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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Evaluating Your Evidence
As you gather relevant records, you will begin to evaluate the evidence that you have collected. Collecting records is not enough—you must be able to understand what the record says, how it relates to your research problem, and whether or not you should believe the information. This is where evidence evaluation enters the process.
The best way to do this is to write a short report for your notes. Begin by stating, as specifically as possible, the question for which you seek an answer. Doing this allows you to better discern whether or not you have actually found an answer.
Now, being sure to cite completely each record, compile all relevant information from the records you have collected. State whether the source is original or derivative, whether the information is primary or secondary, and whether the evidence is direct or indirect. These distinctions will help you to properly assess the value of the record in answering your question.
Identifying the informant of the record is one of the most important steps in this evaluation process. The informant is the source of the information. On most vital records the informant is named, usually with a place of residence, and sometimes the relationship to the subject, provided. For probate records, the testator himself serves as the informant on a will, and the informant on other records should be identified, generally the executor/administrator. In contrast, census records do not identify the informant at all. The enumerator will be named, but he usually serves only as a clerk, recording the information provided by another person. Information is only as reliable as the person who provided it.
The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual recommends considering the following factors in evaluating the reliability of information:
- how close in time and place to the event the record was created;
- how involved in the event the eyewitness was;
- the age and sanity of the eyewitness and consequent extent of his/her understanding of the event’s significance and details;
- any bias … that might have affected the account.
These factors can affect the reliability of the information you have found in several ways. For example, even a direct participant may not remember an event clearly thirty years later, especially if he was only a child at the time of the event.
The last factor above, bias, can be a particularly challenging analysis. None of us want to believe that one of our ancestors would have purposely falsified information. However, we must not ignore the possibility that a birth year may have been “stretched” in a pension application in order to make the potential recipient a year or two older. After all, some pension laws allowed for greater payments upon reaching a certain age. Or a birth may have been altered in other records, in order to cover up a premarital pregnancy. The informant may have had any number of reasons to provide inaccurate information; in these cases we must acknowledge the potential.
Finally, you must compare the information from all of the relevant records. If they all agree, then this is ample proof that the evidence supports a certain conclusion. Write this conclusion in your report and move on to the next question.
However, if the records provide conflicting information, you must as a genealogist reconcile these contradictions. The evaluations you conducted for each source will be your greatest asset here. Use the relative value of your sources to identify which information is most likely to be accurate. Discuss why inaccurate information may have appeared in other records, i.e., through second-hand knowledge, faulty memory, or bias.
If you cannot reconcile the differences in your information, it is possible that you may need to conduct more research to locate additional sources, or acknowledge that a definitive answer may not exist. This will occasionally happen, and when it does, you should still fully explore the information that you have collected in this report. Be careful to also take note of any information that may be remotely relevant—you will never know what clues may finally help you break through that brick wall!
The Genealogical Proof Standard
After defining a specific problem to solve—no matter how simple—you will identify and locate records that provide evidence relevant to the problem. Thorough analysis of this evidence will allow you to reach a conclusion—an answer to the question you have asked. The Genealogical Proof Standard allows you to assess each conclusion, to determine whether or not you can consider it proved.
The GPS, as outlined in Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case by Christine Rose (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2005), consists of five conditions:
- Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer.
- Completely and accurately cite every source of information discovered in this search.
- Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.
- Resolve any conflicts caused by contradictory items of evidence or information contrary to your conclusion.
- Arrive at a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion” [emphasis added].
The Genealogical Proof Standard should always be used in any genealogical research, but it is particularly important for African American research. Due to the political and economic status of African Americans throughout American history, certain otherwise-common records are often sparse. Especially as you move backward into the period of American slavery, it will become necessary to prove cases using the information available. The GPS allows you to assess the conclusions you reach in order to determine whether or not you can feel comfortable that the case has been proved.
For more information, study the resources available at the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ website:
The following books are recommended for more information on genealogical research methods and the Genealogical Proof Standard:
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, Millennium Edition (Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (New York: Ancestry Publishing, 2014).
- Greenwood, Val., The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, Third Edition (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000).
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997).
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown,Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd Edition (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009).
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown, editor, Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2001).
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2012).
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Individual Problem Analysis (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2012).
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown,QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to the Research Process (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2012).
- Rose, Christine, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 3rd Edition Revised (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2009).
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.