Thoughts on Mastering Genealogical Proof: Chapter 2

This chapter discusses the fundamental concepts behind drawing good conclusions in genealogical research.  In a nutshell, research is about answering questions using the available evidence. A source is a container of information, typically a document, but it could also be a photograph, artefact, oral recounting or something else.  Information is what the source says, such as the name a person used, or their residential address.  Evidence is what that information means in relation to the research question.

The classification of sources, information and evidence is not an end in itself.  It makes you assess the provenance and reliability of the sources and information contained in them and to critically examine the evidence.  It is much more important to understand WHY you arrived at your conclusion than what box you put things into.  The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is a tool that is meant to help you reach defendable conclusions.

USA based panellist, Laurie Desmarais, shared how she checked the validity of an inherited family narrative that lacked any source citations.  The work of previous generations often only survives as conclusions without supporting documentation, which we can improve by filling in the missing parts.  Even a family history that comes with documentation needs checking, including the work of respected authors.

The homework for this chapter focuses on identifying the research questions, and categorising sources, information and evidence using the two case studies in the book.  This is an invitation to start the process of critically examining Thomas Jones’ example studies.

Fellow panellist from the UK, Hilary Gadsby,  noted she was having difficulty classifying the Virginian tax records cited in case study A because she was not familiar with those records.  Both studies were originally published in the American journal, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.  My impression on first readings is that the audience is assumed to have intermediate knowledge of American records.  Whilst this may be true of the original NGS Quarterly readership, it is not so for an international audience.  So, the UK gals have a bit more homework to do.

The ‘Authored works’ source category was included in the GPS in 2013.  Previously I placed maps in the derivative category because they usually incorporate information from a variety of other sources.  However, I now think that most maps are authored works.  Understanding how a map was compiled is necessary if you want to evaluate the reliability of the information it contains.  The survey measures the positions of features.  Place names and other information are added.  Surveys are often only partially updated.

Tony Proctor’s blog post “Where is Bendigo’s Ring” is a good example of using GPS principles to answer the question of where his boxing ancestor’s fights occurred.  Appropriately, he makes extensive use of maps, including Ordnance Survey maps and a sophisticated Geographical Information System (GIS) produced by the county council.  Which is more reliable?  Umm, that will take quite a lot of work to answer.

Reference: Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof  (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013)

© Sue Adams 2014

Catchup: WDYTYA Live 2014 London, FHWC and OPS

It has been a busy month.  Read on for translation of the alphabet soup title of this post.

I started February with the intention of publishing a manorial term each day, building a glossary, as my contribution to the Family HistoryWriting Challenge (FHWC).  You may have noticed a lack of posts after the first few days.  I will post at least 28 terms, but at a slower rate.  Life and other genealogical activities intervened, in particular Who do you think you are? Live in London from 20 – 22 February.

Badges worn at WDYTYA Live 2014I helped out on the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) stand and gave advice as of one of the Society of Genealogist’s ‘Ask the Expert’.  It was truly gratifying to read a will for one lady and explain all the manorial land terms it contained.  She had the faded photocopy of the will for several years, and had managed to read parts of it but did not understand the ‘gobbledy-gook’ legalese.  That reminded me of how much my paleaographic skills and legal knowledge have progressed in the last 5 or 6 years.

During the show I joined the Society for One-Place Studies.  Spot the badge!  I have plans to explore the records of a manor in detail, which should help untangle some of my ancestral relationships.  The place name features in the tag cloud.  That’s all  I am going to reveal right now as my first not-so-simple challenge will be to determine the boundaries of the manor.

© Sue Adams 2014

Thoughts on Mastering Genealogical Proof: Chapter 1

Although the strict, narrow dictionary definition of genealogy restricts the meaning of the word to the study of pedigrees, I use it interchangeably with the term family history.  The dictionary definition of family history expands the meaning to include narratives, family stories and medical history.

The conceptual and methodological changes over the past couple of decades, or paradigm shift as DearMyrtle puts it, expands the definition of genealogy further still.  Accurate determination of the relationships that form the backbone of a family (whatever that is), requires the use of many independent records.  Understanding the creation processes and provenance of those records is critical to correctly interpreting and analysing the information contained in them, which draws on multiple other disciplines such as history, law, geography, biology and so on.

In order to know how I came to a particular conclusion on a relationship, I need to know where I got the information and how I assessed it.  Otherwise, I would have to repeat the whole process from scratch.  Another researcher would have an even more difficult job working out if my conclusion was valid.  This audit trail is often expressed as a proof statement, summary or argument supported by source citations.  Fellow panellist Julie Goucher gave an excellent example of how she recorded a particular record so she could retrieve it even after the archive had moved.

The aim of the Genealogical Proof Standard is to ensure sound research principles have been applied.  A targeted search of resources most appropriate to the question in hand, documentation of sources used, analysis of information gleaned and resolution of any conflicts all feed into the final pulling together of the research effort in a written conclusion.  The process of writing a conclusion is not an add-on; it is part of the process as writing an explanation of the research often exposes holes in reasoning and gaps in searches.  It is perfectly valid to conclude that further work is needed to answer the original question and to caveat conclusions with the limitations experienced.  ‘Proof’ in the genealogical sense is not absolute.  It is about being able to defend your conclusions.

For beginners out there, please don’t allow all this talk to scare you off.  Do the best you can right now, make some mistakes, and learn from them.  Ask a question, come the best answer you can, then come back to it again later.

Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof  (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013)

“genealogy, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 24 February 2014
“family history, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 24 February 2014
“proof, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 24 February 2014
Note: The Oxford English Dictionary is available free to many public library card holders in the United Kingdom.

© Sue Adams 2014


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 713 other followers