Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Genealogical Proof Standard - What Is It?

Genealogy Proof Standard Study Group

Chapter One-What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?
Anna Matthews


Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case 4th Edition Revised, (San Jose, California: CR Publications) 2014.

I am following along with DearMYRTLE's newest study group; The Genealogical Proof Standard Study Group. This group will meet in DearMYRTLE's "Hangouts" held Wednesdays at noon eastern time from January 4th to February 1st and will study the work of Christine Rose and her book, "Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case." If you can't attend a live hangout, they are archived to You Tube within a week, (EDIT) but ideally you should go to her blog and find the monthly post of links to her hangouts and register so that you can see the comments/conversations that happened in the community of viewers and may have kept going after the webinar was over.

First let me just say that I love this book, even though I am only one chapter in as I begin writing this post. (Not compensated, I bought my own copy - FYI).  I recommend this book to any researcher but I strongly recommend it as a book for beginners. I own other books about the GPS or which address the GPS and they are wonderful, but they contain so much ancillary, though important, information that I sometimes felt a little overwhelmed trying to take it all in. The information and explanations in Christine Rose's book are distilled into the most essential elements so that everything you're reading goes to the very heart of the matter, a great way to begin learning this important topic.

When I started my genealogy journey, I was as guilty of name collecting as any novice, although for me it was more name gathering; I was lucky to begin with a lot of names but I just entered them into my public Ancestry tree without any clue of the consequences; from a family Bible from my maternal grandfather's line, from a huge 40-year-old compiled genealogy (in Swedish) of one of my great-grandmothers' lines, from a local history of the area where my maternal grandmother grew up and a genealogy compiled by my paternal grandfather. I even knew that there were problems with at least one of these sources, my own name was incorrect in that local history of the North Hatley, Quebec area, and still I entered other relatives' information into my tree from that book as if it were coming directly from their own mouths - sigh.

Although there was always more to genealogy for me than just adding names to my tree, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I really began to understand the importance of citations and that these standards I was reading about applied to all researchers not just the professionals. Still, my attempts to apply them to my own genealogy have come in fits and starts as other genealogy-related tasks have been taking my time and attention. I'd really like to develop this skill in 2017.

Part of the first chapter of Christine Rose's book deals with evaluating evidence to answer our genealogy questions. Her examples are excellent and illustrate the points beautifully.  Below are a few examples from my own research.

These are copies of pages from a family Bible that originally belonged to my maternal grandfather's parents, George Robert Smith and Isabella Frances Parker.

The identity of the informant is vital to evaluating the source and quality of the information in our documents. In cases like this one, where I do not know the identity of the informant or informants, we must assume that the source is derivative and the quality of the information is indeterminable; it may very well be correct information, but we will certainly have to conduct reasonably exhaustive research and look at other sources before we can begin to come to any conclusion.

What we can determine is whether the evidence contained on these pages is indirect, direct or negative and that depends on our research question(s). If we are looking for the date of birth of my second-great-grandfather, Benjamin Smith, for example, this document provides direct evidence, it answers the question directly. If we are looking for the name of Lucy Hamilton Smith's husband, again, this document provides direct evidence, it answers that question directly.

Next I'll be looking at this genealogy of the Matthews family; the parents and siblings of my paternal great-grandfather, Arthur William Matthews.

In this case we know our informant; this document is in my great-grandfather's handwriting and is dated about three months before his death in December of 1915. However, we still don't know where he came by his information except that as the youngest child, he was certainly not present at the births of his parents or siblings!

The source here again is derivative and the quality of the information is indeterminable and as to whether the evidence is direct or indirect, that depends on the question we want answered. If we want to know where Arthur was born, this document provides direct evidence, if we want to know where his mother died, this document provides direct evidence. However, if we want to know when Arthur's mother died, this document does not provide any evidence.

Finally, this document is a little different, although like the others it is not an official or government document. This is a birth announcement for my father; more ephemera than documentation, it still provides us with genealogical information.

Because I recognize the handwriting, I know that this announcement was created by my grandmother. Her presence at my father's birth makes the information original. Although the announcement is not dated, I am going to assume that it was created near the time of my father's birth, that is, after all, the point of it. That timeliness and the fact that my grandmother was present at the event make the information primary.

Again, the type of information depends upon our research question. If we want to establish date of birth, this is direct evidence.

Each of the analyses above only look at the document in question. Once I have completed reasonably exhaustive research for whatever question I want to answer, then I can analyze the documents together to complete all the elements of the GPS and make conclusions.

I'm just learning these concepts, so please feel free to let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree with my analysis.


  1. Totally agree; it can be really frustrating to try to wade through the "ancillary" information. I read the amazon reviews of this book; the negative complaint is the lack of ancillary information. But really, it fills a much needed niche: a clear, concise explanation. Being concise is a skill that I really need to work on. Haha.

    I really liked your writing, and I agree with your analysis. I slightly disagree with your inferred conclusion at the end, though, that the GPS is a step-by-step linear process. If you wait until after you have performed your "reasonably exhaustive research," to start writing about (i.e. analyzing) the records, you will quickly discover during the writing process that you really were not "done." This is because the actual process of writing helps us mere mortals to form our thoughts and hone in on theories and ideas. When you are forced to explain your reasoning to another person, when you have to take the time to spell out your conclusions, you make better conclusions and you do better research. So I would suggest that you take a more "write as you go" approach. I'm sure from your blog that you already "get" this :-)

    When they were talking in the webinar about spreadsheets being used as research logs, I cringed. Don't get me wrong, I love spreadsheets, and use them in my research all the time, especially as kind of a meta-research log organizer. But when I am actively researching, I find that I need an environment that promotes longer forms of writing, which those tiny spreadsheet cells just, frankly, cannot. I find a google doc is much more useful. I can gather my data, write about why I think it means what I think it means (actually, writing it as if it were a blog post is really helpful!), and then continue to research.

    What do you think?

    1. Yes, I work on being concise all the time; this post went through several edits which is why it didn't go up until late Tuesday night.

      You're right that analysis can and should happen as we go, and really, I'm drawing conclusions in my head anyway, why not put them on paper. And good analysis can help us in our search for more records, too.

      I liked the spreadsheet example that started the conversation about spreadsheets. Like organizing data, organizing thoughts is a personal process and I think we all have to do what works for us and spreadsheets are a great tool. Personally, I tried using a spreadsheet as a full-on research log a la Thomas MacEntee and it didn't work for me. I do use tables in Evernote as a place to track documentation, but not for any conclusions or analysis. Writing it out is, like you said, great for the brain and great practice for when you are ready to write up a conclusion.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my post. I will have to hop on over to your blog later. Looking forward to next Wednesday, hope I can watch live again.

  2. This sounds like a great course to be part of. I will check out the Hang Outs.

    1. Reading along and taking another look at my research is helping me a lot.

  3. I got the book in the mail this evening and just read the first chapter. Over the past couple of years, I have gotten pretty familiar with the concepts of sources, information, and evidence. I think Christine Rose did a great job of explaining these concepts and giving examples. (Though I am not real happy with the editing of the book.)

    I like your blog post and agree with your conclusions. Even though I'm behind, I hope to participate by creating my own blog posts for these 5 chapters. And, I will watch the recordings of the first two hangouts & hope to catch the others live.

    Great job!


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