The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is a process, one that was developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), in order to guide the researcher into building a solid case when conflicting evidence exists. It consists of five steps, outlined in the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Turner Publishing Company, New York, New York, 2000. Page 1-2):
- “We conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation in question;
- We collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information we use;
- We analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence;
- We resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other or are contrary to a proposed (hypothetical) solution to the question; and
- We arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”
What does all that mean, and why should a researcher, on any level, adhere to these guidelines? Not all the answers are black and white. We will examine each point here.
A “reasonably exhaustive search” does not have a true dead end, a solid definition. Being able to conduct a search that looks at all realistic source options can literally take years. The search is truly never complete, as new resources become available; however, in many cases, you can gain enough information about the subject to be able to draw a conclusion. The key here is knowing what resources are available in the area of the search, and during the time frame the individual was alive. A good resource is the “Checklist of Genealogical Sources” made available by Brenda Dougall Merriman in her text, Genealogical Standards of Evidence; A Guide for Family Historians. (Dundurn Press, Toronto, in conjunction with the Ontario Genealogical Society, page 46-51.)
Of course, as information is collected, you must cite your sources. Although this may seem obvious and routine to some, the point cannot be repeated enough. You must be able to go back to the original source for future use, and a complete and correct citation is the only true way to do that. Additionally, future researchers or family members using your material must be able to do the same.
Analyzing your data for quality is a key piece to ensuring the conclusions you come to are accurate. There is a basic formula to this process as well, and is discussed thoroughly in Genealogical Proof Standard; Building A Solid Case by Christine Rose (Thomson Shore, Inc., Dexter, Michigan, 2009. Page 3-11.) Essentially, you need to determine if your source is original or derivative, if the information is primary or secondary, and if the evidence is direct or indirect.
What do you do when you have a birth certificate giving 24 Jul 1875 as the date of birth, but a marriage license showing 24 Jul 1878? Naturally, you must find alternate sources to give you the most accurate date. This is the heart of point 4 in the GPS. It can be as simple as how the ancestor spelled their surname, to a complicated chain of events that leads to a variety of “facts” that must be resolved.
Finally, a written conclusion to summarize what you have learned and how. This includes following the chain of evidence – even those pieces you have determined are inaccurate – that led you to your final result. Going through the writing process can actually be very helpful, even if no one ever reads it but you. It will allow you to go back through your research step by step, methodically, which can lead you to more resources, or reaffirm your opinions.
The GPS is an important process in the search for your ancestors, and one that all researchers should be come familiar with. This is a valuable tool for each of us to utilize and to concentrate on, which could allow you to break down your brick walls, start a new line of research, or to go further back into the older branches of the tree.