The Genealogical Proof Standard might sound like something reserved for professional genealogists, but it's for anyone who wants to do sound genealogy research. Here's what it is, what it isn't, and how it can help you.
The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) was developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists nearly 20 years ago. It describes what makes up sound genealogical research and can (should) be used by all researchers, not just those who are credentialed or do research for hire.
It's made of 5 components, which work together.
1. Reasonably Exhaustive Research
Reasonably exhaustive research doesn’t mean you have to find every possible record. It doesn't mean that you're required to find the piece of paper that slid behind the filing cabinet at the courthouse 40 years ago.
It means you look for the records that a competent, thorough researcher would be expected to find.
If you’re trying to identify your great-great-grandmother’s parents, have you looked for her birth certificate? Let’s say that there aren’t any birth certificates when she was born, so you look for her death certificate and it names the parents. But is that reasonably exhaustive research into identifying her parents? Probably not. To be exhaustive, you would also need to take a look at her marriage records to see if she names her parents on there. You would also look at the census to see who she is living with. You would look at the probate and land records of the people named on her death certificate to corroborate (or refute) what it says.
What if you want to identify when and where your great-grandfather died? Finding his memorial on FindAGrave is not reasonably exhaustive, as there are numerous other records that you should look for, such as his death record, obituary, probate, etc. You can use the FindAGrave information as a clue for more research, but that memorial by itself isn't reasonably exhaustive.
2. Complete and Accurate Source Citations
Source citations are not the most exciting aspect of genealogy. But it is darn near impossible to do research without them.
Source citations allow us to see where our information came from, which helps us find it again if we need to, as well as giving us a way to evaluate what we have.
Note that this part of the Genealogical Proof Standard calls for “complete and accurate source citations.” It doesn’t say anything about formatting. It’s about having all of the necessary elements that you need in a citation.
Regarding accuracy, that doesn’t apply only to having the correct page number in the citation. It means that you’re citing what you actually used. So if you used book of will abstracts, you cite that rather than citing the will (which you didn’t actually see.) If you used a database of marriage records, you cite the database, not the marriage records in the probate court.
(You might want to check out my earlier post, "Citing Sources Without Stressing Out.")
3. Thorough Analysis and Correlation
If you find a record and you just skim through it to pick out the one fact that you were looking for, that wouldn’t be a thorough analysis.
This part of the GPS is all about understanding the records that you’re using. Are you reading it correctly? Are you understanding the terms that are used? Do you know where it came from and why it was created? How does it fit in with other records and with other information that you have?
4. Resolution of Conflicting Evidence
Sooner or later, your research will uncover records that conflict. One record will name your ancestor’s father as John and another record will say it’s William. Which one is right? Is either one right?
This part of the standard is about how you evaluate all of the evidence that you have so that the conflict is resolved. Can you explain why one record is incorrect? Can you make a convincing argument why the other one is right?
Just making an excuse for the record isn’t a resolution of the conflict.
(By the way, just because 6 records say one thing and only 1 record says something different doesn’t necessarily mean that the 6 records are right. Accuracy isn't determined by popular vote.)
5. Soundly Written Conclusion Based on the Strongest Evidence
Yes, it says "written conclusion." If you have a situation where you have conflicting evidence, a single source citation isn’t going to cut it. You need to explain how you came to the conclusion that you did.
Writing is also an aid to our research. Having to write something down forces you to think it through, which can help you spot errors in your logic and holes in your research.
The Genealogical Proof Standard Is for Everyone
The Genealogical Proof Standard isn’t just for professional genealogists. It’s for anyone who wants to do good, solid research. When you keep the 5 components of the GPS in mind, your research will be a lot stronger.