1. Book Review: Our Village Ancestors

    3 Comments

    A review by Karen Cummings

    I was sent a review copy of Helen Osborn’s latest book, Our Village Ancestors – A Genealogist’s Guide to Understanding the English Rural Past, by her publisher and, given that Helen used to own Pharos Tutors, it seemed only right that such a review should be published on the Pharos Blog.

    Helen Osborn’s latest is very different to her previous book, Genealogy: Essential Research Methods. This is not a “how to research your family tree” book as such. Instead it encourages the reader to expand their family history research horizons beyond the study of the people in the family tree towards a study of the places in which their ancestors lived.

    As Helen says, you will often see this described as “putting the flesh on the bones of the family-history skeleton”, you might also say this kind of study adds context to your family history, it also makes it a far more fulfilling journey. It’s not just about your ancestors in isolation, within their place of residence, but using a study of the whole community to get a greater understanding of how your ancestors lived.

    We are taken on a journey through the looking glass over a 400 year period of life in rural villages, from the mid-sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and the development of those villages over that time. Your ancestors came from a town or city? In the majority of cases, families living in towns and cities had migrated in from the rural villages in earlier generations. By the time you get back to 1600, over 80% of the population lived in the countryside. In other words, there is most likely something relevant to all family historians here.

    When you begin to research a place you are, of course, taking steps away from the traditional outlook of the family historian into other branches of history “…there is much crossover between local history and genealogy, because in order to gather truly the evidence that we need to reconstruct families into genealogical trees, we should understand both the historical and local context as well as have a good under- standing of the documents used. Thus, local history and family history come together over questions of place and community”.

    We are told there is no such thing as a “typical” village as there were so many differences resulting from e.g. location, climate, types of farming, manorial customs and local history. Our journey through time therefore is based around a number of general themes that can be considered for any village:

    • The Rural Past
    • Parish and Family
    • The Land and the Farmer
    • The Church and the Tithe
    • Supporting the Poor
    • Work and School in the Countryside
    • The Whole Community: Lists of Villagers and the Victorian Census
    • Leaving the Village

     

    You will find that many of the sources used, as we consider our village, are those we would already use for family history, but using a slightly different approach. You ancestor not included in the Churchwardens’ Accounts? Use them instead to build up a picture of the village, the type of people who lived there, the people who would have interacted with your ancestors on a daily basis. The same with wills and probate, the items left by members of the community can add to your picture of the types of farming and the wealth of some of those who lived there. Some of the records that you will encounter are poor law records, glebe terriers, probate records, maps, tithe records, enclosure records, manorial records, court records, title deeds, taxation records and early military lists but this is not a complete list. You will also fine some records you may not have come across before, such as the King’s Book and the 1873 Return of Owner of Land.

    Even the humble census record is given a new lease of life. One of my favourite sections of the book considers the annual Registrar General census reports, using them to not only gain an understanding of the growth of the village in terms of population and houses lost or gained in a ten year period, but also migration patterns and occupation changes. You can find these at the ‘Histpop’ website.

    At every turn records are examined through case studies, comparing three different villages: Bredhurst in Kent, Datchworth in Hertfordshire and High Abbotside, a township in the parish of Aysgarth, Yorkshire.

    In each chapter a wealth of information is provided, looking at each theme in detail and building a picture of how our ancestors lived, through records in which they may be named, the history of the village in question, and records giving more general context. Each chapter ends with a useful “Starting Points for the Researcher” section.

    There are also some really interesting case studies, pieced together with a variety of records, such at the Eaves family of Datchworth, and a really interesting insight into the brewing process too!

    “Adding a deep sense of geographic place to the analysis of records, as is the practice of good genealogists, takes family history into a whole new realm. It is often slow research, with an emphasis on acquiring knowledge through a deep understanding of place and context, yet it is deeply satisfying as mysteries and problems are solved or at the very least made a whole lot clearer.” Helen Osborn

    I couldn’t agree more! This is a worthy book for the bookshelf of any discerning genealogist, and I can thoroughly recommend it to all of our students.

