What if you could access a tool so powerful it could help you resolve your toughest genealogical problems? Such a tool exists, and it’s available to genealogists at every level of experience. It costs nothing to use and once you understand how it works, you can apply it to every aspect of your family history project. The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is that tool and it should be in every genealogist’s toolbox—whether you are a beginner or an experienced researcher.
What is the GPS? Quite simply, it is a TOOL, comprised of fundamentally sound research STANDARDS, that can be applied to any genealogical question. The application PROCESS involves five basic STEPS. Completion of those five steps helps you reach a well-reasoned CONCLUSION about your research question.
GPS: Who Needs It?
The GPS benefits genealogists and family historians at every level.
- Professional genealogists embrace the standards identified by the Board for Certified Genealogists. Not only must we successfully assist our clients with reaching their goals, we must provide accurate, source-cited results that withstand the scrutiny of others.
- Experienced family historians profit from the principles of evidence analysis and correlation—concepts that can break through brick walls and lead to exciting new discoveries. Effectively written well-reasoned source-cited conclusions ensure our work will stand the test of time.
- Hobbyists who pursue genealogy for fun and relaxation benefit from applying basic GPS principles, achieving satisfying, long-lasting and trustworthy results.
As genealogists and family historians it is in everyone’s best interest to understand and incorporate the principles of the Genealogical Proof Standard. Good news: The GPS consists of common sense practices that anyone can comprehend and apply.
Genealogical Proof Standard: 5 Steps to Success
1. A reasonably exhaustive search.
2. Complete, accurate & informative source citations
3. Thorough analysis & correlation of information.
4. Resolution of conflicting evidence.
5. Success! A well-reasoned, written conclusion.
The GPS at Work
The five steps illustrated here may sound complicated, but they are really quite basic and incorporate many techniques you are probably already using, whether consciously or not. Let’s work through the process together. Start by asking a clearly focused question. Example: Who were Emma Martin’s parents?
Step 1. From this question develop your research plan—what sources might answer your question? Access all relevant, available sources. That is a “reasonably exhaustive search.” Don’t settle for just one source that answers your question. For example, we might find direct evidence to answer our question in a birth record, baptism, census, marriage record, death record, or obituary. Our search may need to expand to less obvious choices—did Emma have brothers and sisters? Can we find evidence for their parentage and their relationship to her? This is the beginning of building a case from indirect evidence.
Step 2. Every source we examine needs to be fully cited in our notes. Negative findings too! You don’t want to repeat that search because you’ve forgotten where you looked. Other researchers need to be able to retrace your steps and understand your reasoning. Source citation is not difficult. Genealogical software can help, and there are several excellent citation reference manuals.
Step 3. Every source must be analyzed—how close to the time of event was the source created? Who created the source and why? Was the informant in a position to have credible knowledge? For instance, if Emma’s birth was reported to the county by the family physician, he should be a reliable witness for the date of birth, and perhaps the child’s name and the father’s name. He might be less reliable for the mother’s maiden name. And he could be mistaken about any of those pieces of information, especially if he delayed his report.
Sources must be understood in terms of legal precedence, historical context, and societal/cultural traditions of the time period. Misinterpretation leads to mistaken conclusions. Learning to analyze sources is a skill that comes with practice and experience, but it’s worth the effort and well within your grasp.
Step 4. As you investigate sources to answer your question, you’ll almost certainly find disagreements—conflicting evidence. Keep track of these conflicts, comparing and contrasting the evidence based on earlier analysis of each source. Correlate your findings. Set aside what doesn’t make sense and draw your conclusions. Be prepared to explain why you believe your findings represent the correct answer to your question.
Step 5. Finally, articulate your conclusion in writing. This may be as simple as a single sentence with a footnote citation, or a list of source-cited evidence. If you’ve encountered conflicting evidence, you will want to write a more detailed discussion of your research process, including the hows and whys of your conclusion.
The GPS is an ongoing cycle of research, analysis, resolution and conclusions. Answers to one question invariably lead to new questions, beginning the cycle all over again.
Genealogy is an evolving field with increasingly sophisticated terminology and techniques. This academic approach lends credibility to a field of endeavor that academia has largely ignored. For the average family historian, a scholarly approach may seem intimidating, but it needn’t be. It’s not a mystery and it’s not magic. Anyone can master the GPS. You can too!
Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 4th ed. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2014.
Jones, Thomas W. Mastering Genealogical Proof. Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013.
Genealogical Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition. Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2014.
Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub., 2007.