Evidence Baby Steps
This is the syllabus for one of a series of classes taught by Robert Raymond and represents his private opinions. Suggestions for changes should be made on this page's Discussion page.
“Baby steps” is a system of self evaluation and self improvement. It focuses on five aspects of the evidence analysis process: sources, information, evidence, conclusions, and citations.
Where does evidence fall in the evidence analysis process? From sources we find information. From information we select evidence. From evidence we make conclusions. Our conclusions contain citations. And citations point back to our sources.
Read through the following table to see how a person might typically improve over time in their use of evidence. Think about which level best describes you. At the conclusion of the class, set a goal to improve as explained in “Genealogical Maturity.”
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Analysis: A Research Process Map, laminated study guide (Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2006).
|1.||Entry||Limited understanding of evidence and the role it plays. Typically ignores conflicting evidence.|| |
|2.||Emerging||Captures direct evidence and increasingly depends upon it.|| |
|3.||Practicing||Additionally, captures (without resolving) conflicting evidence.|| |
|4.||Proficient||Additionally, resolves conflicting evidence by accounting for it, explaining it, and reconciling the differences. Captures and utilizes indirect and negative evidence.|| |
|5.||Stellar||Additionally, publishes, teaches, and inspires others to fully utilize evidence of all types.|| |
Evidence is more than information. It is the information we judge, as genealogists, to have some relevance to our research. Evidence is variously defined as “something that furnishes proof;” “information that is relevant to the problem;” analyzed and correlated information assessed to be of sufficient quality; and “the information that we conclude—after careful evaluation—supports or contradicts the statement we would like to make, or are about to make, about an ancestor.”
We review a lot of information. Most of it is not applicable to our current search. What is relevant depends on the research question at hand. It determines what information is evidence and what is not. The information doesn’t have to be correct to be evidence. If it is relevant, it is still evidence. Seemingly contrary evidence may prove to be correct in the end. No genealogical conclusion is ever completely final.
Entry level genealogists typically accept the work of others despite the lack of evidence. Discovering inconsistencies in trees, genealogists begin to think about the need for evidence. Still, they have limited understanding about the various kinds of evidence: direct or indirect, consistent or conflicting, and present or absent.
Having been converted to the need for evidence, emerging genealogists depend almost exclusively on direct evidence. Direct evidence is relevant information that directly states the answer to a research question.
Let’s look at an example. Alonzo Pearis Raymond is Robert’s great-great-grandfather. His death certificate directly answers the question of his death date. It also directly answers the question of his birth date. While birth information on a death certificate is second hand, it is still direct evidence.
Consistent and Inconsistent Evidence
When multiple sources of independent origin provide consistent information, it makes the evidence stronger.
Sometimes multiple sources are inconsistent. Inconsistent evidence is sometimes called conflicting or contrary evidence. Here is an example. Several books give different birth years for Alonzo Pearis Raymond. Two books, The Mormon Battalion and Treasures of Pioneer History, state that Alonzo was born in 1814. Another book, Andrew Jenson’s Church Chronology, gives a birth date five years later: 1819.
Practicing genealogists recognize the integrity of capturing inconsistent evidence, but they may not understand the need to resolve it. Proficient genealogists resolve it by accounting for it, explaining it, and reconciling the differences. The discrepancy in the Alonzo Raymond example could be resolved with a statement like this: “Further research shows that the earliest use of the 1814 date is the 1870 census. The earliest use of the 1819 date is Alonzo’s obituary. Birth information in the census and in obituaries are both suspect, so it is not surprising that the two are inconsistent. Further research is warranted.”
The proficient genealogist utilizes indirect evidence. Indirect evidence does not answer the question all by itself. It must be combined with other evidence. Suppose we wish to answer the question, “What is the birth date of Robert’s Grandfather, Clate Raymond?” Family records identified Clate as the second oldest child. Further suppose that county birth records states that the second child was born in 1898 but does not name the child. Together the two records answer the question even though neither record has both the name and the birth date. Clate was born in 1898.
Present and Absent Evidence
Genealogists search records to find what evidence is present. Sometimes the absence of evidence is, in itself, evidence. Absent evidence, or negative evidence as it is often called, is a special type of indirect evidence. The proficient genealogist utilizes absent evidence to determine an approximate time of a death, a move, a marriage, or the like.
Take some examples from the life of Alonzo Raymond. The 1820 census entry for Alonzo’s father shows that he didn’t have any children. The 1830 census shows no children aged 10 or over. While birth dates in the census are suspect, the total absence of a young child implies that Alonzo was born in 1821 or later. Both the 1814 and 1819 birth dates from the previous example are incorrect.
Alonzo is named in the U.S. census from 1850 until 1900 when he was nearly 80. His age and his absence from the 1910 census imply he died between 1900 and 1910. A search of death records from 1900 to 1910 confirmed that he died during that time.
Establishing the absence of a person or information from a record collection is complicated by the chance that the missing person or information is present, but has yet to be located.
The proficient genealogist utilizes many types of evidence, direct and indirect, consistent and inconsistent, and present and absent. Direct evidence directly answers the research question. Indirect evidence requires multliple pieces of evidence together to provide an answer. Multiple pieces of evidence are consistent if they say the same thing and are inconsistent if they differ. The absence of information can be absent or negative evidence.
Using the table at the start of this handout, and using what you learned in class today, set a small, baby step improvement goal. See Genealogical Maturity for more information.
Advancing from level to level requires continuing education. Avail yourself of these resources:
- Online tutorials and guides: FamilySearch, National Genealogical Society, and others are listed on the NARA website.
- State and regional conferences: Utah Genealogical Association, Family History Expos, and many more.
- National Conferences: National Genealogical Society, Federation of Genealogical Societies, and RootsTech.
- Intensive week-long study programs called genealogical institutes: SLIG (Salt Lake), British Institute (Salt Lake), NIGR (D.C.), and GRIP (Pittsburgh).
- Academic genealogical journals: National Genealogical Soceity Quarterly, NEHGS Register, etc.
- Society Magazines: NGS Magazine, etc.
- At home university degrees or courses: Brigham Young University, Akamai University, GenealogicalStudies.com, Boston University, and the Insititute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies.
Recommended Books about Sources, Information, Evidence, Conclusions, and Citations.
- Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd edition. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990. In particular, see chapter 4.
- Leary, Helen F. M., ed. North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History. 2nd edition. Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996. The first section is applicable to research anywhere. Because of the cost, I recommend this book only for those doing research in southern states.
- Merriman, Brenda. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians. 3rd edition. Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2010. Lacks an index.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997. Not as good as Evidence Explained, but cheaper.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown Mills. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Second edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009. For the evidence analysis process, read the 26 pages of chapter 1.
- Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. 3rd revised edition. San José, California: CR Publications, 2009.
- Rose, Christine and Kay Germain Ingalls. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy. 2nd edition. New York: Alpha Books, 2005.
- Rubincam, Milton. Pitfalls in Genealogical Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987.
- Stevenson, Noel C. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof, revised edition. Laguna Hills : Aegean Park Press, 1989. The use of legal terminology is outdated, but the research methodology is still good.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source. Third edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006.