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The Primary Source: Issues in the Usability of Genealogical Records

Author: 
Patrick O'Daniel
Major Professor: 
William C. Robinson
Date: 
May 2007

Abstract: This thesis examines genealogists’ information needs and discusses how librarians can accommodate them by providing access to essential primary sources as well as making those materials user-friendly. It includes a review of relevant literature and the results of a survey of experienced genealogists that shed light on the information seeking behavior of genealogists. It identifies problems experienced by genealogists in their search for information and recommends solutions by explaining what librarians can do to make primary sources more accessible and usable for genealogists. In doing so, it also illuminates the goals of genealogists, how they search for information, and what they expect of libraries. This study indicates that secondary sources cannot completely satisfy the information needs of genealogists.

Therefore, genealogists must use primary sources, including original manuscripts and/or their facsimiles of community historical court documents, vital records, and non-governmental records. This presents a problem since publishing companies rarely supply the local primary source records needed by genealogists. Furthermore, primary sources were not created with genealogists in mind. These historical documents originally served specific governmental or legal functions, so they often lack indexes or a clear sense of organization. The results of the study indicate that genealogists research a family’s lineage beginning with the present and work to discover the identity of each subsequent generation of ancestors. Their tools consist of historical documents containing relevant evidence of the identities and kinship of ancestors. They may use place names or dates, but more frequently, they search by names of individuals or by surnames.

Ideally, librarians should gather and arrange primary sources pertaining to their communities in order to accommodate genealogists’ goals and methods. Creating collections of primary sources for genealogical research attract many new library users. In addition, it presents the library with the opportunity to document its community’s uniqueness while satisfying its customer’s desire to find his or her place in it.