    If you are interested learning more about some of these themes, we have a number of courses looking at the partnership between family history and local history in the Pharos course list, including:

     

  2. Becoming a Professional Genealogist

    Leave a Comment

    Are you thinking of becoming a professional genealogist but don’t know where to start?

    We often receive questions from students who want to know what their next steps should be.

    They ask questions like:

    “Do I need a qualification to work as a professional genealogist?”
    “Do I need to become accredited?”
    “Are your courses accredited?”
    “Where do I start?” “Am I ready?”

    We have a great course that covers all of this:
    Professional Genealogist – Become one, become a better one

    The question of qualifications

    In the UK you don’t actually need any qualifications to set yourself up as a professional genealogist. You may think that’s a good thing, but isn’t it also a little scary? What would you look for in a professional genealogist?

    There are some great professional genealogists out there who have no genealogy-related qualifications, but they tend to be established in the field and have lots and lots of years of professionally varied experience.

    There are also a lot of “wannabie” professional genealogists starting out right now. How are you going to distinguish yourself from the rest? How are you going to demonstrate that you are working at the highest possible standards and are by far the better choice, compared to Mr X down the road? One of the best ways to do this is by following a formal training programme that is recognised by the industry.

    Our Advanced Certificate in Family History Skills and Strategies is a great example of a programme recognised by AGRA, the professional body for England and Wales.

    Aim for accreditation

    Working at the highest standards is all about providing the best quality of service to your clients. How do they know that the beautifully laid out family tree and 50 page report you have produced is not, in fact, riddled with errors? Organisations such as the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) (with equivalents ASGRA in Scotland and AGI in Ireland) only grant full membership after assessment of examples of your professional work.

    Here are some of our top tips as you think about starting up:

    Be honest with yourself

    You have been working on your own family tree for years and have lots of experience but it is important to be honest with yourself about how much you know. We guarantee you don’t know everything yet.

    Be ethical

    Your clients will value honesty even if you can’t take every kind of job on right now. Don’t pretend to be an expert in things you are clearly not. Start small with the more common records and build up your knowledge.

    Be patient

    So, you’ve had some nice shiny business cards printed and your website has gone live. Surely now the queue of paying customers will begin to form? The harsh reality is no, it does take time and it takes longer than you think it might. Be patient and don’t give up!

    Next Steps

    If you are interested in becoming a professional genealogist and want to know more, take our Professional Genealogist – Become one, become a better one course. This four week online course covers everything from starting up in business, answering client enquiries and report writing, working out your rates and marketing.

    If you are looking for more detail on methodology and reporting try our Advanced Methods & Reports course (this is part of the Advanced Programme but can also be taken in isolation).

    If you are interested in taking a certificate programme in genealogy that is recognised by AGRA, see our Certificate Courses pages.

  3. Lost in Genealogy: Seven Steps to Battling Bias

    1 Comment

    This excellent article was written by former Pharos student Dr Sophie Kay. She has kindly allowed us to reproduce it here. Sophie is a professional genealogist at Khronicle. You can find Sophie’s blog here: The Parchment Rustler and follow her on Twitter: @ScientistSoph.

    Today, we’re going to talk about the elephant in every genealogist’s research room. It’s one we’ve all spent some time with, whether we realise it or not. And what’s more, this particular elephant tends to divert our research when it shouldn’t. At its worst, it can stampede us right off course.

    Have you guessed the elephant’s name yet…?

    Yes, bias. Bias comes in many forms, but I’m going to focus on cognitive bias here. This occurs when our internal judgments impede rational thought and affect our decision making when we’re interpreting information. So when does this happen and how can we combat it?

    OUR RESEARCH PROCESS

    Most of the time, there is more than one route through a genealogy problem. Each researcher will tackle things in their own way, with a variety of creative approaches often possible. 

    Whatever the route, the fundamentals of the process involve us examining multiple sources. For each of these, we identify what information that document has given us, and assess how much we can trust it. 

