Proof of our findings is fundamental to great genealogy. Conclusions about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as proven. To help genealogists recognize and apply good research standards, The Board for Certification of Genealogists has encouraged the use of the Genealogical Proof Standard.
While the standard might have been developed for professional genealogists, every one of us should follow it. Amateur or pro, we all want our genealogy to be the most accurate we can make it. The Genealogy Proof Standard it the best way to ensure that. To say we are doing great genealogy, we must first be doing it right.
There are five elements of the GPS.
Notice the word “reasonably.” You do not have to locate and cite every single record available for your ancestor. What it means is that you have examined a wide range of high quality sources which relate to this specific genealogy question. When consistently applied, this element of the GPS helps to minimize the possibility that undiscovered evidence will later overturn a hastily drawn conclusion.
It is very important to document all sources that you use. This will help both you and your fellow researchers to locate the same sources later. Record all potential sources that you have examined whether they add any new information or not. You won’t cite the documents that you don’t use but, you should keep track of them. It will help you avoid re-examining useless documents. A Research Log is a good tool for tracking sources examined.
The most difficult and time consuming element. To evaluate the quality of your evidence, it is important to determine what type of evidence it is – primary, secondary, original, derivative, etc.(I will cover these types in my next post).
It is not always easy to determine which sources have the most reliable data though. While original, primary sources may seem the most conclusive, the creator of that record may have erred, lied, or omitted critical information. On the other hand, a derivative work which corrects errors in the original may be more reliable than the original itself. Use sound judgment as you evaluate each piece of evidence. This is why great genealogy is more than just copying dates and places. Analyzing the records you find is an art that can be learned and practiced.
When different documents contradict each other – and they will – the problem is more difficult. You will need to apply some common sense in determining which is most likely to be accurate. A birth record is, usually, considered a reliable document but if every piece of information uncovered points to a different birth date, the accuracy of the primary document must be questioned.
In short, strive to arrive at and document the conclusion that is best supported by all the available evidence. In the end, if you are unable to resolve all the conflicting sources, you should record and report both. Add your own explanation of what was done to resolve the conflict and present your best conclusion. Revisit the question at a later date. New information just might resolve the conflict.
Report your finding clearly and without bias. Explain how the evidence you used supported the conclusions you have drawn. When conflicting information still exists, explain the conflict and offer possible solutions. Point out what further research is needed and suggest sources that, if found, would supply the missing information.