Scott Wilds, CG, “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access,” OnBoard 26 (May 2020): 2, 9-11.
You’re “on the clock” and working hard to assemble a strong portfolio for submission. Your local library is closed, the state and even national archives are closed, the county courthouse is closed or has limited access, the Family History Center is closed. Online access to many sources and records remains, however. Is it possible to submit a successful new portfolio based on online research? The answer could be yes, with careful work product selection, and an understanding of the Genealogical Proof Standard, application requirements, and the judging rubrics.
Given limitations on record access, the biggest stumbling block in meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is the requirement to conduct reasonably exhaustive research. Depending on the research question, the GPS may or may not be able to be met using online research. Choice of work products—and the underlying research questions—becomes particularly important in assembling a portfolio where some elements must meet the GPS.
Not every report, proof argument, or assembled genealogical product is an equally strong selection for a new application portfolio. The selection (or creation) of work samples to meet requirements for three parts of a new application portfolio is one of the first challenges that confronts every preliminary applicant. Though the GPS guides all our work, two requirements do not require proving genealogical conclusions (i.e., meeting the GPS)—the BCG-supplied document and the research report. Two requirements, the case study and the kinship-determination project, require reconstructing questions of identity or relationship that can be tested against the GPS. Let’s consider each in turn.
BCG-Supplied Document. The required transcription, citation, abstract, analysis, and research plan for the BCG-supplied document evaluate fundamental skills. It requires no actual research or conclusions of identity or relationship. Framing a well-focused research question about a person named in the document demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between the GPS and the research process. Online resources may be helpful in describing the legal, social, and historical contexts of the document and its creation. Well-described resources for the research plan likely require access to information about online or other resources but not necessarily access to the resources themselves. The research plan is for first steps in answering the research question, not for the identification of every resource that may possibly have some bearing on the question. Research plans are iterative, evolving as research is undertaken, evidence accumulated and evaluated, and new directions for possible additional research considered.
Research Report. The research report—research undertaken for another person or client—builds on the expertise shown in the BCG-required document element. A BCG-credentialed genealogist ought to be able to take a genealogical question and plan and carry out research in an efficient and logical manner. The resulting report should meet best practices of our field, as described in Genealogy Standards, Standard 74 in particular.1 Framing the research question, based on a well-described starting point, is key. So is identifying limitations on research such as time, money, and repositories. If research is to be limited to online resources, that limitation needs to be stated. If, however, the research question’s most likely answer (or essential documents) are in a county courthouse’s restricted records, or in another set of records that are simply not available (temporarily or permanently or due to financial constraints), that particular research report would not be a good one to submit to demonstrate expertise. The Application Guide specifically calls for “in-depth and skillful use of a range of sources.”2 Because single research sessions may not provide reasonably exhaustive research meeting the GPS, the research report is not required to meet it. Care should be taken not to state as conclusions findings about identity or relationship that do not meet the GPS.
Case Study. The Application Guide calls for resolving a significant “problem of relationship or identity that cannot be solved with uncontested direct evidence.”3 The work sample should provide a conclusion to the problem, i.e., a solution that meets the GPS.4 The selection of a work sample that meets the Application Guide’s requirements is paramount. Reasonably exhaustive research may discover direct evidence answering the research problem where none was initially known to have existed, making the case study suddenly unsuitable for use in a portfolio. In the context of working in an online environment only, some locations and periods of time offer rich and broad resources, including many digitized original records. A case study focused in a locality where census, tax records, probate records, land records, church records, and others are available online (likely not all on only one or two websites) may provide an opportunity to resolve a case of identity or relationship while meeting the GPS and the Application Guide requirements. Other locations and/or periods of time may prove to have insufficient online sources for a successful case study that meets the Application Guide requirements and the GPS.
Kinship Determination Project. Like the case study, the KDP requires that the three-generation genealogy, lineage, or pedigree meet the GPS. Every statement of kinship should be documented by a proof statement (which can be as simple as a footnote), proof summary, or proof argument, as appropriate. At least two parent-child relationships in different generations must be supported by proof summaries or proof arguments, meeting the GPS. Like the case study, the selection of work product should take into consideration the ability to meet the GPS’s reasonably exhaustive research requirement.
Parallel indicators in the Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for case studies and the KDP point to the same concerns derived from requirements for reasonably exhaustive research. CS1 and KD1 look at extent of research. Both address research “appropriately broad” for reliable conclusions, sufficient to uncover potentially challenging information items, and covering “all potentially relevant sources appropriate” for the research question (CS1) or each circumstance (KD1).
Similarly, CS3 and KD3, about quality of evidence, state that to meet standards, “evidence is drawn from reliable sources and information, and the use of any weak evidence is logically defended.” These rubrics flow from preferences in the GPS for original records over derivative ones, and primary information over secondary information.
CS6 and KD6 address soundness of conclusions, either for the solution of the case study question, or for kinship determinations in the KDP. These parallel rubrics weigh whether the work product’s conclusions or determinations are “consistent with reliable and sufficient evidence.” Reliable evidence is related to CS3 and KD3, while sufficient evidence is related to CS1 and CS3. Sound conclusions cannot be met without sufficient reliable evidence.
