10-Minute Methodology: “Reasonably Exhaustive”—How Do We Know We’re There?

Evaluating what we’ve done

There comes a time when we have to stop researching. Sometimes it’s when we feel we’ve answered our research question. Sometimes we’re unsure, fearing we missed something. We can evaluate our research to see if it’s reasonably exhaustive by asking questions about its breadth and strength.[1]

1. Do the research results answer our question? Have we used them to make a convincing case?

2. Does the research address all potentially relevant available sources? This is where we listen to that small voice that reminds us about that repository or informant we’ve been reluctant to visit or contact. Genealogy Standards asks if it covers “sources competent genealogists would examine to answer the same research question.”[2]

Hmm. How do we know, aside from the big names in the field, who’s a “competent genealogist”? How do we know what sources they would examine to answer our research question? This seems like a very subjective measure. It helps to go back to the last post and look at it with the mindset that competent genealogists wrote the standards. That’s better. Then we can see the lists of factors to consider when selecting our sources and use them as our guide.

3. Does the research cover a wide variety of sources and does it “replace, where possible, relevant authored narratives, derivative records, and information that is secondary or undetermined”?[3] We have to dig deeper and find out where those derivative sources got their facts. We can’t just trust someone who collected and published names a century ago.

4. Have we tested our collected data by analysis and correlation to establish its accuracy and consistency? Put another way, do “at least two sources of independent information items agree directly or indirectly on a research question’s answer”?[4]

5. Does the research provide “at least some primary information and direct, indirect, or negative evidence from at least one original record”?[5] This is the really big question that urges us to seek out the primary information from original sources beyond where the internet can take us.

6. Have all conflicts been resolved? How well?

When we’re ready to stop researching we acknowledge that when we make our conclusion public (in whatever format we choose), there is a possibility that someone somewhere will turn up a source with new evidence. These questions are intended to minimize the likelihood of that happening. We may ask one last overall question:

7. What is the risk of new evidence coming to light that will overturn this conclusion?

What? There’s more research to do?


[1] The definition of “reasonably exhaustive research” in Genealogy Standards informs most of these questions. See Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry.com, 2014), Glossary, 74–75. The criteria are treated more fully in Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013). See especially Chapter 3, “GPS Element 1: Thorough Research,” 23–29. Also Thomas W. Jones, “When Enough Is Enough: How Much Searching is ‘Reasonably Exhaustive’?” Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly 25 (March 2010): 25–33. The author thanks Alison Hare, CG, for invaluable input.

[2] Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry.com, 2014), 74.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


CG, Certified Genealogist, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer, are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.

10-Minute Methodology: What Is “Reasonably Exhaustive” Research?

Let’s look at the searching part of research. As in the last post on research, we’ll see that it’s more involved than just looking.

Genealogy Standards offers this goal of reasonably exhaustive data-collection: “Genealogists attempt to collect all information potentially relevant to the questions they investigate.”[1] Got that? All information. All potentially relevant information. Potentially relevant to the questions under investigation.

Our research question determines what “reasonably exhaustive” research looks like. We start with a problem, most commonly a question of identity or kinship. The individuals, what we want to know about them, the time and place in which they lived, and their life circumstances set the course of our research.

Time and place. Our research subjects lived in specific places in specific time periods. If we don’t know about the place or time period, we have to educate ourselves about history and geography at the least. Relevant considerations include

  • historical boundaries and their changes,
  • migration patterns and routes,
  • what sources are available in the relevant times and places.[2]

Life circumstances also determine the direction of our research. Aside from our subjects’ gender, race, and ethnicity, their life patterns suggest numerous research paths and types of sources. They interacted with legal and governmental entities and religious institutions. They may have served in the military or participated in social clubs. They had financial and trade dealings. They spoke a language and often left traces of their handwriting. They had many or few belongings of different kinds. They were wealthy or poor, free or enslaved. They left a legacy in their descendants’ DNA. Thinking of our subjects as people in families and communities suggests a wide variety of sources to discover and examine. Looking at all these factors in the relevant times and places will potentially lead us to a wide variety of sources that may name or bear on our research subjects.[3]

Quality information. At the outset the list of types of sources to be researched can be quite long. It includes “databases, finding aids, indexes, search engines . . . authored narratives, derivative sources, and documented and undocumented genealogies.”[4] However, we aim, wherever possible, to find the original records alluded to in other works and information provided by informants as close as possible to the events in question.[5] Sometimes this effort draws out our research time and effort considerably, all in the pursuit of “reasonably exhaustive” research.

