How to Successfully Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard


*This is the third of a three-part series exploring how to use the genealogical proof standard in your family history research. Read part one here, and read part two here.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve explored the genealogical proof standard (GPS), an essential tool that all genealogists should have in their toolbox. In last week’s article, we took a deeper look at the first three steps of the standard: (1) conduct reasonably exhaustive research, (2) check your facts and cite your sources, and (3) analyze and correctly interpret the evidence.

This article focuses on the final two steps of the genealogical proof standard: resolve contradictory evidence and coherently write research findings.

Resolve Any Contradictory Evidence

“The standard is about putting together and weaving and threading and knitting different disparate items of information and evidences into a conclusion that will stand on its own,” said professional genealogist James Ison at the 2016 RootsTech conference.

Of all the steps in the GPS, this step can be one of the easiest to overlook. We’ve all found mismatching evidence at some point in our research, haven’t we? When this happens, it can be convenient to simply discount the bits of information that don’t seem to align with your gut feeling—but that wouldn’t be in line with the GPS.

The most successful researchers understand and anticipate contradictory evidence. They acknowledge, evaluate, and attempt to provide answers for each variation, demonstrating their analytical and reasoning skills. Certified genealogist Harold Henderson wrote about the importance of paying attention to contradictions: “Contradictions are to genealogists what dust bunnies are to house cleaners. They may annoy us, but they are also an important part of our life. And in both cases, to sweep them under the rug would betray our calling.”

Evaluating evidence is a process that takes place over time and through a series of phases. According to the FamilySearch wiki, “[Evaluating evidence] starts as soon as you find a document that must be evaluated to see if it is relevant to the family you are researching. It continues as you transfer the information from the source to your genealogical records and compose a source footnote. In that phase you are evaluating in two ways: (1) a preliminary evaluation of the reliability of the source, and (2) a comparison and contrast of data on the source with other information about the family to see if it corroborates or contradicts other sources.”

Here are three simple ways to handle contradicting evidence:

  1. Ask Questions. As you come across conflicting fragments of information in your research that you’re unsure how to handle, take a step back and consider the following questions:

    • When and where was the record created?
    • What information is missing or incomplete from the record?
    • How was the information recorded?
    • Who created the record?
    • How reliable is the information in the record?

    By asking these questions, you’ll begin to piece bits of information together while discovering what other research still needs to be done.

  2. Become an Expert in Your Area of Records. According to James Ison in his RootsTech presentation, answers to tough genealogical questions will come as you become an expert in your area of records: “Using the family history catalog, you just put in the county, and it lists all the records that FamilySearch has ever microfilmed for that area,” says Ison. “You can go out to the USGenWeb, which is organized by county. You can go search the historical societies and the genealogical societies that are associated with your areas of interest. And then you make a research plan, and you keep a research log so you know where you've been and what you've found.”

  3. Look at the Evidence from Different Angles. Compiling evidence is one thing; making sense of it is another. Henderson says, “Try using tables, charts, lists, timelines, maps, diagrams, sticky notes—anything that might offer a useful new perspective. Don’t expect to find the one ideal way of organizing them; there is no such thing. The point is to look at it from all different angles, in different combinations, in order to find patterns that weren’t obvious at first.”

Write Your Research Findings

For many, writing research findings can be the most intimidating step of the genealogical proof standard. But it’s a great habit to get into, even if you’re just doing research for yourself. And don’t worry—you don’t have to be a flawless writer!

“You don’t have to worry about grammar when you’re doing this if you’re writing for yourself,” says Ison. “If you’re writing it to have it published, that’s a different story. But [if you are] writing it for yourself and your family, new ideas pop up as you’re writing. You can have it all in your notebook with your different notes from deeds and everything. It’s only when you write that new things will occur to you.”

Many genealogists recommend keeping a continuous journal or research log as you go. By doing this, you’re more prepared to remember the information you’ve already learned.

“I thought I’d write my proof argument one time, and it’d be done,” continued Ison. “But it’s iterative. And it’s best to actually write as you’re doing your research.”

The best way to learn how to write a good proof argument is to study national journals such as The American Genealogist,National Genealogical Society Quarterly, and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register.

What tips or tricks would you share about applying the genealogical proof standard? Tweet us @RootsTechConf.

Read parts one and two:



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