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Evidence or Proof?

How to Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to Your Family Tree

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There is nothing more frustrating to a genealogist than locating details on an ancestor in a published book, Web page, or database, only to later find that the information is full of errors and inconsistencies. Grandparents are often linked as parents, women bear children at the tender age of 6, and often entire branches of a family tree are attached based on nothing more than a hunch or guess. Sometimes you may not even discover the problems until quite some time later, leading you to spin your wheels struggling to confirm inaccurate facts, or researching ancestors who aren't even yours.

What can we as genealogists do to a) be sure that our family histories are as well-researched and accurate as possible, and b) educate others so that all of these inaccurate family trees don't continue to procreate and multiply? How can we prove our family tree connections and encourage others to do the same? This is where the Genealogical Proof Standard established by the Board for Certification of Genealogists comes in.

Genealogical Proof Standard
As outlined in the "BCG Genealogical Standards Manual" (Compare Prices), the Genealogical Proof Standard consists of five elements:

  • A reasonably exhaustive search for all pertinent information
  • A complete and accurate citation to the source of each item used
  • Analysis of the collected information's quality as evidence
  • Resolution of any conflicting or contradictory evidence
  • Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

A genealogical conclusion that meets these standards can be considered proved. It may still not be 100% accurate, but it is as close to accurate as we can attain given the information and sources available to us.

Sources, Information & Evidence
When collecting and analyzing the evidence to "prove" your case, it is important to first understand how genealogists use sources, information and evidence.

  • Original vs. Derivative Sources
    Referring to the provenance of the record, original sources are records that contribute written, oral, or visual information not derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from another written or oral record. Derivative sources are, by their definition, records which have been derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from previously existing sources. Original sources usually carry more weight than derivative sources.

  • Primary vs. Secondary Information
    Referring to the quality of the information contained within a particular record, primary information comes from records created at or near the time of an event with information contributed by a person who had reasonably close knowledge of the event. Secondary information, by contrast, is information found in records created a significant amount of time after an event occurred or contributed by a person who was not present at the event. Primary information usually carries more weight than secondary information.

  • Direct vs. Indirect Evidence
    Evidence only comes into play when we ask a question and then consider whether the information found in a particular record answers that question. Direct evidence is information that directly answers your question (e.g. When was Danny born?) without a need for other evidence to explain or interpret it. Indirect evidence, on the other hand, is circumstantial information that requires additional evidence or thought to convert it into a reliable conclusion. Direct evidence usually carries more weight than indirect evidence.

These classes of sources, information and evidence are rarely as clear-cut as they sound since information found in one particular source can be either primary or secondary. For example, a death certificate is an original source containing primary information directly relating to the death, but may also provide secondary information regarding items such as the deceased's date of birth, parent's names, and even children's names. If the information is secondary, it will have to be further assessed based on who provided that information (if known), whether or not the informant was present at the events in question, and how closely that information correlates with other sources.

Next > Applying the Genealogical Proof Standard to Your Research

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