It is important to go back to the definition of reasonably exhaustive research, as found in Genealogy Standards. Five elements are noted (emphasis in bold added):5
- Yield at least two sources of independent information items agreeing directly or indirectly on a research question’s answer
- Cover sources competent genealogists would examine to answer the same research question
- Provide at least some primary information and direct, indirect, or negative evidence from at least one original record
- Replace, where possible, relevant authored narratives, derivative records, and information that is secondary or undetermined
- Yield, where possible, data from sources that indexes and databases identify as potentially relevant
Note that most bullet points have some qualifying adjectives: “at least some,” “at least one,” “where possible.” Limited access to on-site repositories does not excuse us from seeking the best evidence possible, or the most high quality sources obtainable. Distinctions must be made, and evidence weighed accordingly.
Citations serve not only to allow the reader to find the referenced item again, but also to allow evaluation of the source’s quality. Not all derivative records are created equal. We note when a source (or the most reliable source) is not available. In making distinctions among sources, we not only indicate that we understand evidence evaluation, we may build confidence in our ability to draw conclusions and make a convincing argument. In the end, the entire body of evidence, as well as our ability to present a logical conclusion, is judged.
In Mastering Genealogical Proof, Thomas W. Jones uses the five elements of the definition of reasonably exhaustive research to evaluate whether articles meet the GPS.6 Jones notes that the question “how extensive is reasonable” is unanswerable. We may decide to quit researching because our accumulated research is insufficient for proof, or because it is sufficient for proof. “’Reasonably exhaustive’ applies only to the latter decision,” Jones says.7
Whether we can achieve reasonably exhaustive research for the question of identity or relationship in the case study, or for the kinship determinations in the KDP, will depend on our specific project. Selecting work samples that meet both the GPS and the Application Guide requirements for the case study and KDP has always been key. Finding work samples that rely on online sources only will be more difficult, but it is possible. Doubtless, some research projects will need to be put aside temporarily, or deemed not appropriate for inclusion in a portfolio. Harold Henderson has noted that it is best not to submit the first of anything, and also that work samples need not be the magnum opus we hope to write one day.8
Deciding whether a work product based entirely, or largely, on online sources is a good selection for inclusion in a portfolio tests our understanding of the intent of the GPS, as well as BCG’s application process. Genealogical conclusions meeting the GPS are unlikely to be overturned by new evidence (including evidence that becomes available later). In this challenging time for research, a firm grounding in the GPS will allow us to continue to produce sound genealogical outcomes.
The introduction to the first edition of Genealogy Standards states that standards are for “anyone who seeks to research and portray accurately people’s lives, relationships, and histories.”9 The certification process, grounded in standards and evaluated through the rubrics, seeks to ensure that applicants meet basic competency standards. More than ever, we must use our knowledge, understanding, and judgment, to craft worthy portfolios. And we can.
…And for Associates Preparing Renewal Applications
Current associates who are preparing for their five-year renewal application may also be affected by limited access to records. Crafting a successful renewal portolio in such circumstances may also depend largely on work sample selection.
Careful reading of the Application Guide is helpful:
- Work samples can be from any time in the past five years
- Each submission “should demonstrate your ability to meet the applicable standards for documentation, research, analysis and writing.”
- “At least one work sample must demonstrate use of the Genealogical Proof Standard.
- “Research reports seldom meet the GPS due to client-imposed restrictions.”10
The GPS work sample need not be complex. See Thomas W. Jones, “The Genealogical Proof Standard: How Simple Can It Be?” 11
(All websites as of 28 April 2020)
1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, Second Edition (Washington, D.C.: Ancestry.com, 2019), 40–42.
2. Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Application Guide 2019 (Washington, D.C.: 2019), 5; Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/BCG-Application-Guide-2019.pdf).
3. The phrase, not used in the Application Guide, is from BCG, Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification, revised 15 May 2019, Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/BCG-New-Application-Rubrics-2019.pdf), 5. See the phrasing under “Undetermined.”
4. BCG Application Guide 2019, 6–7.
5. Genealogy Standards, Second Edition, 85–86.
6. Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013), Chapter 3 and Chapter 3 exercise answers, esp. 27–32, 155–158. Jones makes “some original records” its own element.
7. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, 27.
8. Harold Henderson, CG, “Anatomy of a Failure: What I Learned from My First Portfolio,” OnBoard 21 (May 2015), 13; Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/skillbuilding-anatomy-of-a-failure-what-i-learned-from-my-first-portfolio)
9. Thomas W. Jones, “Introduction to the First Edition,” Genealogy Standards Second Edition, xxiv.
10. BCG Application Guide 2019, 16.
11. Thomas W. Jones, “The Genealogical Proof Standard: How Simple Can It Be?” OnBoard 16(September 2010), 18; Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/skillbuilding-the-genealogical-proof-standard-how-simple-can-it-be)
Scott Wilds, CG®
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