    With a multitude of documents in our work, how do we decide which evidence to trust the most? 
    Image credit: Militia return by Liz West, CC-BY 2.0; Birth certificate for Albert Cook by Jez Levy, CC-BY 2.0.

    So every time you look at a document, you’re making a value judgment about its usefulness to determine how it affects the emerging story. These judgments are key to pushing our research forward: they’re a natural part of what we do. Usually, there is no “perfect” way to navigate our decisions either…and sometimes our forebears find ways to surprise us (NOTE: For more about proof, I highly recommend Phil Isherwood’s article).

    But what happens when we make errors of judgment? Perhaps we trust one source more than we should; perhaps we unfairly reject another because we think it doesn’t fit the picture we have in mind. This is where cognitive bias comes into play.

    Cognitive bias takes many forms, but I’m going to focus on two sorts here: confirmation bias, and anchoring. Let’s take a look now at what these are and what they might mean for our genealogy research. 

    CONFIRMATION BIAS

    Confirmation bias arises when our firm beliefs about a person or situation cause us to dismiss evidence which conflicts with those beliefs. This prevents us from making an objective assessment of the evidence. Instead, confirmation bias causes us to seek out information that reinforces our existing beliefs.

    Baptism register entry for a Francis Burdett Nuttall, son of Joseph and Jane Nuttall of Hines, Lancs. This is shown as a photo of the original document.

    Baptism record for Francis Burdett Nuttall, 18 Sept 1861 (indicated by the red arrow).
    Source: Ancestry – Manchester, England, Non-Conformist Births and Baptisms, 1758-1912.

    Take a look at the baptism record above and imagine that you really wanted to discover high-born ancestry, despite having any evidence to suggest this. If you found Francis Burdett Nuttall in your family tree, you might jump at the prospect of him being related to – or even descended from – the line of Burdett baronets. Looking at this through the lens of confirmation bias, you might conclude that the similarity of name was “proof” of a blood connection, rather than exploring other possibilities – such as the parents naming their son after a public figure they had admired.

    Confirmation bias can be a particularly potent distraction in genealogy research. To research the lives of our ancestors, we step from the known into the unknown: throughout this process, we have to generate our own theories which govern what to look for next. We all need ideas to follow up, but we need to be careful that we’re motivated by the evidence in front of us, rather than wanting a particular outcome.

    ANCHORING

    Anchoring bias occurs when you give greater weighting to the first pieces of information gleaned in your research, whether or not they are of good quality. If we happen upon a misleading piece of information early on, it could easily steer us off course.

    For example, think about research using newspapers, where the details included may not always be accurate. If a news article is your first source of a particular “fact”, it has considerable power to lead you astray. Take, for instance, the following news article and imagine that we came to this early in our research, knowing John Walton’s name but little else:

    News article summarising a Juvenile Plundering case in Birkenhead in 1865, discussing a boy John Walton "about 13 years of age".

    Liverpool Mercury, 17 February 1865, page 8. Birkenhead Police Court summary.
    Source: British Newspaper Archive via FindMyPast.

    How might we use this article in our research? We cannot guarantee that it provides a fair representation of the facts. 

    Anchoring might occur if you assumed from this that John was precisely 13 at the time of his trial and refused to consider any alternative ages when running your searches. Anchoring bias can make us blind to other possibilities, perhaps cause us to run too-narrow searches or to discount genuine matches that don’t fit with our early evidence.

    HOW CAN I BATTLE THESE BIASES IN MY OWN GENEALOGY RESEARCH?

    It’s not always a straightforward battle, but the following suggestions may help you break out of the bias bubble:

    1. SLOW DOWN AND ACKNOWLEDGE THE EXISTENCE OF COGNITIVE BIAS

    This is the absolute first stop on our journey. Each of us, no matter what our level of experience, can fall victim to cognitive bias. By acknowledging this, we are better placed to combat it. Our biases are rarely conscious ones and can be annoyingly difficult to spot. 

