Thoughts on Mastering Genealogical Proof: Chapter 2Posted: 05 Mar 2014
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