Newspaper obituary source as original or derivative

Sigh.  I've been going through my tree and rewriting citations and reevaluting sources for the last year and a half.  The more citations I write, the more questions I ask myself.  I'm chasing rabbits through their warrens. 

With regard to newspaper obituaries obtained from digital images of the newspapers online (like Google Newspaper Archive, or, I have really begun to question my original grasp of source and information evalution.  So, here goes...

In my opinion, the original information of an obituary usually comes from someone who had firsthand knowledge of the individual, especially with regard to date of death, so I mark the INFORMATION as  primary.  

However, I start confusing myself with regard to evaluation of the SOURCE as original or derivative.  I have been listing digital images of newspaper obituaries online as derivative, because I believed that the original source was the family member or friend who wrote it--not the newspaper. (Perhaps, I was confusing information with source evalution.) However, this practice places digital images of newspaper obituaries online in the same category as an obituary index.  After reading through QuickLesson 10, I'm now beginning to wonder if I should be marking the digital image of the newspaper obituary as original?  

As an example, my sister passed away this summer.  I was with her for the hours up until and when she passed.  I wrote the obituary on notebook paper and went through it with the funeral home.  The funeral home typed it up and then sent it to local papers.  When that shows up in a digital image online in the future, I had been looking at myself and other obituary writers as the orignal source (not just evaluating our information as primary).   I had been viewing the newspaper as a transcription of what we (as family members) originally wrote. However, I understand that the people who issue birth certificates and death certificates which are original sources, are also not the original providers of the information.  So, I read through a previous example you shared that you would not be giving credit to the editors in a publishing house in a citation.   So, perhaps since I'm not quoting Pamela as the source, I'm quoting the newspaper--the newspaper IS an original source (not derivative) -- even though their information might not look exactly the same as mine....because it is in the original form in the source I'm citing.

I'm writing to ensure that I'm on the right track?  In this regard, would we view a digital image copy of a newspaper obituary online from Google Newspaper Archives (or other newspaper archives) as an original source instead of derivative?  

Thanks for feedback as my eyes cross and I begin my journey of splitting hairs...



Submitted byEEon Thu, 01/07/2016 - 19:46


You've done a good job of demonstrating how complicated things get when we start questioning our sources. Complicated, but in a good way. It's this thoughtful analysis of how a source was created that helps us understand reliability issues and avoid reliance upon poor sources.

Two passages in that QuickLesson 10 you invoked are relevant here:

Caveat 1: ... In short, we can’t just apply a convenient label to what we find and then file it away under “Gospel Truth” or “Treacherous Waters.”

Caveat 2: Most so-called records are not “true originals” at all. Technically, most are “derived” in some fashion. To weigh their worth, our credibility meter needs a sliding scale. ...

Technically, most researchers consider a newspaper article to be an "original source" when the article-at-hand represents the first time that article was published. But, as you point out, the information could have gone through several layers of transmission before the newspaper typeset it.

If our software calls for us to tick off boxes that represent the quality of a source (original vs. derivative), the quality of the piece of information we took from that source (primary vs. secondary—i.e., an informant with firsthand vs. secondhand information), and the nature of the evidence we derive from that piece of information (direct vs. indirect), then, in your case, if we were citing the source for the date of death, we might tick off the boxes for original, primary, and direct.

But, as you've recognized, evaluating a source calls for far more than just hanging labels on it. As QuickLesson 10 points out, original sources have many degrees of  "originality," derivative sources could  be just one step or many steps removed from the original, and neither label entitles us to automatically decide that the information is right or wrong. For each decision we have to weigh all the factors that could affect reliability. In the end, it's a judgment call and a serious researcher such as you would—at least in your working notes—record the details that affect your decision, as well as the basic identity of the source.

Submitted byMichaelMcCormickon Thu, 05/05/2016 - 11:49

To be clear, would you say an obituary is not an authorred narrative? My own mental definition of authorred narrative is more narrow, but I have a respected colleague who indicated to me that obituaries are authorred narratives. I think of genealogies, family trees, and case studies, when I think of authorred narrative. Obituaries do include narrative about a person, but they do not synthesize various sources into a single written work like the other sources I named. I believe obituaries are not a synthesis of other sources, but are written usually by one person (perhaps with some feedback from family members) and report what the family or other informant generally knows about the deceased. This is clearly not the same as a synthesis of many sources written into a narrative. I would appreciate if you could clarify this issue of whether an obituary is an authorred narrative or original source.

