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A Primer on Primary Records

Primary Records by definition are documents that memorialise certain events at the actual time when they took place. The person to whom the event occurred is usually the one who accomplished these records although this is not always the case; obviously you cannot be a reliable witness to your own birth or death, so in these instances the document of the event is made by a reliable witness to the event.

Primary Records are often considered in a court of law as incontrovertible proof of an event's occurrence. Some examples of primary records are: Birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce records, death certificates, naturalisation records, wills and testimonies, deeds, Social Security records and military records. Photographs, hand-written letters and other personal effects may also be considered Primary Records.

Secondary Records by contrast are documents that are created some time after the event has passed. In many cases, these secondary records contain direct references from primary records in the form of quotes from people who were witness to the particular event or excerpts from historical records. Textbooks, historical accounts, newspaper articles and biographies are some documents that may be considered Secondary Records. What is important though is that these Secondary Records are sourced or at least refer to Primary Records.

In legal proceedings that require written proof or documentation, Primary Records are often given preference in terms of credibility over any other type of document. No matter how authoritative secondary sources are, it would still be a good idea to present as many Primary Records as possible. In fact some organisations, particularly those involved in genealogical documentation, often only accept Primary Records as reliable documents. In instances wherein they do accept secondary sources, such allowances are only made after it has been proven that Primary Records are impossible to obtain. Of course the secondary records in question have to be deemed reliable and at least reference Primary Records.

As important as these Primary Records are, many printed documents are often almost impossible to obtain and may be indecipherable when they are found.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in obtaining Primary Records will only be compounded by the eventual physical decline of many, if not all printed materials. The reason for this is that many documents were printed on acid paper; paper which, over the years, has begun to oxidise and turn brittle. These documents are in danger of crumbling to dust and literally disappearing forever.

This chemical process is irreversible and to date, countless printed documents have already been lost to the ravages of time.
To be sure, efforts have been made by many sectors both governmental and private to preserve these documents of days past in various media. Libraries and newspaper publishers in particular have been at the forefront of this preservation effort, having archived important documents and back issues on microfilm for many years now. Currently, various forms of electronic media have been utilised in the preservation campaign.

These are commendable efforts and frankly little else can be done to protect these records from the past. No matter how you look at it though, the deterioration of these Primary Records presents a significant loss to our social, cultural and historical heritage. Great care must be taken by those tasked with the archiving of these materials to ensure that they retain as much of their inherent history as possible.


Original Authors: Doods Pangburn
Edit Update Authors: M.A.Harris
Updated On: 20/06/2008

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