The idea of testing our hypotheses addresses “reasonably exhaustive” research head-on.[6] Not only do we seek and gather data, but we also compare items to each other. Depending on how they correlate with other information, we accept them as evidence for or against our hypotheses. Some information may conflict, pushing us to research more until we can resolve discrepancies. Reasonably exhaustive research extends beyond searching to the mental effort of evaluating and processing our data to be sure we can test our theories.[7]

If we don’t have enough data to test, we broaden our search. We extend it to include our subject’s family, associates, and neighbors. We then seek out the same types of information indicated above, but for a wider circle of people.[8] This can be very time consuming and result in the accumulation of much data. Within it, however, we may well find the evidence we need to answer our research question.

So how do we know when it’s safe to stop? Watch for the next “10-Minute” post.


[1] Standard 19, Data-collection scope, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry.com, 2014), 16.
[2] Standard 12, Broad context, Genealogy Standards, 12.
[3] Standards 12, Broad context, and 14, Topical breadth, Genealogy Standards, 12, 13.
[4] Standard 13, Source-based content, Genealogy Standards, 12–13.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Standard 17, Extent, Genealogy Standards, 14–15.
[7] Genealogical Proof Standard, bullets three and four, Genealogy Standards, 1–2.
[8] Standard 14, Topical Breadth, Genealogy Standards, 13.

10-Minute Methodology: Are You Searching or Researching?

Are you up to date? From the old Standards Manual to the new Genealogy Standards the first component of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is different. Have you noticed? We used to say, “We conduct a reasonably exhaustive search.”[1] That’s still true, but there’s more. We conduct reasonably exhaustive research.[2] Those two added letters bring much more to what others expect of us as genealogists and what we must expect of ourselves.

Research connotes more than search. It covers searching, of course—careful and thorough searching in a wide variety of sources. It also includes planning, critical thinking, and evaluation. And research includes strategies that go considerably beyond identifying relevant records and searching for a name of interest.[3]

Let’s look at how the concept is presented in reference works we use often.

The Encyclopedia Britannica dictionary includes in its definition of research

  • “careful or diligent search” and
  • “studious inquiry or examination, especially critical and exhaustive investigation . . . having for its aim
    • discovery of new facts and their correct interpretation;
    • revision of accepted conclusions . . . in the light of newly discovered facts;
    • practical applications of such new or revised conclusions.”[4]

The glossary in Genealogy Standards describes research as “an investigation designed to discover or interpret facts and thus to advance knowledge.”[5]

As genealogists, we examine sources and collect information, always subjecting both to critical evaluation. Standards 35 and 36 advise us to “appraise [the] likely accuracy, integrity, and completeness” of our sources and information.[6]

We also interpret the information we find. We think about it and decide if it becomes evidence to support our hypotheses. Standards in “Reasoning from Evidence” apply to the mental processes we perform on our collected data to turn it into evidence and to use that evidence to draw conclusions.[7]

Evidence Explained sheds more light on the concept of research:

  • “As history researchers, we do not speculate. We test. We critically observe and carefully record. Then we weigh the accumulated evidence, analyzing the individual parts as well as the whole, without favoring any theory.”[8]
  • “Research is much more than an accumulation of data. It is a process that requires continual comparison of new information against the old.”[9]

This first element of the GPS, even the word research alone, carries in it the sense and the value of the whole standard. The words of the GPS define us as not just lookup artists, no matter how skilled or experienced. We are more. As researchers we collect data, subject it to rigorous evaluation, compare and contrast it with other data and conclusions, and propose new information or conclusions. That’s a big responsibility. The GPS takes us there with the mindset of researchers, not just seekers.

[1] The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), 1.

[2] Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry.com, 2014), 1.

[3] The author is grateful to Elizabeth Shown Mills for input to this paragraph and encouragement overall.

[4] “Dictionary,” Encyclopædia Britannica (http://www.britannica.com/dictionary/research : accessed 28 June 2015), s.v. “research.”

[5] Genealogy Standards, 76.

[6] Ibid., 21, 22.

[7] Ibid., 23–29.

[8] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015), 15.

[9] Ibid., 16.

Harold Henderson, CG: Analyze or Else!

SpringBoard is pleased to offer a post by guest blogger Harold Henderson, CG. Harold has been a professional writer since 1979, a professional genealogist since 2009, and a Board-certified genealogist since June 2012. He lives and works in northwest Indiana, serves as a trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and has published in National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), New England Historical and Genealogical Register, New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and elsewhere. His website is midwestroots.net.

