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Article Published May 16, 2002


Brenda Dougall Merriman
What Is the
"Genealogical Proof Standard"?

By: Brenda Dougall Merriman, CGRS, CGL*.
Email: merrigeneal@sympatico.ca


Preponderance of the evidence, a phrase so familiar to a generation of genealogists, is still alive and well, and still being employed daily in civil court issues—where it belongs. But you may have noticed that the phrase is being used less and less in the North American genealogy community. And a new phrase, Genealogical Proof Standard, is replacing it. We are witnesses to a new evolutionary shift.

To explain this development, it helps to review, briefly, the process that occurred in 20th century North American genealogy. Donald Lines Jacobus was the spearhead of a movement in the 1920s to restore genealogy to a position of credible study. The serial publication he founded became The American Genealogist, a model for all modern scholarly genealogical journals (as opposed to society newsletters or commercial magazines). Jacobus insisted on the citation of sources and discussion of their merits, evoking academic flavour. I quote from Donn Devine in Professional Genealogy: A Manual For Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians (p 10): "Most standards applied by genealogists today were first enunciated by Jacobus and the colleagues who helped him to form the American Society of Genealogists." The latter is an honorary society of 50 Fellows who represent the best in scholarly publishing. ASG was instrumental in establishing the Board for Certification of Genealogists in 1964.

Among the changes in more-recent thinking was the move to using the word "evidence" instead of "proof", when referring to documentation. Noel C Stevenson has been only one of several lawyers among well-known genealogists, who began to see a parallel between legal terminology and genealogical procedure. The standard in criminal law of "beyond a reasonable doubt" seemed too severe for genealogical statements. Probably none of us can safely say that, when describing our ancestral identities and relationships, except possibly through DNA testing! In Genealogical Evidence: a Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship, and Family History (1979), Stevenson preferred the term "preponderance of the evidence" with its lesser burden of proof, and as we know, it came into widespread usage (often referred to as POE).

POE was used as a measure of genealogical argument when faced with only derivative sources, or secondary information, or even conflicting information to deduce a conclusion about an ancestor. But we must remember that it actually means "a balance of probability" in the weighing of evidence.

Many genealogists felt that the preponderance principle was not quite high enough or strong enough to express good genealogical research and writing. They were demanding more of themselves, a standard that required clear and convincing evidence. POE does not address the quality of the sources which provide our evidence, and which genealogists have learned to evaluate for contemporary reliability. While all this may sound theoretical, most of us understand it better when applied to our own family history problems. We all have ancestors who give us trouble due to lack of direct evidence, or in trying to resolve conflicting information.

Thanks to dedicated professionals in the past few decades, genealogy as a worthy, independent study has gained more credibility among other related fields, such as librarians, archivists and historians. The word professionals is used to denote responsible, serious genealogists and does not refer to genealogists-for-hire. The need and desire to express a "codified" standard of proof grew, even as genealogy's incredible popularity increased many-fold. The result of that effort was the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), first promulgated by the Board for Certification of Genealogists in their The BCG Standards Manual (2000).

The Genealogical Proof Standard expects a series of five steps in an analytic process:
    1. Making as exhaustive a search as possible for sources relating to your genealogical question (identity, event, relationship, etc).
    2. Recording meticulously the citation for each source.
    3. Evaluating the quality of data in each source to correlate the collected information.
    4. Resolving any contradictions with reasoned deduction.
    5. Presenting a clear and convincing conclusion.
A lot of us consciously or instinctively follow these steps. Now there is a criterion for reference. Responsible genealogists have always tried to document their research, their family histories, and their published works. Meanwhile, others have not. We know so well, especially in this internet age, that it is all too easy for us to accept, repeat, and pass on uncited information without doing the necessary work to verify its validity. This is why so many societies and associations have adopted codes of ethics, to encourage responsibility and professionalism in research and presentation.

Whether we use the GPS or not, it's an advance for the entire genealogical community. Genealogy no longer needs legal or academic crutches for support. It's time to get the message out.
    * CGRS (Certified Genealogical Records Specialist)SM and CGL (Certified Genealogical Lecturer)SM are registered service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists corporation, used under licence by board-certified associates after periodic competency evaluation.
Recommended Reading:
(Most of the books and articles below also discuss definitions of: original and derivative sources; primary and secondary information; and direct and indirect evidence. Much more detail about the GPS can be seen at the Board for Certification of Genealogists' website under "FAQs", www.bcgcertification.org and also information about the certification program.)

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