    If we’re to call out our biases, then slowing down our pace and questioning our own decisions can be of huge benefit. When we’re hurtling through our research, hot on the trail of a new lead (we’ve all been there), it’s easy to fall into quick decision making without weighing all the evidence. Snap decisions often rely more on “gut feeling” and might allow our biases to sneak in unannounced.

    Once we’ve realised that bias is a universal experience, there are some routes to spotting it, which we’ll delve into now.

    2. TALK TO OTHERS ABOUT YOUR WORK.

    Talking about your process, not just your findings, is one of the most important aspects of beating cognitive bias. Bias thrives on our isolation. Genealogy research frequently occurs within our own little bubble and it’s typically the end findings that we discuss with our nearest and dearest, not the methods or reasoning we used to get there.

    Researching alone – or even in a pair or small group where you may all get stuck in a thinking rut – can entrench our habits and attitudes and cause us to miss things. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes is what’s needed. Think of it as genealogical peer review.

    Two men are having an animated conversation whilst sitting at a table. One of the men is gesticulating with his hands to make a point.

    Engaging with others about our genealogy research – our thought processes, as well as the story itself, can help our findings to flourish. Photo by Daniel, CC BY-ND 2.0.

    So, whom should you speak to? Your confidant could include a trusted friend or relative who has experience in genealogy. Alternatively, you could join your local family history society to meet others with whom you can discuss your research. If you’re UK-based, you might find the Federation of Family History’s society search facility useful. 

    You might also choose to connect with other researchers via online forums and social media. Draw on these valuable community networks and be prepared to reciprocate too: if someone acts as a sounding board for your research, how about you return the favour for them when they need it?

    3. WRITE UP YOUR RESEARCH.

    When we write up, we draw the separate strands of our research together into a common narrative thread. This is a critical process and requires you to scrutinise your own ideas and methods, and work closely with your notes and sources. This is known as self-reflective practice. 

    Transforming your research notes into a written volume, an article or a blogpost is a crucial phase of self-reflection, forcing us to critique our own work. Photo credits: Pencil notes by Robert of Fairfax, CC BY-NC 2.0; bookshelves by Eltpics, CC BY-NC 2.0.

    Writing up is a great opportunity to spot any errors you might have made. Think of it as a friendly critique of your younger self! 

    Sometimes a project might need time for it to grow to a point where writing up is a viable prospect. Where possible, I’d advise writing up as often as is appropriate, so you can spot any mistakes or missed avenues before you build on your research much further: backtracking then will feel even more painful.

    4. EMBRACE EVIDENCE.

    An empirical (evidence-based) approach can help you to construct a logical argument for why you think the record you’ve found is the right one for the individual you’re researching. Always ask: what’s the evidence for or against this finding? Does it fit with what I already know, or do I need to rethink some aspects of my existing narrative?

    When drawing together multiple sources from several research sessions to make your case, a well-organised system of recording in a research log can assist you in referring to all the relevant documents when you’re drawing your conclusions.

    Example of a handwritten research log, for a researcher investigating William Frazer. Columns include dates, place of research, purpose, call number, source, document number and results. The bottom of the log includes a research question and suggestion, which help to shape the research.

    Example of a handwritten research log – I tend to prefer wider spacing than this so it’s easier on the eye. This is only one example of a log: you can develop a version which works for you. Source: FamilySearch Wiki.

    If you’re new to research logs, then Cyndi’s List has some great resources for you to explore on the subject. Natalie Pithers of Genealogy Stories has also written a great overview of logs and why you need them on her blog.

    5. BEWARE ANCHORING FROM ORAL HISTORIES

    Oral histories (evidence drawn from conversations rather than written documents) are typically a first port of call in our genealogical journey. How many of us started our family history journey by talking to our older relatives? Conversations can be a rich source of information about our forebears, but are unlikely to be 100% accurate. The nature of oral histories as a frequent starting point makes them a particular source of anchoring bias.