Analyze or Else! by Harold Henderson, CG

Genealogists who meet standards do so in part by asking pointed, even impolite, questions about every document and piece of information they see. It’s called analysis. Genealogists who don’t meet standards do so by trusting everything they see, and not asking questions. And anyone who is still this trusting is not ready to apply for certification.

As ambitious genealogists, we need to know how to analyze sources. We need to do it all the time—and we need to feel queasy when we don’t. The example that follows involves no difficult problem, requires no unusual skill, and would not normally appear in a peer-reviewed genealogy journal. It shows the pitfalls of trusting the first source we find and the benefits of carefully analyzing all information from all sources.

Eliphas Thrall gravestone, courtesy of Jennifer Alford

Recently I wanted to document Eliphas Thrall’s birth date. His grave marker in Ohio gives his death date (19 March 1834) and his age at death (65 years, 8 months, 19 days).[1] This information does not determine a single definite birth date. Different methods of subtracting produce slightly different birth dates for Eliphas, between 28 and 30 June 1768.[2]

Case closed? No. I did not ask myself, “Is this true or false?” And if I had it wouldn’t have helped much. Sometimes grave markers and statements of age are mistaken, and sometimes they aren’t. I had to get down to a deeper level and consider the factors that would make the birth date more likely to be one or the other.

Whoever provided the information for the marker probably was not present for Eliphas’s birth in New England, and probably knew Eliphas’s birth date only by hearsay. That person might also have taken Eliphas’s supposed birth date and gone through a complex calculation, filled with chances of error, to figure his age at death. Could I find a way to get information about the birth that is closer in time to the event, more likely to come from an eyewitness?

I knew the family came from Connecticut and had lived in western Massachusetts. The published vital records of Granville, Massachusetts, give Eliphas’s birth date as 23 June 1767—more than a year earlier than the calculated dates from the grave marker.[3]

Case closed? Not. The book was published in 1914. Some conscientious twentieth-century person read through the Granville birth records (or a copy), and summarized them. Then they were typeset. That leaves plenty of chances for mistakes. So this handy, easily read published list is a derivative source. What do I do with a derivative source? Try to find what it’s derived from.

Do the original birth records for Granville survive from around 1767? Not only do they survive, they’re on line.[4]

The 1914 summarizer didn’t make any mistakes that I can see, but some information was lost in the process. The original lists the children in chronological order with a note in the middle making it easier to see that Eliphas was the last child born in Windsor, Connecticut, and his brother, two years later, was the first in the family to be born in Granville, Massachusetts. The handwriting also enables me to see that the entire list down to James was written in the same hand and with the same pen, no doubt at the same time—after the birth of Mary in 1775 and before the birth of James in 1778, which is in a different hand. So now I know that Eliphas’s birth date was written down, perhaps at the dictation of his father, between those two dates, before Eliphas had grown up.

Looking at the adjoining pages suggests that some of the top-of-page entries like the Thralls’ may have been made in sequence in the 1770s, with space left on the lower part of each page for additional children. Evidently in time a clerk went back and saved paper by filling the blank spaces with later entries.

What did my questions get me? Higher-quality evidence than I would have had if I had settled for the grave marker or the 1914 publication. The Granville record is not contemporaneous with Eliphas’s birth, but it is as close as I have been able to come so far. The Granville informant was much more likely to have been around when Eliphas was born than the tombstone informant. So unless and until new evidence appears to corroborate either 28–30 June 1768 or 23 June 1767 (and it may appear as I follow Eliphas to Vermont and Ohio), the chance of the 1768 date being wrong is greater.

This chase would have been worthwhile even if all three sources agreed right down to the day. The point is to look as hard as we can—and in genealogy that does not mean staring at the page until our eyes cross. It means recognizing that there are more questions to be asked and often more and better records to find.

Analysis is not a frill—and not always this straightforward. It is at the heart of what we do.

[1] Find A Grave, database with images (http://www.findagrave.com : accessed 10 June 2015), memorial 19,659,389, Eliphas Thrall (d. 1834), Old Colony Burying Ground, Granville, Licking County, Ohio.

[2] RootsMagic and timeanddate.com give 28 June; calculator.net gives 30 June. The late lamented Master Genealogist program always indicated the result was approximate. A very full explanation is Barbara Levergood, “Calculating and Using Dates and Date Ranges,” NGSQ 102 (March 2014): 51–73. The inevitable variance is discussed on p. 52.

