Genealogical Proof Standard Explained

If you are looking into a career as a genealogist, you'll need to know about the genealogical proof standard. In this article, we'll explain what it is, why it is important, and how it is used.

When many of us start out on the road to family history discovery we usually start off with hundreds of questions and a can-do attitude but not much else. As a hobby, ancestry research can be a fascinating and great use of time which for some becomes a passion and even a profession.

If the addictive world of family history research pulls you toward wanting to make it a career then things become far more serious. The thing that separates the hobbyists from the serious genealogy warriors is a little book known as Genealogy Standards.

When we research our own family we are answerable only to ourselves but if we intend to help others we are expected to live by certain rules and standards.

What Is the Genealogical Proof Standard?

Quite simply, the genealogical proof standard (GPS) is a set of rules and guidelines created by the Board of Certification of Genealogists. It gives genealogists the tools and best practices required to help make solid statements of proof regarding their research.

There are genealogical researchers who claim that they can trace their family history all the way back to Adam and Eve. Leaving aside any theological arguments at this point, such a claim is blatantly inaccurate. If you applied the rules and standards laid out in (GPS) it is impossible through documentation to prove this claim.

Other claims of descent from famous figures in history are sometimes unfounded or blatantly impossible to prove by board standards. The key to good solid genealogy is, of course, well-supported proof.

Source Types

One of the most important things the genealogical proof standard teaches is the need for the best possible sources of information. This is where we gather the proof to support our arguments regarding the family connections we are finding.

We can’t claim to be descended from Henry VIII just because a distant cousin we found on Ancestry has made this connection. Especially if that same cousin has no documents of proof attached to the family connections they claim to link to that famous monarch.

There are three types of sources according to genealogy standards:

  • Original: This would be the original copy of a document that was created close to or at the time and place that an event was said to have taken place.
  • Derivative: This is a source that has been copied from the original, possibly many years after its creation. It is not a photocopy rather a transcription of details from the original document.
  • Authored works: These are the published research documents that have been created by others regarding the person, family or geographical area of interest.

The hierarchy of source types sees original documents as the most important and valuable followed by the derivatives and finally the authored works. This is because the original copies of records, although not immune from mistakes, tend to be the most accurate.

With transcription and interpretation from these original documents, there is an ever-increasing risk of mistakes. This is why genealogy standards prefer original documentation to support any proof statements made.

Types of Information

The genealogy proof standard classifies information in three ways. These different types denote the reliability of the details and hence the likelihood of the validity of the information supplied.

  • Primary: This information is considered to have been supplied by someone who was actually at the event to which they are attesting. As an example, the information given on a birth certificate by one of the parents is considered primary information.
  • Secondary: This is information that is supplied by someone not in attendance during an event. Their information may have been relayed to them from a primary source but they themselves were not present. A child supplying the details of their own birth is actually considered secondary because although they were present they would only know the details of that day as relayed to them by their parents.
  • Indeterminable: This relates to information supplied by someone who cannot supply a reason why they know said details.

In terms of information value, primary information is obviously the most valuable as it comes from an eyewitness to an event. It is likely to be the most accurate account and therefore to be trusted as proof. Secondary information is usually passed from the primary informant but is prone to flaws due to miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Indeterminable information does have less value as proof but this does not make it worthless. It is possible sometimes that this information has some accuracy and could at the very least lead research in the right direction. Obviously, it should still be considered as potentially incorrect until proven otherwise with better proof.

Types of Evidence

Evidence is key to proving our family history theories and connections. We can’t claim to be descended from someone unless we can prove every connection between ourselves and that person. There are three types of evidence that genealogists assess and each has its own merits to research.

  • Direct: This type of evidence comes from something that directly answers a specific question. As an example, a date of birth on an original birth certificate is direct evidence.
  • Indirect: This type of evidence would be something that suggests an answer to a question but does not directly state as much. Several pieces of indirect evidence are required to be considered proof by genealogical standards.
  • Negative: Rather than being proof of the correct answer, negative evidence is considered proof of the incorrect answer. It is valuable in terms of the process of elimination or in proving the absence of an individual. If a family member is missing from a census record in which they were present the decade before this negative result may indicate that person may have died.

It is important to understand these types of evidence so as to better use them in research. All types have their place in a well organized genealogical proof argument or statement. Obviously, the more evidence you have to support a piece of information the more likely it is to be true.

The Five Elements of (GPS)

The genealogical proof standard requires that five elements be satisfied in order to achieve a solid proof statement.

  • Reasonably exhaustive research: This means that you have researched as many possible sources and lines of enquiry as can be reasonably found in the quest for your answer.
  • Complete and accurate citation of sources: This means that along with your research you have recorded the origin via source citation of any items of proof you have used to support your answer.
  • Correlation and analysis of evidence: This means you have gathered the information from your research and tested it for inaccuracy or inconsistencies by comparing the details.
  • Resolution of contradictory evidence: This means that you have addressed any evidence that may contain information that is contrary to that found in other records. The aim is to discover if there may be a reason for the inconsistency and if so can it be resolved with a good reason.
  • Conclusion soundly reasoned and written coherently: Finally, all proof and research should be written up using sound reasoning and evidence. Link all of your information together in a logical and coherent manner so that anyone reading it can follow and understand your argument.

Why We Need Genealogical Proof Standard

If we are just having fun researching our own family history we can be forgiven for playing a little loose and fast with the facts, the only person we are fooling is ourselves. When we start helping others, though, we need to be held to a higher standard.

There are things to consider, not least of which is ethics. When we are producing family tree research for someone else we need to be accurate. We need to act in a professional manner and we can’t make bold claims without proof.

The small handbook Genealogy Standards is an invaluable tool for professional genealogists and should be thoroughly adhered to. Without proof the claims we make are meaningless. So the genealogical proof standard helps guide us to the best method of finding that proof.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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