A number of guidebooks about analyzing genealogical records have appeared in print over the last quarter century. All of them have proven valuable for helping genealogists develop better skills in assessing the records they uncover in doing research. The pioneering work of this genre is Noel C. Stevenson’s "Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship, and Family History" (GC 929 St48gen). Stevenson, a lawyer, used legal terms such as “hearsay” and “preponderance of evidence” to assess the quality of genealogical records, and he provided methodologies for developing proof arguments.
Christine Rose followed Stevenson with "The Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case" (GC 929 R719geb). Her work set forth a new set of principles for evaluating evidence that resonated through the genealogical world and became a benchmark for the standards endorsed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists
. The current BCG website defines the Genealogical Proof Standard
succinctly as follows:
1. A reasonably exhaustive search
2. Complete and accurate source citations
3. Analysis and correlation of collected information
4. Resolution of any conflicting evidence, and
5. A soundly reasoned, coherently-written conclusion.
Genealogists seeking both a path for solving genealogical problems and writing well are encouraged to follow these five steps. Subsequent works, including "Evidence Explained" by Elizabeth Shown Mills (GC 929 M624ea) and "Mastering Genealogical Proof" by Thomas W. Jones (CG 929 J71m), have built on the GPS’s foundation. "Mastering Genealogical Proof," published last year, expounds on each of its five elements, providing readers with sets of questions to ask and concepts to understand when evaluating a record. Mills’s book remains the definitive tool for citing that evidence coherently and completely in a footnote.
This year, a new book on this topic presents a somewhat divergent model for evaluating evidence: "Elements of Genealogical Analysis" by Robert Charles Anderson (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014), (GC 929 An2e). As the long-time head of NEHGS’s Great Migration Project
, Anderson has earned respect for the caliber of the research methodology he has employed in evaluating evidence for his project. The Great Migration is a prosopography published in multiple volumes that traces every known settler arriving in New England to the year 1635. Considered a ground-breaking work, the series has uncovered many new records while also dispelling and disproving many false claims widely circulated in print.
In "Elements of Genealogical Analysis," Anderson sets forth the process of evaluation that he has used so effectively with the Great Migration Project
. It is, as he says, “a book about how to solve genealogical problems.” He begins by setting forth two fundamental rules to genealogical research:
1. “All statements must be based only on accurately reported, carefully documented, and exhaustively analyzed records.”
2. “You must have a sound, explicit reason for saying that any two records refer to the same person.”
Anderson’s first rule can be compared with the first two tenets of the Genealogical Proof Standard
: a Reasonably Exhaustive Search and Complete and Accurate Source Citations. The second rule, while not elucidated specifically in the GPS, is nevertheless subsumed by “Analysis and Correlation of Collected Information.” Indeed, even though Anderson offers readers a new model or paradigm, some of "Elements of Genealogical Analysis" can be found in other forms within the GPS.
In the body of the book, Anderson lays out the heart of his methodology. He identifies a set of three tools (source analysis, record analysis, and linkage analysis) and a five-step sequence for solving genealogical questions. He defines a “source” as a coherent group of records created by a single entity or person; a “record” as that portion of a source that pertains to a single event; and “linkage analysis” as the process of studying two different records pertaining to a name and determining whether they pertain to the same person or two or more different people.
The first step of Anderson’s problem-solving sequence is “Problem Selection,” identifying the genealogical problem you are trying to solve. This step may seem intuitive, but untying a complex knot into its component threads often brings to light multiple problems, not just one, to be solved. Resolving each one separately is essential to solving the whole.
His second step is “Problem Analysis,” in which one examines everything known about the problem, including gathering and evaluating the previously-published work of other genealogists relating to the problem, and considering all assumptions others have made about it. Again, Anderson urges genealogists to “pick apart” that work into its most basic components. While not unlike the third element of the Genealogical Proof Standard, Anderson brings to bear some of his own scientific training as a former molecular biologist by advocating that genealogists deconstruct or perform “a reverse linkage analysis” with each problem, while at the same time creating a plan for collecting new data. By stripping away previous conclusions by others, whether they involve the form of a name, an ascribed date, a place or event, one can often find new ways of looking at each component.
The third step of Anderson’s five-part plan is “Data Collection,” when one puts the newly-formed research plan into action. This step is crucial for finding a resolution and may involve seeking what he terms “external knowledge,” using all appropriate finding aids, and considering the record density of the time and place being researched. A full examination of all archival sources, including the most original copy of a record, is a crucial part of this step. The researcher will need to make sure that every record is accurately reported and documented so that a proper citation can be made (Step 2 of the Genealogical Proof Standard
Anderson’s fourth step, “Synthesis,” involves his linkage analysis tool - essentially creating what he terms “bundles” of two or more linked records and determining whether they pertain to the same person. This step is akin to Steps 3 and especially 4 of the Genealogical Proof Standard
, “Resolution of any Conflicting Evidence,” though Anderson’s linkage bundles offer a slightly different twist from the way Jones presents Step 4 in Mastering Genealogical Proof. Here Anderson assumes that the researcher has already weeded derivative sources and secondary evidence at the “Problem Analysis” stage, while Jones advocates doing so later in the process. Anderson provides numerous examples of linkage bundles and resolved problems drawn mostly from his colonial New England research.
His fifth and final step, “Problem Resolution,” emerges as a direct result of the synthesis and linkage analysis, the point where the researcher reaches a defensible conclusion based on the connections made after a careful study of the bundled records. This step, while similar to the fourth element of the Genealogical Proof Standard, lacks the writing component imbedded in the GPS’s fifth element, “a coherently-written conclusion.” Advocates of the GPS emphasize the physical act of writing – developing written proof summaries and arguments and honing them a clear writing style – as integral to the process of solving a problem, a way of gathering one’s thoughts while interpreting the evidence. By contrast, Anderson does not address writing at all in his five elements, even though it is in some respects implicit in his process. The difference is that Jones and other advocates of the GPS embrace the act of preparing a cogent proof argument as essential, not ancillary, to a problem’s resolution.
In spite of these minor differences, "Elements of Genealogical Analysis" is not in conflict with "Mastering Genealogical Proof." Readers are not forced to choose one system over the other or to say that one is “right” and the other “wrong.” Anderson’s book offers a new model, a reshuffling of some elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard
, which can be useful for any genealogist seeking new ways of analyzing a problem. There should be room for both volumes on the shelves of any genealogical library.