[3] Vital Records of Granville, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1914), 85; Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/cu31924028820609 : viewed 10 June 2015).

[4]  Town of Granville (Massachusetts), Town Records, Births, Marriages, Deaths 1751-1786, Samuel Thrall family, p. 114; digital image, FamilySearch  (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-267-11883-59149-92?cc : viewed 10 June 2015).

CG and Certified Genealogist are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.

Skillbuilding: Eagleson on Conflicting Evidence

SpringBoard, an official blogger for the 2015 NGS Family History Conference, is pleased to offer a review of this Skillbuilding lecture, presented Wednesday, 13 May 2015:

W151: Pamela Stone Eagleson, CG, “Confronting Conflicting Evidence”, reviewed by Patricia Hobbs, CG.

Pam Eagleson advises that conflicts in our research must be resolved—we can’t just believe what we want about our ancestors. When we encounter a conflict, we conduct further research and carefully compare and analyze the sources used and information obtained. Although we are not always able to resolve the conflict, when we can, we describe our resolution in writing.

Pam’s talk begins with a short overview of sources, information, and evidence. She references Elizabeth Shown Mills’s research process map and a “Quick Lesson” from the Evidence Explained website. Pam also discusses the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Eagleson presents six examples of conflicting cases with wide-ranging outcomes. For each case, she identifies the types of sources, information, and evidence evaluated. One problem was resolved after compiling and correlating information from several sources. This resulted in the discovery of an error in a transcription, emphasizing the need to look beyond the easy-to-find indexes. Other cases were solved by consulting experts, by understanding the mindset of people in certain social situations, and by bringing a healthy level of skepticism to bear in identifications made by earlier generations. The most amazing solution was identifying a woman who at various times was referenced by four different surnames. Understanding the culture of the research locale was essential to solving this challenging problem.

We all face conflicting evidence in our research, and Pam Eagleson’s examples from her experiences help us to understand better the principles underlying the process towards resolution.

A recording of this lecture may be ordered from Jamb Tapes, Inc.

CG, Certified Genealogist, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.

Skillbuilding: Hait on Reasonably Exhaustive Research

SpringBoard, an official blogger for the 2015 NGS Family History Conference, is pleased to offer a review of this Skillbuilding lecture, presented Friday, 15 May 2015:

F351: Michael Hait, CG, “What Is a ‘Reasonably Exhaustive Search’?” reviewed by Nancy A. Peters, CG

Michael Hait, CG

Michael Hait, CG, began his lecture by reminding us that any single record can mislead or contain errors. Many genealogical researchers have heard about the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) and its role in preventing us from coming to wrong conclusions and chasing the wrong ancestors. Michael briefly reviewed the five elements of the GPS, the first of which tells us that “reasonably exhaustive research” is a prerequisite for sound conclusions. Yet some researchers might ask: What is reasonable? How do you conduct reasonably exhaustive research? In his lecture Michael answered those questions and showed an example.

In a humorous way, he first told us what is not the answer to the first question. He promptly discredited the myth that three is “the magic number” of sources needed to ensure an accurate conclusion. Michael then gave us some practical guidance for how to go about meeting this important first element of the GPS.

Michael gave another wise piece of advice—expand your horizons—and followed it with an example of what that means and why it’s important to our research. He illustrated his points with a case study example using direct, indirect, and negative evidence, which was taken from his own research and writing on the Hait family.

Any family historian who is serious about producing accurate work and determining sound kinship connections will find this lecture full of useful ideas and guidance.

If you missed this lecture at the 2015 NGS Conference, a recording is available from Jamb Tapes, Inc. In addition, Michael will repeat his talk for the upcoming BCG Lecture Series on 9 October 2015 at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. This series of six lectures sponsored by BCG is free and open to the public. No prior registration is necessary.


CG, Certified Genealogist, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.

Ten-Minute Methodology: Identity Proof in a List

We’ve seen in earlier posts what genealogical proofs look like in a narrative and a footnote. A list, bulleted or numbered, is another effective way of presenting the proof that supports a conclusion.

Proofs in list format are clean, concise, and easy to follow. All the data is assembled in one place, and the correlation is obvious.

Standard 53 (can’t escape it!) offers a list as one of the options for a proof summary when the evidence is direct and the conflicts minor. “Proof summaries . . . may appear in a broader context—for example, within an article or case study, a narrative family history or monograph, or a report for a client, court, or personal files.” [1]

Here’s one by Harold Henderson, CG, that appears as part of an article.[2]

The list correlates data from a number of sources to show that Elizabeth Porter of the Midwest was the same person as Elizabeth Bassett from a New York family record. Once Harold establishes Elizabeth’s identity, he continues his argument for her being the daughter of a man whose probate petition didn’t include her, but by law should have.

