Archive for March, 2008

With other projects and priorities now behind me, I can continue this series of meditations on GPS.

Restating Step 1 of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), we are to

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. 1

It seems worth the effort to take a few lines to discuss something about sources in general. While it may seem obvious, I want to start this essay at the broadest level by asking the question: What are sources? More specifically: What are historical sources? Note that I don’t ask about reliable sources just yet. We need to lay some groundwork, first.

Numerous authors have given us a variety of perspectives on the term, historical sources. However, it seems to me that Howell and Prevenier offer the most acceptable definition for the family historian.

Sources are artifacts that have been left by the past. They exist either as relics, what we might call “remains,” or as the testimonies of witnesses to the past. 2

What makes this definition useful for the family historian is that it is simple, yet comprehensive. Anything from the past that bears the trace of a human fingerprint or footprint upon it, qualifies as an historical source. To a skilled archeologist, the charred remains of a trash pile can reveal as much about daily life in the 18th century as a woman’s diary. Symbols, in contrast to words, carved onto a grave marker can suggest a relationship, an occupation, or a place of origin. As genealogists, too often, we tend to focus upon specific features of specific types of source. This tendency, while illuminating certain aspects of our research, can hinder our efforts to be reasonably exhaustive.

Evaluating for reliability involves both technical analysis and critical analysis of the artifact, with the technical analysis being necessarily performed first. For technical analysis, we can borrow tools long developed and utilized by historians. Among some of the more common tools are: paleography, linguistics, heraldry, epigraphy, and diplomatics. Using such tools, first, we want to locate the artifact in time and place. When and where was it created? In what social setting was it created and by whom was it created? What similarities does it share with other artifacts created during the time and place, by the same creator?

Secondly , we want to make the language of the artifact comprehensible. What linguistic features does the artifact possess? Is the language foreign, technical, specialized, or archaic? If the language is foreign, we will need to translate it (make it comprehensible). If the handwriting is archaic or otherwise difficult to read, we will need to transcribe it. If the language is temporal or technical, we will need to understand the terminology within the social context that it was written.3

Finally, as part of our technical evaluation, we want to check the artifact for its authenticity. 4 While the auction price of a document, containing genealogical interest, may not hang in the balance, we still want to examine the artifact for how genuine and accurate it is. Among the questions we want to ask of each artifact are: What was the motivation for creating that artifact? Was the creator in a position to accurately render the information contained within or on it? What social contexts might have ensured or hindered an accurate recording?

Once we have addressed the more universal broader questions of technical analysis, there are questions that are relevant to the form of artifact. From the foregoing comprehensive definition of historical sources, we can delineate artifacts into three forms: written, oral, and relic. Each form possesses traits that can be evaluated for strengths and weaknesses that affect that artifact’s reliability as a source. Any given artifact may be classified into multiple forms. For example, a grave marker, which contains the name of the deceased, can be classified as a written source. However, when you consider the location of the marker (the cemetery wherein it is located, where the marker is situated in relation to other markers, the design of the marker, symbols upon it,…), it can also be called a relic. A video recording, whether of an interview or of a family gathering, has features of a relic, yet it can also be a form of oral testimony. Each of these forms embodies certain strengths and weaknesses that can be evaluated for reliability.

In my next essay, I will try to parse these forms so that each can be individually explored.


  1. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing Co., 2000).
  2. Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 17.
  3. Exploring changes in meaning is one of my favorite digressions from genealogy. Linguists know that language is a “living thing.” It evolves and changes. The meanings of a word or term can morph into forms unrecognizable to early users of that term. To illustrate the morphological nature of words, consider the meaning for “mortuary.” Today it refers to a place where dead bodies are kept before burial. However, in the 14th century, a mortuary was a gift claimed by a parson from the estate of the person who willed that gift upon death. According to one source, the modern meaning did not appear until mid-19th century.
  4. Discussing this issue at length is outside the scope of this particular essay. However, I want to introduce it for discussion at another time. I am a regular reader of peer reviewed journals in genealogy. One thing that is often missing from the text of genealogical research articles is the authentication of the records used.  While, as a journal editor, I understand the issues of space limitations, as a “student” of genealogy—which I will always remain—I know that learning from these articles is significantly disadvantaged. If I am unfamiliar with the particular record types used, I have no direction from the author on where to learn more about them. Moreover, I cannot be certain that the author, himself/herself, has performed any authentication of the sources used.  For example, if the author used a poll tax list in constructing their argument, can they tell the reader what a poll tax is and what makes it useful as a source in support of their argument?

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In her book, Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills wrote that the most important reason to assess the reliability of sources is so that one can reach “the most reliable conclusions.”[1] Critical analysis of sources is the basis of good genealogical research. It is extraordinarily rare that one’s pedigree is already well established, documented as” proven” in any substantial way. Therefore, research of historical records is the primary path to discovery of one’s ancestry.

Devising a simple methodology for critically analyzing sources is fraught with problems. It is impossible to fully assess reliability of any given source by examining it in isolation. History and experience teach us that no source is perfectly reliable, if one means by that complete and certain knowledge of facts related to past events. Sources utilized by genealogists—indeed, by historians generally—are inherently fallible allowing only a fragmentary, often biased, view of past events. From these fragments, we identify the most likely factoids among the falsities, the relevant among the irrelevant. Then, we superimpose our interpretation of those privileged records to create a reasoned construction of our genealogy. Therefore, the conclusions from our research are actually theories of origins and family history. For those of us who yearn for certainty in our research, this constructivist view can be disconcerting.

Continuing my meditations on the five-point steps of GPS, I have to address what I believe is a misstep in parsing or separating the search in reliable sources (step 1) from the evaluation of information found in the sources we privilege or collect (step 3). Whether this parsing of source from information found within it is deliberate or a poor choice of phrasing, I do not know. However, it can lead some researchers to eliminating sources that hold particular facts because in general the source is deemed unreliable. You simply cannot identify superficially which sources are reliable and which are not without examining the information found within them first. In a recent article Arlene Eakle expressed this best.

[U]nless you include the careful examination, in your own genealogical work, of printed sources and books, including those found on the Internet, as well as the original manuscript sources from which those printed works come, your ill-informed research will spread inaccuracies and false claims that will continue to confuse and discourage us. [2]

Eakle goes on to explain that every source needs to be examined for its facts and traditions, whether primary or hearsay, and every source factoid found must be documented for its fitness in relation to other facts. The researcher cannot do this if she has superficially excluded sources that were deemed unreliable in an earlier step.

Of course, none of this is says that generalizations cannot be made about various types of source. I will discuss a few generalizations about the strengths and weaknesses of various source types used by family historians in a later essay.


[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007).

[2] Arlene H. Eakle, “The Davinci Code and Your Genealogy: Multiple Streams of Evidence,” NGS News Magazine 34 (Jan-Mar 2008).

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