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


2 Comments on “Thoughts on Mastering Genealogical Proof: Chapter 1”

  1. Tony Proctor says:

    I consider micro-history to be the next level (going outwards) Sue. If you want to include arbitrary events (not just those involving your family), or friends & neighbours, or entities (e.g. organisations, regiments, classes, etc), or just places, then even ‘family history’ isn’t an appropriate description, even though the principles of research are identical.


  2. […] The Mastering Genealogical Proof Study Group 2 discussion on Chapter 1 took place on 23 February 2014 at DearMYRTLE’s Google+ Hangout-on-Air event.  Including the panellists, 68 people attended.  Following the event, I posted my response to the chapter questions at Thoughts on Mastering Genealogical Proof: Chapter 1 […]


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