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

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

  1. Dame Gussie says:

    Well said. I was a bit more wordy. I like your approach better.


  2. Hi, Sue,

    Watched last Sunday’s study group again.

    The same can be said about Canadian researchers, although we are a bit more familiar with American records, than the British gals are. But it seems to be a common problem. The course that I am taking (from The National Institute for Genealogical Studies from Toronto) have the same problem, covering British, Canadian, and American records are not the same, and to try and give them equal time is a bit difficult.

    But if the people can get the fundamental idea of sources, records and information, I think they will be ok. The US has many more records available to you than Canada does!

    I reviewed my answers that I wrote last year, and I am going to answer them again, because the answers were not as complete as they should have been.



  3. […] The Mastering Genealogical Proof Study Group 2 discussion on Chapter 2 took place on 2 March 2014 at DearMYRTLE’s Google+ Hangout-on-Air event.  Including the panellists, 35 people attended.  Following the event, I posted my response to the chapter at Thoughts on Mastering Genealogical Proof: Chapter 2 […]


  4. Lonnie Bowers says:

    You explained the overview of Chapter 2 very well. Your writing made the concepts easy to understand. thank you.


    • Thank you for the compliments. Would you care to say a little more about how my writing helped you?

      Although your comment may be genuine, it is a little vague, so could be spam. A tip for commenting on blogs is to include content that adds to the discussion and clearly shows that you have read and thought about the blog post. In this case showing you have watched the embeded video would also work.


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