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Genealogical Proof Standard 101

By definition, the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is a guideline for establishing or proving the reliability of a genealogical conclusion with reasonable certainty. The accuracy of research and records is important within the genealogical community for clearly communicating the quality of research performed by a person such as a professional genealogist or family historian.

The purpose of the Genealogical Proof Standard is to show what the minimums are that a genealogist must (should) do for their work to be credible so it can be shared with others confidently.

There are five elements to the Genealogical Proof Standard

  1. Reasonably exhaustive research has been conducted.
  2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.
  3. The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.
  4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.
  5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written.

1. Reasonably exhaustive research has been conducted

While your first research find might be great and exactly what you were after, can it be backed up by a second, even a third, verifiable and trustworthy resource? When conducting research for any purpose, it’s often best to find multiple sources that agree.

Depending on your research, it might take a while, there may be conflicts and you may be led to an alternate conclusion.

2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation

A citation states where you found the information you’re providing. Genealogy websites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch automatically create citations when you add a record to a person in your family tree. This citation is included in reports and downloads such as GEDCOM files.

Citations provide many pieces of important information to locate evidence.

  1. Date of publication or event
  2. Author, publication, owner
  3. Where the original document or resource can be found
    1. Online
    2. Genealogy or Heritage Center
    3. Town, City, State, Federal records
    4. Library
    5. University or museum collections
    6. Church repository
    7. Military archives

Citations help the next researcher find that exact document easily if they need to. They know where to go, what time frame to look and who wrote or owns the record.

3. The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted

Do you trust the evidence that you’ve collected? Do you trust where it came from?

Unfortunately, just because grandma wrote a detailed journal about a specific family event or situation, doesn’t make it accurate.

Can grandma’s journal be backed up by any official records? This doesn’t mean grandma doesn’t receive credit for her efforts but unfortunately, it wouldn’t hold up to being an official record if you needed to submit it to join a special interest group or heritage society.

4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved

Do you ever find the information you’re looking for but then find another piece of evidence that makes you question everything?

For example, John Smith who was born in 1860 in New York cannot be the same John Smith who was born in 1860 in Georgia. All of your searches seem to provide data on both and very interchangeably as if they are one person. So, how do you prove that these two John Smiths are not the same person and sort them out?

Many evidence resources that genealogists use can easily create the issue of duplicate people.

  • Census records (probably one of the biggest resources that can create contradictory evidence)
  • Birth, death, marriage records
  • City directories

If not solved quickly or thoroughly, this could really mess up someone’s research. If this research is shared on a public tree, someone else may copy this information. The problem often starts with multiple people of the same name.

What’s the solution? Find more evidence until you reach a definitive conclusion.

Fun Tip: Save information that you find on the wrong person. You can use this wrong information as evidence to prove the information that actually does belong to the correct person.

5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written

Does the conclusion to all of your research make sense?

Have you put together the proper timeline for someone’s details with the records you’ve found without any unexplainable facts? Can someone pick up your research and understand exactly what’s been going on, where you’ve left off and how they can continue?

Evidence vs Proof

Do the words “evidence” and “proof” mean the same thing?

Like a scientist or detective, genealogists and family historians examine the evidence they have to determine its factual proof. Ideally, this is done so the information can be included accurately into the family tree. However, genealogists and family historians can only do their best research with the resources and evidence that is available to them.

In a genealogy sense, “proof” is typically defined as evidence to support a certain conclusion.

Evidence can be thought of as a physical asset. The evidence is the gathering of information that leads to the proof, or conclusion, which could be considered more of a well-thought-out idea or statement. But the proof can still be physical with the evidence that supports it.

“I hold in my hand proof in the form of a certified birth record from the state of New York that John P. Smith Sr. is the father to John P. Smith Jr.. This also confirms that he was born in 1860”.

Undocumented resources and family stories (myths) would be secondary or supportive sources as they can’t be exactly proven but could be included in the hypothesis for the purpose of the research.

Challenge Accepted

Just like detective or scientific work, the proof and evidence can always be up for debate. If new evidence is discovered, it could alter the original research conclusion. In genealogy, you’re not really ever done. Think of it as a challenge!

Depending on your genealogy research skill level, this topic should give you something to think about.

Use the Genealogy Proof Standard as a guide to improve your research and documenting skills.

There is always room for improvement and think of this as a way to help future generations and other genealogists with their research.


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