Genealogy Proof Standards (GPS)
No, not that GPS!
I mentioned in an earlier blog that a researcher should always take great care when accepting ‘hints’, as provided by some research websites. It is far too easy to accept something that is very obviously incorrect as far as your own tree is concerned.
So today I thought I would describe the standards as applied to genealogy research, as set down by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, based in Washington DC, USA since it was established in 1964.
It might be said that these 5 rules are simply common sense, and to a great extent they are, but in view of the errors I have seen myself in online trees, there are those who have not paid enough attention to them!
1. Complete Reasonably Exhaustive Research
This means you must exhaust, within reason, all possibilities to find the information you’re looking for, which also means familiarizing yourself with what records are available and where to find them. For the beginner, it’s important to understand that while online search sites have (literally) billions of records, and you are very likely to find some of what you’re looking for, not every document or record you need will be online.
Researchers often mistakenly assume that everything they need is going to pop up when they hit the search button, which leads them to make mistakes. If a search returns a record that seems like it could be the one they want, they assume it must be because they’re not aware that the correct one is simply not indexed or available online.
If you’re searching, for example, for a birth record for your great-grandfather Arthur Greenhouse, who you think may have been born in Leeds in 1889, you can’t simply accept that the first birth record you see with that name, year and place is the correct one. There are likely to have been a number of people with that name born in Leeds (or close by) in that year. So you need to consider what further, specific, information you may already have that helps narrow your search. For instance, parents’ names and places of birth; his actual birth date (not just the year); where his parents were living at the time of his birth. Not until you have corroborating evidence can you add this specific record to your tree.
2. Use Complete and Accurate Source Citations
To put it simply, you should indicate where your information came from, and use credible sources. Anyone looking at your tree should be able to replicate your search, and find the same information from the same source that you did.
For beginners, it’s absolutely crucial to remember that other users’ trees do not necessarily count as credible sources. It is too easy to get a little over-eager about hints from other people’s trees. Perhaps that person has already done the serious research work in illustrating some distant branches of your family. By accepting a hint, all those new people can be automatically grafted into your tree. Whilst that can be gratifying, it does sometimes mean you are unwittingly importing errors in the process.
Remember that trees are only as good as their creators. Some are worth copying and some are definitely not. You need to consider how good the information is in the other person’s tree. Is it properly sourced? Does it make sense? The best way to proceed is to try and contact the tree owner for further information, before adding it to your own tree.
3. Analyse and Correlate
This is where you look at the information you’ve found and interpret it. How good are your sources? How reliable is the information? How was that information obtained and from whom? What conclusions or further research steps has it led you to?
If you’re relying on information from a census report, for example, think about how it was completed. In the UK, prior to 1911, all census reports were handwritten by a census taker via a verbal interview with the householder carried out at the front door. Then that record had to be subsequently manually transcribed to be made available online. So you have to ask yourself whether the names are spelled correctly; whether the ages and place of birth fit with known birth records; are the occupations shown in keeping with previous census records you may have seen; are there family members ‘missing’ who should otherwise be present (in which case you should try and find them elsewhere), etc.
4. Resolve Conflicts
This is often much harder to achieve, but we all come across information that doesn’t make sense. For example, in one census, your 2 times great grandfather may be shown to have been born in Leicestershire in 1838; in the next, it states he was born in Lincolnshire in 1845. You need to determine which one is more correct. It could just be error(s) by the census taker – they asked for age at the census date rather than the year of birth (and often rounded to the nearest 5). Or it could have been an error during transcription of the written place names. So you need to look at other family members within the same record as well as existing known information about your 2x great grandfather before you can reach a credible conclusion.
5. Include a Reasoned and Coherent Conclusion
How did you get from the evidence you have gathered to the conclusions you have made? The evidence must be tied together, so taking the step of documenting your reasoning eliminates the chance that you’re simply rubber-stamping a preconceived notion, or that you haven’t fully (or properly) considered all of the evidence.
This is where treeSEARCH’s Genealogy Report truly comes into its own.
Confused? Daunted? There’s no need to be.
One simple thing you can do while researching your tree is to use the Common Sense Standard: when analysing records, be especially skeptical about adding seemingly implausible information to your tree. Families follow logical time scales. So should your tree. Whilst it’s true that sometimes families have extraordinary circumstances, that’s the exception, not the norm.
There’s a scientific principle called Occam’s Razor, which states that the most likely explanation for something is the least complicated. To apply this to genealogy, when analysing your research, the least convoluted answer is usually the correct one.
If you have accepted and imported a hint into your tree, take some time to look at the information and how it impacts on your tree – particularly when it comes to time and place. Wrongs that may very well appear include children born before their parents; parents who are either too young or too old to be parents; too great an age difference between husband and wife; people living for too long; or children being born after their parents have died (no more than 9 months for the father!).
As I summed up my earlier blog – if in doubt, leave it out!