Evaluating Sources and Information (National Institute)
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 ($).
Review Of Sources and Information
As you work your way back in time with your ancestors, you become familiar with a variety of sources that contain genealogical information. You also learn how to recognize different pieces of information in one source, and how to evaluate them. Some of the terminology or approaches to a genealogical problem may differ slightly from one instructor to another, but that is part of the learning process: to read, absorb, and apply whatever works best for you and how you justify your conclusions.
Research procedure is like a continual series of question-and-answer steps, using deduction to create hypotheses which are then tested to make genealogical conclusions. We don’t tackle sources randomly—we are always looking for answers to specific identities, relationships and events, e.g., Event: Where and when was John Brown born? Relationship: Who were his parents? Identity: Of several John Browns born in 1788, which is ‘my’ John Brown? Taking a different tack, we might begin with a hypothesis: I think or suspect that my John Brown is the son of Harmon and Sophia Brown. Which sources will yield information that I can summarize and pronounce as evidence that he is (or is not) their son?
|The definitions and usages of Sources, Information and Evidence apply to those kinds of genealogical questions we constantly ask as we proceed along an ancestral trail. You may find the definitions and usages helpful as a guide, and in some situations you encounter, you may find them arguable. Arguing is not “bad” — it means you are thinking about your findings, and that is one of the goals of these courses!|
The definitions and usages of Sources, Information and Evidence apply to those kinds of genealogical questions we constantly ask as we proceed along an ancestral trail. You may find the definitions and usages helpful as a guide, and in some situations you encounter, you may find them arguable. Arguing is not “bad”- it means you are thinking about your findings.
Sources are the forms in which we find our genealogical information. They may be historic documents, family papers, books, websites, photographs, or verbal stories. An original source is one that was the first recording or reporting of an event. A derivative source is one that is based on a prior source, whether the original source still exists or not. It has been repeated or transcribed or abstracted or rearranged from an earlier source, increasing the risk of error.
We employ our evaluation skills to question the reliability and accuracy of a source, for our ancestral purposes. Many sources were created for purposes other than genealogy and family history, and we need to remember that. Our specific objective, repeated many times in the course of research, is to search for sources that may have answers to our genealogical issue-of-the-moment.
Information is a statement that a source contains or reports (and many pieces of information or data may be in one source). Primary information about people, events or relationships comes from someone who was a participating party in the occurrence. Secondary information is the giving or reporting of information by someone who was not directly involved with the occurrence at the time it took place.
We use our analytic skills to determine how or why this particular piece of information applies to our ancestor and the question (about him) we are working on.
Evidence might be described as all of the information relevant to the problem at hand (and not just that which fits our hypothesis, of course).
If you understand that you must seek out and find as many sources and as much information as you can to support any final genealogical statement you want to make about events, identity and relationships, you will soon find that not all your information agrees. Names or dates or places (NDP) may differ among the various sources you consult. This is part of the ongoing attraction of family history pursuits—using your brain and your skills as a detective.
At the turn of the 21st century, the previously-accepted courtroom standard of ‘the preponderance of the evidence’ (POE) to make a genealogical conclusion is not considered high enough or strong enough to describe what serious family historians and genealogists strive for. When you uncover conflicting or contradictory information, POE (also known as a ‘balance of probability’) accepts only a slight balance in favor of one conclusion over another. What we really strive for is a conclusion that demonstrates a reasoned, convincing deduction from our evaluation and analysis of the contributing sources and information. We did our very best with all the resources and logic available to us. We also realize that nothing is ‘written in stone’. At some future point, new sources or information may come to light to dispute or change our deductive conclusion.
Proof is the thought process by which we reach a convincing conclusion, including a thorough examination of sources and information, and a logical presentation of evidence. The Genealogical Proof Standards (GPS) embraces the entire process.
Proof is a word that has been overworked in the recent history of genealogical pursuits, different authors and instructors having different definitions which are not always clearly stated. Some have shied away from the word ‘proof’, substituting the word ‘evidence’ which can confuse the reader or student.
The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual discusses these components in the ‘Evidence-Evaluation Standards’ section, numbers 20 to 34. They are also under discussion in Merriman’s About Genealogical Standards of Evidence.
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 Studie. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
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