Brief Review of Research Standards (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Genealogical Proof Standard

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) was developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) to meet higher expectations than the previously borrowed legal terminology (“preponderance of evidence”). The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual outlines the GPS and acceptable standards for research. See also Rose’s Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. The GPS is a five-step common-sense approach to research work with any particular project or problem in mind.

1. Research for and in as many sources as possible that might provide information for a genealogical project—a question, hypothesis, problem or goal—about an ancestor’s identity, life events or relationships;

2. A full and accurate citation is given for each source so the reader can locate the same sources;

3. Analysis and synthesis of the collected information by examining its quality as evidence and by evaluating its sources;

4. Explain and resolve any contradictory or confusing items; 5. The conclusion is presented in writing as a rational, persuasive “argument.”

Sources–Information–Evidence

These distinctions are necessary in genealogy, for the best analytical results. Academic studies have traditionally used the phrases “primary sources” and “secondary sources” to include the kind of information the sources contain. Separating information from the sources that “hold” it ultimately makes it easier to evaluate and explain our evidence and genealogical conclusions. In academic works and older genealogical writings, you will still see references to “primary sources” and “secondary sources”.

Source - A source is a “container” of information. One source may hold multiple pieces of data/information. Original source is the first recording or account of an event; derivative source is all else (transcribed, abstracted, compiled works, including print and Internet media; handed-down family stories; etc.) which has been copied or rearranged or repeated.

Information - Primary information is given by an informant—in writing or orally—who had first-hand, eyewitness knowledge of an event, relationship or identity; secondary information is provided by a non-participant in the event, or by someone who was not a direct witness to an identity or relationship, i.e. second-hand knowledge.

Evidence - is our interpretation of the information we collected as it related to a specific genealogical question, problem or goal. Direct evidence answers the problem or meets the specific goal as a credible, stand-alone statement; indirect evidence relates to the question or problem but not in a straightforward, unquestionable way. We classify genealogical information as direct or indirect evidence only with regard to the project at hand. In other cases, that same evidence may have a different implication or classification when applied to another question or goal.

Citation of Sources

Citation of Sources is a mandatory standard whether you are making research notes in the field, writing a family history, reporting to a client, or using a software program. Citations should be made on or attached to the face of any photocopies or printouts. They should clearly describe the source material and reflect the form or location for accessing them, in a reasonable and consistent format. Elements to consider (not necessarily in this order):

  • Name of the person/ancestor found in the source;
  • Name or title of the source, with archival fonds if applicable;
  • Applicable numbers for record group, series, volume, bundle, file, page, etc.;
  • Date(s) of document or publication;
  • Name of custodial institution or author;
  • Microform, digital or electronic reference, if (reproduction form) applicable.

See Mills’ Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian or the endnotes in the section on Report standards in The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual.

Transcribing and Abstracting

Transcribing

Transcribing and Abstracting accurately are a part of the data collecting in almost any given project. These skills are important even with today’s technology gives us cameras, photocopy machines and scanners. You will find in both family history and client work that technology is not always available at a critical point in your research. You may be surprised how often this happens. A few words of reinforcement are in order.

The exercise itself is a learning experience. Every time you transcribe a document, it forces you to pay attention to each detail. It encourages you to immerse yourself in the style of the record’s period. You learn the “flavor” of customary formats and language for certain kinds of documents, legal or otherwise. Your comfort level with unfamiliar types of record groups rises each time. You increase your skill at deciphering handwriting that may be archaic or badly scrawled or phonetically spelled. Family members and clients may not be able to decipher handwriting or completely follow a photocopied document. Your transcription alleviates this problem for them.

A transcript or transcription is a true word-for-word rendering of a document with the original punctuation and spelling. It follows the original line-by-line order if possible. Examples are a document that was created or hand-copied for legal purposes (e.g. wills, deeds), or written by an agent on behalf of an uneducated party (e.g. letters, petitions, applications), or a clergyman’s registers. All notes and marks on any page are copied as faithfully as possible in the presented formatting. Depending on the condition and legibility of an old document, it may require considerable concentration and perhaps comparison with another in the same scribe’s hand. Obsolete alphabet letters need particular attention. (Square brackets) are the norm to indicate illegible words and passages.

Abstracting

An abstract is a summary of the salient information in an original document. It is (obviously) shorter than a full transcription, but retains all the important details. Abstracting strips away the rhetorical and legal language to present just the facts of the document in question. An abstract is not the same as an extract—which is a selected part or item from a document or source. When a phrase in a document is unclear or ambiguous, an extract of the exact wording (always in quotation marks) can be included in our abstract. An extract can also be a direct quotation from a book. By abstracting documents and records, we train ourselves to recognize and select the important elements. Abstracts save space, especially when dealing with a series of documents. But we can only create them properly when we have a good understanding of transcribing.

Abstracting standards follow the rules of transcribing, although you have some flexibility in style or format. Some prefer to write their abstract as a paragraph; others prefer a point form outline. The important things to remember are identifying the document, staying faithful to original order and spelling, and the usage of square brackets.

A caveat: Forms or templates which are designed for you to “fill in,” such as for deeds or wills, are not recommended. Since there is so much variety of format and content in historical documents, filling in a form will disturb the original arrangement. Their  format can also change meanings in the document’s words or phrasing.

Mary Bell wrote an excellent chapter called “Transcripts and Abstracts” in Professional Genealogy. See also Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting.

Synthesis or Proof Summary

Synthesis or Proof Summary of research results occurs when you sum up the evidence and draw a conclusion from it. The project might have been a single quest such as to identify the parents of an ancestor, or to find a marriage. Or it may have been a full family search for several generations. In either case, each new step in identification, event or relationship must be thoroughly examined and the evidence explained. The written summary is used when the researcher is faced with indirect evidence and/or a point(s) of conflict in the assembled information.

What is “proof” and when do we use this word?

To quote Kory Meyerink, AG, FUGA:
Genealogical Proof = The accumulation of sufficient acceptable evidence. The genealogy “judge” therefore (be it the researcher, an editor, lineage society, or other entity) then needs to determine: the amount (accumulation) of evidence needed, as well as what is sufficient (does it address the point to be proven?), and acceptable (reliability of the evidence, documents, creator thereof, etc.). Those three key words in this definition are powerful, flexible, and determined by the context of the evidence and the genealogical problem for which proof is requested.
(email to the APG-List 21 April 2004)
And more from Donn Devine, J.D., CG, CGI:
Proof in genealogy is not [merely] a collection of evidence nor even its persuasive presentation, but rather the effect of it on the mind of each person considering it. When it meets the Genealogical Proof Standard, most of us will find it persuasive and convincing, but a few may not, and for them, the matter has not been proved. And newly discovered evidence will always require a reconsideration, no matter how convincing the previous evidence had been. For that reason, I prefer to say that I find the evidence for a conclusion fully convincing, rather than that a particular assertion was proved or disproved.
(Devine to the APG-List, 21 April 2004)

Other books to consult on these topics are Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence! Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace and Brenda Merriman’s About Genealogical Standards of Evidence.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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