughts on some confusing concepts in genealogy – original and derivative records; negative evidence; primary, secondary, and indeterminable information – all by looking at one original record from the BC archives.
Genealogy Search – BC Archives
Those of us fortunate to research in British Columbia rely on the Royal BC Museum and Archives for its free genealogy search tool. It’s simple to use: enter any combination of first and last name, location of event, and gender to access indexed results. Many records are digitized but today I’d like to talk about the indices.
An indexed record is a transcript of parts of the original record that have been entered into a database. To go further, someone or something read the original record and recorded the results into a computer. This transcribing process is subject to errors. For example, this is a record for Wing Yim Yip, aged forty-one, who died in Vancouver on 31 Oct 1947. There are three identification numbers about the source: a Registration Number, a BC Archives Mfilm number, and a GSU (Genealogical Society of Utah) Mfilm number, which suggests the records have either been digitized twice, or that the Family History Library assigned its own coding system. There is no link to the record online. I hesitated in requesting this record for two years, unsure if it was my uncle or not. Most of the details fit but for the age: Yim was twenty-one when he died.
What is a derivative record, again?
A derivative record is a transcript, translation, abstract, or original that has been amended. An index is a transcript, therefore a derivative of the original record. The BC archives index result shown above is a derivative record.
I looked for the record in Ancestry. In the “British Columbia, Canada, Death Index, 1872-1990,” I located this result. It’s also derivative, meaning not the original, but this index adds a birth year of “abt 1926,” and the age at death is different: “twenty-one.” This difference in age at death suggests that Ancestry was not relying on the transcribed information from the BC archives, and the matching microfilm numbers show this index is derived from the same source(s).
My third site to look is FamilySearch. In the “Canada, British Columbia Death Registrations, 1872-1986; 1992-1993,” is this indexed result. It’s still a derivative record, but there’s more information: birth date, father’s name, mother’s name, correct age, and six total identification numbers about the microfilmed source. This extra information suggests that FamilySearch did its own indexing from the original records, and the matching GSU Mfilm number shows the same source.
I acquired the original record directly from the BC archives, for a fee.
An original record is the first written report of an event. Genealogical Proof Standards accept a microfilmed copy of an original record as an “original,” provided you also consider what errors might have been introduced in the process of copying. I have studied this record, a scan of a microfilm of the original, and it is a clear and legible copy I can accept as an original record. You should always try to acquire the original record to get as close as possible to the primary information, and to gather all the information possible, not only from what is written or typed, but also comparing handwriting, condition of the record, and any notes added in the margins. For example, there is a Birth Identity number stamped and written at the top of the page. You can tell it was added after the record was created because it’s crooked and cramped. It looks like the clerk went through a pile of records with a hand stamp for the words “BIRTH IDENTITY No._____” and then later, possibly much later, the handwritten portion was added.
In this excerpt may be seen at least eighteen pieces of information. Note the handwriting is dissimilar between the birth identity number and the answers to questions one through four. Also note the negative evidence – the lack of an entry – in the box “In Canada (if immigrant)” – showing that Yim was not an immigrant. Now let’s talk about primary, secondary, and indeterminable information and who is answering the questions: the informant.
Is it primary or secondary information: who was the informant?
With an original record in hand, you can analyze each fact as primary, secondary, or indeterminable information. You want to consider the informant’s point of view to verify the truth of the information. Was the informant a reliable witness? Were they likely or not likely to know the facts?
Primary information is provided at the time of the event by a person who was an eyewitness. In this record, question number nineteen is attested by Yip Kew Sheck, father, at Vancouver on 3 Nov 1947. He swears, “I certify the foregoing to be true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.” Taking this one step at a time, this means that Sheck provided the information for questions one through nineteen. In this sad example of a father burying a son, we can accept as primary information that Sheck was an eyewitness to the birth of his son Yim twenty-one years earlier on 26 Feb 1926 at Vancouver, BC.
A 1947 BC death registration also provides the medical certificate of death. This means there is a second informant of primary information: Dr. G.H. Hutton, who attested he attended Yim for a week shy of four years, and was present at his death.
The third informant is the district registrar. In this case, the registrar appears to be an acronym: “E.F. L.H.C.,” who stamped the registration. Here is an example of an eyewitness who was likely to have both primary and secondary information. The registrar would have primary information for the registration of the death on 4 Nov 1947, but secondary information about everything that took place before that date.
The third category of information is indeterminable, which is information without an informant. As previously mentioned, at the top of the record is the birth identity number of 26-09-518757. In addition, there is the Reg. No. 009233. A case could be made for the registration number being assigned at the same time the return was processed, on 4 Nov 1947, but the birth identity number is written by another hand, using a new coding system, close to the top of the page. Who provided this information? This is indeterminable.
How many different sources are there?
In this post I’ve provided four records for the death of Yim Wing Yip. The Genealogical Proof Standard provides that reasonably exhaustive research includes at least two different sources and don’t be fooled. There’s only one source here: the British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics. If I had accessed the microfilms, regardless of location, they would also be derivatives.
There’s a mystery buried in this record. Where did Yim die? The record said St. Joseph’s Oriental Hospital, but there are two addresses listed in the 1947 directory: 236 Campbell and 406 E 13. In addition, Dr. Hutton’s address at 2647 Willow was the address for the Tuberculosis Hospital, and Yim died of TB. At this point I think it was the E13 location, because that is the present day location of Mount Saint Joseph Hospital.
If you’d like to read more about Yim, see The uncle I didn’t know I had – finding Yim.
