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Kimberly Powell

The Complete Guide to Genealogical Proof

By October 15, 2012

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I had the pleasure this past week of attending the British Institute in Salt Lake City, a week-long genealogical institute sponsored by the International Society for British Genealogy and Family History. I just couldn't resist the opportunity when I heard about the brand-new course titled "From Simple to Complex: Applying Genealogy's Standard of Proof to Your Work," being taught by one of my favorite instructors, Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, FNGS.

The institute was wonderful, of course, and my fellow classmates (with a special shout-out to my new friends in the"overachievers" group!) were the icing on the cake of a fabulous learning experience. But even better, in my opinion, was learning that the course was adapted from a new book on genealogical proof being written by Dr. Jones.

So what is genealogical proof and why would you want to purchase a book on the topic? I know there are some genealogists who feel that "proof" is too strong a word for supportable conclusions reached through genealogical research, analysis, and correlation, but "proof" as defined by Merriam-Webster is not absolute:

  1. "the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact"
  2. "the process or an instance of establishing the validity of a statement especially by derivation from other statements in accordance with principles of reasoning"
  3. "something that induces certainty or establishes validity"

As Tom Jones describes it: "Genealogy calls acceptable conclusions 'proved.' Other disciplines use different terms to describe acceptability, but genealogy's standards for proof resemble those of other disciplines."1

The yet-to-be-published book "The Complete Guide to Genealogical Proof" will address the five interdependent elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard and the research and reasoning processes and cycles needed to apply this standard to our work. Notice that I use the word work instead of research, here. Research and analysis can, at best, only bring us to a conclusion or conclusions. A genealogical conclusion is not considered "proved" until it is supported by a written explanation, a process that is also touched on in the book, and one of my favorite parts of last week's course. Other topics include:

Thorough research -- why an appropriate research scope is important; how to plan and execute "reasonably exhaustive" research; and how to assess and demonstrate research extent

Source citations -- takes the art of citing sources down to its important basics (who?, what?, when? where in? within the source, and where is? the source physically located) complete with a chart for easily breaking down and recording this information for examined sources. Additional topics such as sequencing of citation elements, and citing physical sources viewed as images are also addressed.

Evidence assessment -- tests of analysis and correlation to assist with reliably proving which sources, information, and evidence items are likely right (and wrong).

Assembling evidence -- assembling direct evidence, indirect evidence, negative evidence, and conflicting evidence to reach a conclusion; resolving conflicting evidence

As previously mentioned, the book will also address assembling and developing the written conclusion, from a simple proof statement, to the more complex proof summary and proof argument.

The best part of the book, however, at least in my opinion, are the exercises (and answers) which will provide practice with applying each of the introduced concepts. We worked on similar exercises in small groups in the course last week, which helped take the learning experience beyond absorbing and being able to regurgitate concepts, to understanding how those concepts can be applied to our own work, and the work of others.

"The Complete Guide to Genealogical Proof," the working title of this new in-press text by Thomas W. Jones, will be published by the National Genealogical Society (NGS) and available sometime next year (2013)--likely in time for the 2013 NGS conference in May, if not earlier. I plan to be first in line to buy my own copy!



1. Thomas W. Jones, "What is Genealogy's Standard of Proof?," From Simple to Complex: Applying Genealogy's Standard of Proof to Your Work, 2012 Syllabus, British Institute (Salt Lake City, Utah: British Institute, 2012), p. 1.

October 16, 2012 at 8:04 am
(1) Harold says:

Hmm, well, I plan to be *before first* in that line!

October 16, 2012 at 8:24 am
(2) Alvie L Davidson CG says:

Many thanks to Harold for passing this great piece of news. I will be keeping my eye open for the release of Tom’s new book!

October 16, 2012 at 8:27 am
(3) Eileen Souza says:

I want to know how to get in line!

October 16, 2012 at 9:40 am
(4) William Flowers says:

I, too, am looking forward to purchasing and reading what promises to be a worthwhile book.

Acceptable conclusions, however, would not be labeled “proof” in either history or the behavioral sciences—the closest relatives of genealogy. Indeed, defining “proof” as conclusion would be antithetical to their methods of concluding or inferring anything from the data they are analyzing.

October 16, 2012 at 9:50 am
(5) Brenda says:

This is welcome news! Thanks, Kimberly.

October 16, 2012 at 10:07 am
(6) Cinamon Collins says:

I predict that this book will be flying off the shelves!

October 16, 2012 at 11:49 am
(7) Pam says:

Definitely looking forward to this book!

October 16, 2012 at 12:52 pm
(8) Jacki Richey says:

Genealogical software provides a place for the citation(s) for each fact. Some software allows you to grade (1-5) the reliability of the source. However, there is no place to write your conclusions and concerns. Of course, you can write comments for the person as a whole, but those would not be tied to a specific fact.

Do you enter a fact about which you are not sure? In Family Tree Maker synced to a tree online at ancestry.com entering a fact, like birth date, name of spouse or parent, can lead to hints (links) to other possible documents that would verify that fact. Leaving it out, of course, would not permit revelation of those documents. If no such hints are revealed, then you would want to remember to delete the questionable fact and perhaps write about it in the comments.

October 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm
(9) keith says:

Well as the old saying stands tall and proud, genealogy without PROOF, is nothing more than Mythology. this should be a fantastic read. thanks again

October 17, 2012 at 2:33 am
(10) Dave says:

Sounds like a great book — I’ll be looking for a copy!

@Jacki: actually, at least one program (Family Tree Maker) does have a notes field tied to each fact, so there is in fact a place to record your thoughts (whether or not the field is large enough I haven’t tested, but as a former database designer/programmer I’ll say there’s no excuse for character limits).

November 1, 2012 at 4:22 pm
(11) J. Paul Hawthorne says:

The class was awesome! Dr. Jones is an exceptional teacher. I can’t wait for his book too! I will be at NGS to get an autographed edition (I hope).

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