Each bullet point describes evidence of relationships between Elizabeth and her siblings (all named in a family Bible record) and between her children and extended family. Note 1, mentioned in footnote 7, below, refers to the Lewis Bassett family record as found in his wife’s Revolutionary War widow’s pension file.

The evidence is all direct. There are no conflicts. We can accept that Elizabeth of two different places was the same woman.

For another example of a list-style proof that incorporates explanatory narrative, see Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 61. The same list was first published in Thomas W. Jones, “Misleading Records Debunked: The Surprising Case of George Wellington Edison Jr.,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 100 (June 2012): 141–42.

[1] Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry.com, 2014), 32–33.

[2] Harold A. Henderson, “A Missing Heir: Reconnecting Elizabeth (Bassett) Porter to Her Parents, Lewis and Dorcas (Hoxie) Bassett,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 145 (July 2014): 165–84, on pp. 166–67. The article continues in subsequent issues. Reprinted with permission. Members of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society can access the article online or from the NYG&B home page > eLibrary Collections > The Record > Search “vol 145.”

CG or Certified Genealogist is a service mark of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.


Ten-Minute Methodology: Proof in a Footnote

A genealogical proof can be as simple and compact as a footnote. Yes! Believe it.

The standards guide us, as always:

Standard 51 describes the need for our narrative and our source citations to show a thorough search in sources “competent genealogists would use,” favoring original sources and primary information;

Standard 52 reminds us that a conclusion answers a specified or implied question;

Standard 53 offers format options for presenting the proof; and

Standard 54 refers to the logical sequencing of the conclusion.[1]

BCG associate Donn Devine, CG, FNGS, found that his proof for the children of a couple fit nicely in a footnote, excerpted with highlights below. Thanks to Donn for permission to reprint the excerpt.[2]

Here’s how Donn’s proof meets the standards:

Standard 51: The footnote correlates evidence from vital records (negative), estate records (particularly valuable as an original source providing primary information), censuses (which confirm the estate evidence), and city directories. The last sentence also refers to the article’s narrative, which establishes the family’s residences. All sources are as close to original records as possible.

Standard 52: The questions are explicit: “Who were the children of George and Mathilde (Bacharach) Falk?” and “Where were they born?”

Standard 53: This proof statement succinctly presents the evidence. One minor conflict, a birth-order reversal, is resolved by reference to a census and by a brief written explanation.

Standard 54: The source that names all the children in order is presented first, followed by the 1860 and 1870 censuses (which do not indicate kinship nor list yet-unborn children), and ending with the city directories and the 1880 census to clear up the conflicting information.

All that in a footnote! What more could we want?

[1] Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry.com, 2014), 31–34.

[2] Donn Devine, “The European Origin of George Falk (1823–1900), Brooklyn Watchmaker,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 144 (January 2013): 5–16, on pp. 12–13. Members of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society can access the article online or from the NYG&B home page > eLibrary Collections > The Record > Search “vol 144.”

CG or Certified Genealogist is a service mark of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.



Ten-Minute Methodology: Proof Example 1

Proofs don’t have to be complicated, and they don’t have to resolve conflicting evidence. They don’t have to include indirect evidence, either, even though it may be present and could be included to support an argument. Sometimes multiple pieces of direct evidence support a genealogical conclusion. They all answer the genealogy question directly. As promised in the last Ten-Minute Methodology post on proofs here is an example from a published work.

Michael Hait, CG, presents a narrative proof in an introduction to a genealogical summary published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. His article, excerpted here, treats a family of slave and newly manumitted Ridgelys, Caroline and her three children.[1] While Michael presents kinship evidence for all three children, our focus in this post is on Augustus. What proof is there for his relationship to Caroline? How is that proof presented to readers?

Victoire, mentioned in the first paragraph of this excerpt (p. 248), was Caroline’s owner.

Direct evidence showing that Augustus was Caroline’s son is highlighted on p. 249. The first item of a two-bullet list (highlighted, p. 250) includes additional direct evidence. There is no indication if Augustus’s baptism record (p. 249, paragraph 1) names his mother. The 1860 census shows Augustus in Caroline’s household (p. 250, paragraph 3), but does not provide direct evidence of kinship.