To all my teachers, past and present, this is for you. I celebrate all who choose to share their expertise, whether it’s the first or the ten thousandth time they’ve stepped up to the podium to give a talk. Teachers are some of my favourite humans.
British Columbia City Directories, 1860-1955, Sun Directories British Columbia and Yukon Directory of 1947, [digital images], Vancouver, British Columbia, p. 759, listing for Gordon H Hutton (Eliz) chf of psychiatric serv Shaugh Hosp, Vancouver Public Library (https://bccd.vpl.ca : accessed 17 Feb 2022).
___ p. 984, listing for St Joseph’s Oriental Hospital Sister St Margaret 236 Campbell & 406 E 13, Vancouver Public Library (https://bccd.vpl.ca : accessed 17 Feb 2022).
___ p. 1460, listing for 2647*Tuberculosis Hosp-FA6644 W 12th intersects, Vancouver Public Library (https://bccd.vpl.ca : accessed 17 Feb 2022).
British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, “British Columbia deaths (1872-2000),” [index], death of Wing Yim Yip, 31 Oct 1947, registration no. 1947-09-009233, BC archives mfilm no. B13195, GSU mfilm no. 2032479, Royal BC Museum (https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca: accessed 1 Dec 2017),675 Belleville Street, Victoria, BC V8W 9W2,1-250-356-7226, email@example.com.
___ [digital image], death of Wing Yim Yip, 31 Oct 1947, registration no. 1947-09-009233, BC archives mfilm no. B13195, GSU mfilm no. 2032479, Royal BC Museum (https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca: accessed 18 Mar 2021). Record requested and received 15 May 2019. Fee paid.
British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, “British Columbia, Canada, Death Index, 1872-1990,” [database], index of Wing Yim Yip, 31 Oct 1947, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 17 Feb 2022).
British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, “Canada, British Columbia Death Registrations, 1872-1986; 1992-1993.” [database], index of Wing Yim Yip, 31 Oct 1947, FamilySearch.org (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FLPY-8HZ : accessed 17 Feb 2022).
Search our collection – Royal BC Museum, BC archives general search, Royal BC Museum (http://search-collections.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Genealogy : accessed 17 Feb 2022), 675 Belleville Street, Victoria, BC V8W 9W2, phone: 1-250-356-7226.
14 thoughts on “How to read an original record for evidence”
An excellent article, with very helpful information and tips. Regarding “first person” accuracy in registering births and deaths that’s not always trustworthy, either. I have an ancestor who registered her daughter’s birth decades after the event. In 1926 she reported it happened in 1895. I have an 1889 birth record in the company doctor’s files, the child appears in the 1891 census, photographs show her older than she would have been had she been born in 1895, and her 1913 marriage record says she was 22. It’s possible there were two children with the same name, but other documents said my ancestor had only 1 daughter. A more likely explanation: in 1926 the daughter, divorced, was living in the US with a younger man she would marry, and applying for US citizenship. She likely needed a birth certificate to do so, and without any other documentation to prove otherwise, she saw no issue with representing herself as younger. Who would it hurt? Her mother either couldn’t remember the exact year (unlikely), or simply went along with the charade.
Excellent example of the need to discuss conflicts within primary information – thank you for sharing that here.It feels like detective work when the theory doesn’t fit the facts. Something has to shift: theory or (sometimes people do like to change the) facts. I love the second hypothesis and possible explanation. That’s what we do, really: layer on the evidence, resolve all the conflicts, and eventually come up with a conclusion close to the truth. Well done!
Fantastic post!!! Definitely helps people understand the differences between primary, secondary, and indeterminable evidence.
Thank you! I am working on getting the concepts straight in my own head and thought, “What if I did an analysis in a blog post?” I was surprised to uncover all the types in one record, even negative evidence, which is a tricky one to get right.
yes – I too have had a hard time getting my head around the negative evidence concept…and, like you, often use my blog to work through issues I’m having, figuring I can help other people as well.
Aha!! This is so clear, Linda. I’ll be sending my students here (in the upcoming Genealogy for Beginners class in May/June) as an excellent example of these tricky concepts in genealogy. Thanks so much for working through this – it definitely is a bit confusing, and I still get caught on defining and finding good examples sometimes.
Thank you, Celia. Please also cover the issue of negative, or NIL, results. I couldn’t find a place in this post to talk about the difference between negative evidence (the absence of information proves the argument) and negative results (the absence of sources which only proves there are no findable sources). Lots of folk, including me, have gotten the two confused.
Thank you for this very informative post. A possible topic for an interesting future blog post would be St. Joseph’s Oriental Hospital. I think it was established to provide care for “Orientals” at a time when other hospitals in Vancouver wouldn’t serve them at all or put them in the basement. It would be very interesting to learn about who founded it, where its funding came from, whether its doctors and nurses were Caucasian or “Oriental,” and how common tuberculosis was in the Asian-Canadian population.
Carol, you ask brilliant questions as always. I absolutely agree. I would also want to know the hospital charter, or terms, of how they operated. How were distinctions made? And above all: where are the records?
Excellent! It never occurred to me that the indexing could vary so much between organizations. For what it’s worth: “the registrar appears to be an acronym: E.F. L.H.C.” — I see E.F. Little.
You have sharp eyes, nwccapha. Now you point it out, I can see “Little” as well.
Yes, definitely different on the indices. I forget the first time I noticed differences between FamilySearch and the BC archives – not only the indices but also the records available. It’s good to check both because some old records not available through the archives are on FamilySearch. There used to be more but when BC updated their privacy polices (I forget when), they removed a number of records and caused partners to follow suit.