Submitted byEEon Thu, 05/05/2016 - 18:44

Michael, if the intent is to categorize an obituary as a type of source, using the framework of the Evidence Analysis Process Model, then we have three options: original record, derivative record, or an "authored work" that combines personal opinions or conclusions with facts taken from elsewhere. Within this framework, an obituary could be viewed as an "authored narrative." As you point out, it is nowhere near the substantive scale of other authored works such as books. Lengthwise, it's more akin to blog posts.  But it's not an official record, and most obituaries would not fit the criteria to be a derivative of an official record.

Submitted byrworthingtonon Fri, 05/06/2016 - 00:09

Dear Editor,

In a couple of weeks, DearMYRTLE, and her "ESM's QuickLessons Study Group" will be talking about this QuickLession (QuickLesson 10) and I will probably be doing my homework for that StudyGroup. Each of us who participate are encouraged to study the QuickLesson and prepare a homework assignment based on our own experience before the Study Group, then we talk about the homework.

I find this to be a very interesting topic. Up until now, I would consider a Newspaper Obituary, as Pamela described, as an Original Souce. I don't consider it a Deriviative, because it's not created from a Record, and it's also not an authored work, as I have come to understand what that means.

So far, in the process of evaluating the Obituary, I have two more steps in that process, The Information and the Evidence.

The information in the obituary, so far, would be Undetermined. as we don't know who authored the article or the informat to the author of the article.

The tricky part is the Evidence. What we don't know is what the Question is that we are trying to answer.

The example that I would offer is for a gentleman who died, and the question was Where was he born? It would appear that the person to provided for the information for the article was the gentlemens son. If the obituary said that he father was born in New Jersey, at best that could in fact be incorrect, because He, the son, was not there when he father was born.

The Question came from conflicting information to this point is, was the father born in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia to be exact) or New Jersey. Depending on the records used, I couldn't draw a conclusion on the answer to the question.

Finding the Death Record, also indicating the birth location as being New Jersey. That record DOES show the informat, also the son.

My "current thinking" is that the Obituary is an Original "Record", either the physical newspaper or a digital form of that Obituary is Original. But, I also need to move through those next two steps in the Analysis Process in order to answer my question.

Submitted byrworthingtonon Fri, 05/06/2016 - 08:19

In reply to by rworthington

Dear Editor,

I re-thought about the term "authored narrative." Have heard / read that term differently in the past, as Authored Work.

I am not yet changed my mind about where I would put a Newspaper Obituary, but that comes from my experience with authored works. Mine have been from some published family histories that I have in my library physically or from online versions of those same book.

I was glad when this 3rd option was made available to us, so I know where these books stood at a Source. I am not sure that I have found any conflicting information when I have found records for those people in those books. I may have found the records that the author used when writing the book. My use of the term means that the book was written and didn't have citations.

The Newspaper Obituary, for me, is an Original Record. I just need to look at the information in that Source a little differently from a physical record. Someone told an "official" the asked for information for that record. We may or may not know who that person was. That would apply, for me at least, for an Obituary. Maybe it's a family member telling a funeral home person. A person applying for a marriage license to an official in an office somewhere.

I am hoping I can find some other references to the suggestion that a Newspaper Obituary would be an authored narriative. I am certainly open to that. Just tryiiig to understand.

Thank you,


Submitted byEEon Sat, 05/07/2016 - 08:22

Russ, your last posting emphasizes two important characteristics of an "authored work." It is a hybrid that is, at once, derivative and original. In non-fiction fields, an authored work will contain assertions derived from previously existing sources. However, unless the authored work is plagiarized, it will present the derived material in a new and original context in which "facts" derived from other records and authored sources are merged with the author's own thoughts and conclusions. 

Dear Editor,

Ah, that was certainly helpful, for me. I had my thought about an Authored Narriative to narrow and a derivative record too broad.

Thank you.


(enjoy your stay at NGS)