    For instance, I’ve encountered cases where someone was adamant they knew their mother-in-law’s maiden name, but in fact got it completely wrong; cases where a family story about a particular religious affiliation turned out to have no basis in fact; and stories of connections to famous people which weren’t true at all. So as with all our research, BE CRITICAL!

              Oral histories can be an amazing source of information, but also a major source of anchoring bias. Photo credits: Whisper by ElizaC3, CC BY 2.0; Anchor by Phong6698, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

    Once you’ve recorded the oral history you’ve taken from a relative, try asking yourself: “What does this oral history suggest I should look at?” followed by, “If some of these ideas are inaccurate, what are my alternatives?” This way, you’ll have a Plan B in mind from the start and might be less likely to be derailed by misinformation.

    Be especially careful not to assume all information you’re told is accurate. Use it as a guideline to suggest research directions, but don’t assume that it provides the complete picture.

    6. CELEBRATE CONTEXT

    Ask “what are my blind spots?” and approach genealogy as a perpetual learner. Delve into some background reading about the era and place that you’re researching; understand the provenance of the record sets you work with. Appreciating context in this way will really improve your judgments when navigating the records.

    7. PRACTISE, PRACTISE, PRACTISE

    The final step in battling our biases is to continue on our research journey with these bias-battling tools in mind. There is no quick, one-stop fix for cognitive bias, but over time you can train yourself to spot when it’s happening. 

    It’s a reassuring thought that, whatever level of experience we bring to our genealogy research today, we’re all learning as we go. The more secure you become in your genealogical technique, the better equipped you’ll be to address bias in your own practice – as well as helping friends and acquaintances with theirs!

    Try some of the suggestions above and you’ll find that bias-battling gets easier with time. Critiquing our own work can help our research to flourish, gifting us family history stories that we’ll enjoy sharing with our families and descendants for many years to come. 

    WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE?

    Do you have any favourite bias-battling approaches or advice you’d like to offer to your fellow genealogists? Or perhaps you’d like to share your own experience of being led astray by bias? Post your tips and stories in the comments below and perhaps you’ll help others avoid the pitfalls of the genealogical elephant in the room…!

    FURTHER READING

    If you enjoyed reading about cognitive bias and what it might mean for your genealogy research, then I’d highly recommend the following articles and resources for further reading.

    BOOK: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This bestselling book comes from one of the original academics to identify and characterise cognitive bias – it’s a great introduction to the major concepts.

    BOOK: History in Practice by Ludmilla Jordanova. Chapter 5, on “The Status of Historical Knowledge”, provides a great overview of the reasoning processes that underpin historical research.

    ARTICLE: Confirmation Bias and the Power of Disconfirming Evidence by the Farnam Street blog. Their Mental Models page, which provides more information about cognitive biases and how to challenge them, is also worth a look.

    ARTICLE: The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain. Ben Yagoda’s article for The Atlantic looks at some of the history of our awareness of cognitive bias and studies on how we might unseat it.

  4. What is Proof?

    Leave a Comment
    This excellent article was written by Phil Isherwood, and he has kindly allowed us to reproduce it here. Phil is a Pharos Graduate who describes himself as an amateur genealogist. His daily working life includes developing methodologies for business teams, a skill transferable to genealogy research. You can find Phil’s blog here: Seeing the Wood for the Trees and follow him on Twitter: @isherwood_phil 
    The end goal of all genealogical investigations is to establish proof, by which we mean a convincing, credible case for a specific ancestral identity, relationship, or life event. By thorough research in sources, we must find sufficient detailed, matching evidence to uncover and reconstruct relationships and events relating to our research target, and only our research target.
    But how do we decide when an accumulation of evidence reaches a threshold that we call proof? How do we define it? How do we decide when it has been met? How do we assess what others have proposed as proof? Is there just one valid definition of proof or are there many? These are questions that are central to the pursuit of genealogy.
    This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

    Why is a definition of proof important for genealogy?

