3 Ways to Ensure Your Research Meets the Genealogical Proof Standard


*This the second of a three-part series exploring how to use the Genealogical Proof Standard in your family history research. Read part 1.

In last week’s article, we took a look at the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), a tool used by genealogists everywhere to ensure that their research is accurate, well researched, and reliable.

“The Genealogical Proof Standard is a process,” said James Ison at the 2016 RootsTech conference. “It’s a process that will help us determine what we know, helps us decide what we want to learn, helps us explain our work to others, gives us confidence about the direction we’re going, and helps us feel secure and safe in our conclusions.”

This process, which is based on a book written by Christine Rose entitled Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, outlines five essential steps to follow in order to produce accurate research. This article will focus on the first three steps: Conducting reasonably exhaustive research, ensuring all statements of fact are complete and have been properly cited, and making sure evidence is properly interpreted.

Conduct Reasonably Exhaustive Research

The idea of conducting “reasonably exhaustive” research can be one of the most puzzling steps of the GPS. What is reasonably exhaustive research? When does your work qualify as reasonably exhaustive? While there is no exact standard that requires a genealogist to look at a certain amount of documents, there are a few guidelines to follow:

Consider all possible sources of information

Obituaries. Marriage certificates. Death certificates. Probate records. Census reports. Each of these sources (and dozens of others) could contain information on the ancestor you’re seeking. Make a list of each of the sources you need to check, and then cross them off as you go through your research.

In his RootsTech presentation, Ison demonstrated this principle with a case study involving his wife’s fourth great-grandfather, Jesse Roberts, who died in South Carolina in 1836. He began by reading Robert’s obituary:

“Died—In this District on the 24th of September. Mr. Jesse Roberts, in the 38th year of age, leaving a wife and 7 children to mourn their irreparable loss. The deceased was a member of the Baptist Church for a long time, and a zealous follower of his Lord and Master—he was industrious and a good citizen—an affectionate husband and parent.”

Ison noted that this is a nice tribute to an honorable man, but it’s missing vital pieces of data—such as who was Robert’s wife or what were the names of his seven children?

“So what’s next? Well, our first step is a reasonably exhaustive search—we might think of some vital records,” said Ison. “He just died. So we might expect that there’ll be a death certificate, right? We know he was married; we might look for a marriage certificate. Obviously, we know he was born, so we might look for a birth record. Knowing that he died and he was buried, we could look for cemetery and mortuary records.”

However, not all records will be helpful in every situation, and some of them won’t even be available. For instance, Ison couldn’t find any information about Roberts from birth, marriage, or death records since these didn’t occur in South Carolina until the early 1900s. In an effort to conduct reasonably exhaustive research, Ison then turned to the 1830 census, where he was able to locate Jesse Roberts.

Watch James Ison present this case study in its entirety here.

Visit a Library

Most genealogists agree that reasonably exhaustive research can’t be done entirely behind a computer. While there are many great online tools to help you in your search such as FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast and Ancestry, these are just starting points. Where possible, take time to visit a library or a genealogical repository with open shelves.

“When you are researching in a facility, don’t just look at the individual book or books you found in the catalog. Look at the shelves and examine every title around them,” writes Michael J. Leclerc, professional genealogist. “If you are looking at local histories or record abstractions, be certain to check the areas for local, county, and state levels.”

Check Your Facts and Cite Your Sources

As you complete your "reasonably exhaustive" research, it’s important to document your sources. Why is this an important step?

“Citing sources serves a variety of purposes,” writes Will Moneymaker, founder of Ancestral Findings. “Most importantly, it lets you know where you found your information. This is crucial as you get further into your research on a family. You may find new, conflicting information on a person you’ve already researched. By citing your sources as you go, you can see where you found the original information, look at it again, compare it to the new sources, and decide if one is more likely to be correct or more believable than the other.”

It’s important to cite your sources as you find them. Don’t try and cite all your sources retroactively after you’ve finished your research. Rather, as you come across various sources during the investigation process, write them down and keep them in a central location.

Good source citations typically include the following:

  • The name of the author
  • The title of the publication
  • The volume, catalog or identification number
  • The date you accessed the source
  • The page number and publication date

For examples of properly cited sources, click here.

Analyze and Correctly Interpret the Evidence

By this point, you’ve got mountains of evidence on your ancestors. How you look at, sort and analyze the information will determine what you learn about your relative. To make certain you are making the right conclusions from your evidence, learn to assess the sources:

  • Original sources are the first recording on an event, whether oral, written, artifact-based or image-based. These sources are more likely to be correct and are typically the preferred type of sources for genealogy research.
  • Derivative sources are not original sources, but is evidence that has been compiled from other various sources or that is written after an event occurred.
  • Primary information is any information that was reported or recorded at the time, or shortly thereafter. These are contemporary, eye-witness accounts. This type of information is considered to be very reliable.
  • Secondary information is information that comes later, after an event has occurred, from someone who wasn’t there. This type of information is generally less reliable than primary information.

More detail on how to evaluate your sources and information can be found in an informative and useful article by Linda Woodward Geiger in the Skillbuilding section of the Board for Certification of Genealogists website.

“Sources must be understood in terms of legal precedence, historical context, and societal/cultural traditions of the time period,” writes Alice Hoyt Veen, certified genealogist. “Learning to analyze sources is a skill that comes with practice and experience, but it’s worth the effort and well within your grasp.”

How has applying the first three steps of the Genealogical Proof Standard influenced your research? Tweet us @RootsTechConf.

Join us for next week’s article, which will explore the final two steps of the Genealogical Proof Standard: resolving contradictory evidence and writing genealogical findings coherently.

Read parts one and three:



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