The genealogical summary that begins at the bottom of page 250 offers a picture of Caroline, her children, and her grandchildren. Augustus’s sketch offers no new evidence of his relationship to his mother.

Thanks, Michael!

[1] Michael Hait, “In the Shadow of Rebellions: Maryland Ridgelys in Slavery and Freedom,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 100 (December 2012): 245-66, reprinted by permission. The article is available online at Michael’s website.


CG, Certified Genealogist, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.


Ten-Minute Methodology: Proof Summaries and Arguments 1

This post is part of an occasional series intended to educate and challenge BCG associates, aspirants, and the genealogical community at large.

Our Proof Goals

We genealogists aim for accuracy in representing identities and relationships. We want to show why we believe people were who we say they were. We want to show that they really belonged with the folks we attach them to.

We follow the Genealogical Proof Standard to ensure that our research is thorough, our sources well documented, our reasoning levelheaded, and our conflicts resolved. Then we write up our conclusions. Standards 51 through 54 in Genealogy Standards describe the qualities we aim for in writing our proofs for the public, for ourselves, and for posterity.

Options for Writing Proofs

Standard 53 offers a division of proofs into statements, summaries, and arguments.

  • Proof statements are the simplest and reflect direct evidence. We’ve looked at these in the first and second “Ten-Minute Methodology” posts.
  • Proof summaries are a little more complex and also rest on direct evidence. They are “relatively straightforward” and can be lists or narratives. Always, they present documentation. It there are conflicts, they are minor and easily explained.
  • Proof arguments are still more complex and address cases where evidence conflicts or where direct evidence is absent. These are the challenging cases that require more explanation and often include tables, charts, or maps. [1]

Both proof summaries and arguments can stand alone as work samples, or they may appear as parts of larger works. They can be very similar, only the complexity of the case distinguishing the two.

Understanding the Terminology of Proofs

What can be confusing is when a proof is a summary and when it’s an argument, and what to do about proofs that seem to be hybrids that aren’t defined in Genealogy Standards. Over time terminology has been changing. An example of a proof summary in an older publication may look more like the current definition of a proof argument.

A Continuum

We don’t have to get hung up over trying to create artificial boundaries between summaries and arguments. There’s an easier way to look at genealogical proofs than trying to determine whether we use a proof summary or a proof argument and to figure out which one to use when. It’s a continuum and looks something like this: [2]

There’s a big overlap between proof summaries and proof arguments in terms of their complexity and length: the grey area. Occasionally our proofs will naturally fall into the grey area, and that’s ok.

Naming types of proof isn’t our goal. Designing and writing them is. As we work with information we turn to research standards related to reasoning, for example Standards 47 (evidence correlation), 48 (resolving evidence inconsistencies), and 50 (assembling conclusions).[3] For choosing a format when writing, we rely on “Genealogical Proofs.”

Standard 53 gives us a general idea, from the type and complexity of evidence we have amassed, what type of proof we will write. Standard 54 reminds us of the importance of organizing evidence and sequencing it logically so it convinces readers of the accuracy of our conclusions.[4]


It’s fine and well to describe what proof should look like, but it’s important to see what it does look like. There’s an example of proofs that are part of a larger work right on the BCG website. This ascending genealogy provides proofs broken out into “Parentage” sections for three women.

  • Elizabeth’s parentage, pages 1–2, rests on direct evidence. This is a proof in narrative format.
  • Another, more complex, narrative on pages 12–13 summarizes proof of Mary’s parentage with a focus on her mother. It requires five paragraphs to describe and explain the evidence for Mary’s mother’s identity as well as the parental relationship.
  • Proof of Barbara’s parentage on page 19 is presented in a numbered list. It derives from “Four pieces of direct evidence.” [5]

We see how the type and length of proof used depend on the type, quality, and reliability of the evidence available. More narrative is required to explain reasoning in cases where we have only second-hand information or when conflicts and/or indirect evidence is added into the mix. What we call our proofs is of minimal significance. What is really important is that we get them written!

Next time we’ll look at more published examples of proofs.

Many thanks to Alison Hare, Laura DeGrazia, Stefani Evans, and Tom Jones for helpful input.

[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Ancestry.com, 2014), 31.
[2] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 87.
[3] BCG, Genealogy Standards, 27–29.
[4] BCG, Genealogy Standards, 32–34.
[5] Connie Lenzen, “The Maternal Line of Elizabeth (Niesz) Titus,” 2007, Board for Certification of Genealogists (http://www.bcgcertification.org/skillbuilders/titusnarrlineage.pdf : accessed 11 January 2015).