    Once, in those not so distant pre-Internet days, many genealogists laboured away in near isolation, uncovering family histories from public, private or academic sources then sharing the outcomes within their families. Today, genealogy is a collective activity, nourished by easy online access to many sources, supported by vibrant societies and online communities. We share ideas and knowledge, we communicate with and educate one another, and, crucially, we often share our findings. One need only take a brief look at the thousands of published trees on Ancestry and other large subscription sites to understand the ubiquity of sharing amongst family historians. Some, such as the LDS Church, have even gone as far as to suggest that an end goal of collective sharing could be a single, comprehensive family tree of everyone.

    But, as many who have looked at shared online trees in any detail, one quickly realises that the published conclusions of some family historians can stretch credulity. At best it can be said that there is a variable interpretation of what is required to establish a genealogical proof.

    A standard definition of what constitutes proof is clearly necessary for any serious genealogical endeavour, as without a consistent measure of proof we can’t achieve consistent outcomes. When collaborating with others, it is an essential.

    A History of Genealogical Proof

    In the UK there has never been an official definition of genealogical proof – something which I have found troubling. In the USA however, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) has been a leader in setting out formal definitions and, where needed, updating them over time.

    The BCG’s original definition of genealogical proof was based on the legal standard of proof as used in civil court cases. This principle is called the Preponderance of the Evidence, which amounts to “when I weigh all of the pros and all of the cons, I think that the pros outweigh the cons.”

    This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

    Sounds reasonable, right? But there’s a catch – the margin by which the pros outweigh the cons can be tiny, even infinitesimally small. Where there is a significantly larger quantity and quality of evidence on one side this can work, but in marginal cases this can lead to conclusions which we might view today with some suspicion.

    In the late 1990s, the BCG recognised the weaknesses of Preponderance of the Evidence and developed a new definition of called the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), which they published in 2000.

    The Genealogical Proof Standard

    The GPS is a five-step process which defines a well conducted genealogical investigation. It can be simply summarised as: search, cite, analyse, consolidate, and conclude. To have met the standard, the researcher must show that their whole investigation (not just the conclusions) meets all five of the elements.

    The Genealogical Proof Standard

    1. Reasonably Exhaustive Search
    Full text: “Reasonably exhaustive research – emphasizing original records providing participants’ information – for all evidence that might answer a genealogist’s question about an identity, relationship, event, or situation.”

    So, what is a “reasonably exhaustive search“? Simply put, it is a search that has examined all potentially relevant sources. It implies that we start our investigation by finding out what the potentially relevant sources will be, list them and then search them all in turn, consulting the original or an image of the original wherever possible. By doing so we minimise the risk of undiscovered evidence emerging later to overturn an initial, perhaps hasty, conclusion.

    2. Complete, Accurate Source Citations
    Full text: “Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item contributing – directly, indirectly, or negatively – to answers about that identity, relationship, event or situation.

    Thorough, accurate citing of sources helps us to remember where we found the information we rely on as evidence and enables others to validate that our search has indeed been “reasonably exhaustive”. Assuring others of the quality of our search is doubly important, it enables them to:

    • replicate our steps; and
    • contribute their own ideas about other relevant sources which could enhance our research.

    Citation is the single most effective tool for enabling effective collaboration between genealogists.

    3. Analyse and Correlate Sources, Information and Evidence
    Full text: “Tests – through processes of analysis and correlation – of all sources, information items, and evidence contributing to an answer to a genealogical question or problem.

    What this really means is that we need to make a sound interpretation of the evidence at our disposal. Kick the tyres, make sure that it stands up to scrutiny, be honest with ourselves about any gaps or deficiencies that may be there. This is the right point to consider whether the evidence we’ve collected forms a full and coherent picture. Is it the best available evidence? Is there any other potential evidence we could add to our search to strengthen our case? Is the evidence sufficient to support our conclusions? Will our conclusions reflect all the relevant evidence, good and bad, direct and indirect, positive and negative?

    4. Resolve Conflicting Evidence
    Full text: “Resolution of conflicts among evidence items pertaining to the proposed answer.

    It is a genealogical truism that any sufficiently exhaustive search will uncover at least some conflicting evidence. The corollary is also often true, that if you’ve failed to find any conflicting evidence then you may not have performed a sufficiently exhaustive search!

