Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
Vital records typically refer to birth, marriages, and death records maintained by a civil authority such as a county or state government. In some countries vital records are referred to as civil registration. Prior to the time when civil registration became mandatory, vital records were also collected and maintained by various churches. Vital records are considered primary sources because they were recorded at or near the time of an event and maintained by an objective authority.
Vital records are considered more reliable than family records such as family Bibles, in which events may have been entered from memory long after an event occurred. However, even vital records can be in error, and any conflict in dates among various records should be investigated. One of the first steps in genealogy research is to determine what records were kept and by what authority for any given locality and time period. Probate, land, civil and criminal court records, although considered primary sources, are not classified as vital records.