Conclusions and Baby Steps
This is the syllabus for one of a series of classes taught by Robert Raymond and represents his private opinions. Suggestions for changes should be made on this page's Discussion page.
“Baby steps” is a system of self evaluation and self improvement. It focuses on five aspects of the evidence analysis process: sources, information, evidence, conclusions, and citations.
Where does conclusions fall in the evidence analysis process? From sources we find information. From information we select evidence. From evidence we make conclusions. Our conclusions contain citations. And citations point back to our sources.
Read through the following table to see how a person might typically improve over time in their use of conclusions. Think about which level best describes you. At the conclusion of the class, set a goal to improve as explained in “Genealogical Maturity.”
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Analysis: A Research Process Map, laminated study guide (Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2006).
|1.||Entry||Accepts without thought or hesitation the first existing conclusion found.|| |
|2.||Emerging||Makes conclusions based upon minimal research and minimal reasoning, based upon a single piece of poorly documented, direct evidence.|| |
|3.||Practicing|| Makes conclusions based upon several sources found after moderate research, with reasoning and documented direct evidence, sometimes resolving contrary evidence.|
|4.||Proficient||Forms conclusions “based on well-reasoned and thoroughly documented evidence gleaned from sound research.”|| |
|5.||Stellar||Additionally, publishes clear and convincing conclusions. Teaches and inspires others.|| |
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009), 820.
The genealogies we create are sometimes called conclusion trees. Each name, date, place, and relationship in the tree is a conclusion. A new genealogist typically accepts conclusions without thought and without evidence. For a proficient genealogist, a conclusion is “a decision…based on well-reasoned and thoroughly documented evidence gleaned from sound research.”
Genealogical Proof Standard
A group of stellar genealogists have defined a method by which solid conclusions can be made. It is called the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).
For some people, high school geometry left permanent scars and the mere mention of the word proof evokes fear and loathing. However, the GPS is nothing to be afraid of. It is easy to understand and produces sound conclusions, even when direct evidence is lacking. “We often hear researchers lament that they cannot find a birth record or a marriage certificate to prove their case, when in reality, they have a solid case if GPS is properly applied.”
The elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard are:
- “A reasonably exhaustive search,
- a complete and accurate citation of sources,
- analysis and correlation of the collected information,
- resolution of conflicting evidence, and
- a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”
Reasonably Exhaustive Search
To reach a solid conclusion you must perform a reasonably exhaustive search. The GPS does not call for exhaustion, it calls for reasonableness. “A completely exhaustive search is not necessary to achieve genealogical proof.” The idea behind a reasonable search is to decrease the probability that someone will summarily dismiss your conclusion using a source you should have checked.
A proficient genealogist uses a wide variety of record types found online, on microfilm, and on location. Keep in mind that not all sources are independent. One may be copied from another. Try to find at least two independent sources for each conclusion.
Complete and Accurate Source Citations
To produce verifiably accurate conclusions, you must have complete and accurate citations of sources. Citations serve two purposes:
- find the source you used (as well as the original from which it was derived), and
- signal the strength of the source.
Complete citations showcase the breadth of your search and the strength of your sources.
Analyze Sources, Information, and Evidence
To reach a solid conclusion you must analyze and correlate the sources, information, and evidence. You must correctly correlate references to one individual in multiple records. If all the evidence is direct and in agreement, no further work is necessary.
Analyze each source, piece of information, and every bit of evidence. Think about the sources. Are they original or derivative? Compare and contrast them. Think about the evidence. Is it direct or indirect? Is it in agreement, or conflicting? Compare and contrast.
Resolve Conflicting Evidence
To reach a solid conclusion you must resolve conflicting evidence. “If conflicting evidence is not resolved, a credible conclusion is not possible.”
Compare the strengths of the evidence supporting each alternative. Decide between the alternatives based strength and quality, not on quantity. “Assigning weight [strength] is subjective. There is no magic formula. It is a skill that is developed over time, with experience, and based upon knowledge of all aspects of the elements of evidence.” Can you explain how each piece of dissenting evidence came to be? Is each independent, or are some derived from others?
Record the Conclusion
To reach a solid conclusion, it must be soundly reasoned and coherently recorded. The more elaborate the analysis, the more that needs to be recorded. In a simple case of multiple sources of direct evidence, none of it contrary, only the conclusion and the citations need to be recorded. A genealogy can’t be verifiably correct unless you document your reasoning.
No conclusion is ever final. Additional research may one day reveal evidence that changes the conclusion.
From sources we find information. From information we select evidence. From evidence we make conclusions. Conclusions reference citations. Citations point back to sources.
To create verifiably correct genealogy, follow the Genealogical Proof Standard:
- Make a reasonably exhaustive search of available sources,
- write complete and accurate citations,
- analyze and correlate the collected information,
- resolve conflicting evidence, and
- write a soundly reasoned, coherent conclusion.
Using the table at the start of this handout, and using what you learned in class today, set a small, baby step improvement goal. See Genealogical Maturity for more information.
Advancing from level to level requires continuing education. Avail yourself of these resources:
- Online tutorials and guides: FamilySearch, National Genealogical Society, and others are listed on the NARA website.
- State and regional conferences: Utah Genealogical Association, Family History Expos, and many more.
- National Conferences: National Genealogical Society, Federation of Genealogical Societies, and RootsTech.
- Intensive week-long study programs called genealogical institutes: SLIG (Salt Lake), British Institute (Salt Lake), NIGR (D.C.), Samford IGHR (Alabama), and GRIP (Pittsburgh).
- Academic genealogical journals: National Genealogical Soceity Quarterly, NEHGS Register, etc.
- Society Magazines: NGS Magazine, etc.
- At home university degrees or courses: Brigham Young University, Akamai University, GenealogicalStudies.com, Boston University, and the Insititute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies.
Recommended Books about Sources, Information, Evidence, Conclusions, and Citations.
- Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd edition. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990. In particular, see chapter 4.
- Leary, Helen F. M., ed. North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History. 2nd edition. Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996. The first section is applicable to research anywhere. Because of the cost, I recommend this book only for those doing research in southern states.
- Merriman, Brenda. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians. 3rd edition. Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2010. Lacks an index.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997. Not as good as Evidence Explained, but cheaper.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown Mills. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Second edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009. For the evidence analysis process, read the 26 pages of chapter 1.
- Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. 3rd revised edition. San José, California: CR Publications, 2009.
- Rose, Christine and Kay Germain Ingalls. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy. 2nd edition. New York: Alpha Books, 2005.
- Rubincam, Milton. Pitfalls in Genealogical Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987.
- Stevenson, Noel C. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof, revised edition. Laguna Hills : Aegean Park Press, 1989. The use of legal terminology is outdated, but the research methodology is still good.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source. Third edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006.
- Mills, Evidence Explained, 820.
- Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2005), 2.
- “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” (http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html).
- Thomas W. Jones, “The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS): What It is and What It is Not,” presentation handout, National Genealogical Society 2011 Family History Conference Syllabus, PDF image (Charleston, South Carolina: NGS, 2011), 355-8 (PDF pp. 377-80).
- Mills, Evidence Explained, 43.
- Jones, “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” 357.
- “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” (http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html).
- Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard, 15.