    Analysing and resolving conflicting evidence is an essential step. Are we able to understand what the conflicts in the evidence might mean? Can we account for them? Or does the conflicting nature of the evidence put our conclusion into doubt? If we’re unable to resolve conflicting evidence satisfactorily then we will not be able to formulate a credible conclusion.

    5. Soundly Reasoned, Coherently Written Conclusion
    Full text: “A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion based on the strongest available evidence.

    At first glance, this element of the GPS seems like a non-sequitur. Conclusions must be:

    • soundly reasoned – as no-one would accept a conclusion that relied on unsoundreasoning;
    • coherently written – as no-one would accept a conclusion that was written incoherently; and
    • based on the strongest available evidence – as no-one would accept a conclusion based on partial, weak, or inaccurate evidence.

    What this really means is that our conclusion must be based on a sound appreciation of what evidence was available, that we accurately interpreted and collated the evidence, and show how the evidence leads to the conclusion. It enables us to demonstrate that our conclusion is not only valid, but free from bias, preconception, or inadequate appreciation of the evidence.

    What the GPS is – and what it isn’t!

    There is little doubt that the Genealogical Proof Standard is a significant improvement upon Preponderance of the Evidence. It sets a far higher standard for proof to be achieved – no more dodgy marginal cases – and roots its requirements in the language of genealogy rather than a legal framework which has doubtful relevance to our pursuit. It is applicable to all genealogy work, not only in the USA but all around the world, whether professional or amateur. It sets clear expectations on how we should plan, execute, and document our work. It creates a common standard and supports common outcomes that can be scrutinised, replicated, or refuted. It is a vital tool that all genealogists who have mastered basic sources should try to understand and engage with. It is the missing link that may, in the future, allow genealogy to be the truly collective experience that it could and, many would argue, should be.

    This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

    But it has problems too:

    • it isn’t a single, cogent statement against which a documented conclusion can be measured;
    • there is no straightforward checklist one can use to say “if these items are covered in the documented findings then it passes”;
    • to assess whether a documented outcome has met the standard, the assessor must have access to details of how the investigation was conducted;
    • the five steps of the GPS each have detailed definitions which require some knowledge and skill to understand fully and utilise.

    One can easily use the GPS to assess formal genealogy reports, but it is simply not possible to use it to assess the principal form of communication in modern genealogy – the online tree.

    So, if it has shortcomings should we be making efforts to use it? Yes! Yes! Yes!
    The GPS is the only agreed standard for genealogical proof. It is the best available and we should all be using it so that:

    • we have confidence in our own conclusions;
    • we have confidence in the conclusions of our peers and collaborators; and
    • we can share our work in the confidence that it can be used as the basis for further investigation without the need to be re-verified from top to toe.

    It is a sad fact that in the laissez-faire world of shared online trees, one must re-assess all findings before using any element for one’s own purposes. Consciously using the GPS can reduce needless rework and, most importantly, make us all better genealogists.

    The GPS is not perfect – even investigations that follow it thoroughly and accurately can’t ensure perfect certainty in their outcome. (We are engaged in family history, not mathematics, so there can never be perfect certainty!)

    It is a little daunting, but it is the best framework and standard that the global genealogy community has. Once mastered, it can and will save you time, effort, energy, and tears!
    Have I persuaded you that the GPS is the best way forward for your genealogy? Please let me know in the comments below.

    Sources

    1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2nd Edition 2019).
    1. Anderson, Robert Charles. 2019. Tools for Testing Genealogical Proofs. Talk delivered at RootsTech London, 24 October.
  5. How do you research your family tree?

    9 Comments

    This is a cross post from the excellent blog by professional genealogist and Pharos Tutor Karen Cummings.  You may have missed the original, so we make no apologies for posting it again.
    __________________________________________________________________________

    How do you research your family tree?

    It’s not a trick question, I would like to know. There are so many adverts these days for the big commercial websites: “just type your name in and see what you will discover” and I am concerned we may be losing knowledge of how to conduct proper genealogical research.
    It’s not a question of clicking links on Ancestry (other commercial websites are available) and adding people to your tree, or, even worse, basing research on shaking green leaves or hints. Yes, you can easily create a family tree this way but, and I say this with tongue in cheek, you could end up barking up completely the wrong tree!

    There is far more to genealogical research: knowledge and methodology.

    To conduct genealogical research effectively you need an understanding of sources. What sources should you investigate for a particular research need? When were they created and why? What is the likelihood that your ancestor will be included? There are many courses available to increase your knowledge of different sources, such as those from the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS), Pharos and the Universities of Strathclyde and Dundee. There are also lots and lots of books available, e.g. the “My Ancestor was…” series from the Society of Genealogists and the “Tracing Your … Ancestors” series from Pen and Sword and many articles in the family history magazines.

    Even with an understanding of sources there is still a need for caution with the data available on Ancestry, Find My Past and the like. What sources are actually included in a database? Is the database complete or will more records be added later? What are the most effective search techniques and how do you untangle the results you find?

    I saw this posted on a social media group recently:
    “Which side do you work from and why? Family Tree Maker or Ancestry?”

    Aggh! That had me positively jumping up and down on my soap box! Are we really led to believe that “everything is on Ancestry”? Is that what people think? Good quality research considers what sources are required THEN where they are, not the other way around.

    This brings me onto methodology. In the UK we really do not give methodology much air time. Our US cousins are far better at formalising genealogy methodology. In my opinion we really need to think about this more.

    Two things happened whilst I was at “WDYTYA Live” in Birmingham recently that left me with completely opposing opinions of “the way things are”. Firstly I went to a talk from American, Robert Charles Anderson, on the methodology he describes in his book Elements of Genealogical Analysis. It describes a systematic methodical approach to analysing your research and coming to sound conclusions. Some of you may be familiar with the Genealogical Proof Standard, more commonly used in the US but, again, a sound methodology to establishing “proof”. That deserves a series of blog post on its own so I won’t go into it further here. I thought Mr Anderson’s approach was excellent but around half the audience got up during the talk and walked out. Was it just the American records bias of the talk or are people really no longer interested in doing things properly?

    At the complete opposite end of the scale, a new book had just been published by Pen and Sword from a colleague of mine, John Wintrip, Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors. The title is deceptive and really does not show it off to the best of the publisher’s abilities. Yes, there is much discussion on the specifics of research in the pre-Victorian period but it is the subtitle that is important: “A Guide to Research Methods for Family Historians“. I understand that it was sold out by the end of day 2, and I certainly did not see any copies for sale on the last day, so maybe we are still taking this seriously after all.

    We need more of this in the UK: Sound advice on how to conduct proper, good quality genealogical research.

    John starts by considering the skills and knowledge needed for genealogical research and breaks this down into four areas:

    knowledge of sources
    searching skills
    analytical and problem solving skills
    external knowledge

    There are chapters on sources, distinguishing between original and derivative sources and records, and search techniques, including how to get the best from online databases.

    Special consideration is given to names, social status, religion, occupations and migration and how these may affect your research journey but there is much focus on methodology: using archives, evidence and proof and techniques such as family reconstitution.

    John’s book describes research techniques as used by the professionals and those who take their family history seriously. It introduces the concept of considering the records you are using in the context of what was happening from a historical perspective at the time. Filled with useful case studies from his own research John teaches you to consider the wider picture. Is it possible that a birth you may be looking for is not where you thought because the father was in the militia at the time and stationed elsewhere?
    We do not have a lot of information about genealogy research methodology in the UK.

    The only other recent publication that comes to mind is the also excellent Genealogy: Essential Research Methods from Helen Osborn. Taking a slightly different approach to John Wintrip’s book I heartily recommend both volumes to anyone serious about their research.

    bloghelen

    Please, and I know I have used this word repeatedly, can we do this properly?


    Find out more about Karen here