Genealogy 101: The Genealogical Proof Standard

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about the importance of family historians using the Genealogical Proof Standard, which helps genealogists ensure that their research is credible. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Most likely you’re familiar with the acronym “GPS.” At the very least you’ve probably used a GPS device. At one time you might have even purchased a GPS device for your car. Today, that technology has evolved so that it’s available to us on our cell phones via many available mapping apps. GPS, or Global Positioning System, is an important tool for family historians looking for cemeteries, archives, etc. – but there is another type of GPS that researchers should be aware of.

Photo: a sign with a genealogy saying, "Without proof there is no truth."

“Without proof there is no truth” is a phrase I’ve seen genealogy societies use as their tagline. That admonishment is an important one because it reminds us as researchers that we need to verify the information and stories we gather, otherwise that information is likely to be more fantasy than family history.

Family historians help to ensure they have done more than just collect names haphazardly by using the Genealogical Proof Standard, which helps genealogists ensure that their research is credible. The Board for Certification of Genealogists states:

“Proof is a fundamental concept in genealogy. In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as ‘proved.’ Acceptable conclusions, therefore, meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).” (1)

The GPS requires that:

  • Reasonably exhaustive research is conducted. This research goes beyond just conducting an online search and includes a more in-depth search of offline original sources.
  • Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation. When we document what we found it allows others to replicate our research.
  • The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted. Reminds us to go beyond just gathering information and take the time to analyze what we have found.
  • Any contradictory evidence has been resolved. Make sure that all evidence supports your conclusion.
  • The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written. By writing out your findings, you can explain how you came to that conclusion. (2)

The elements of the GPS help us make sure that our research is the very best it can be.

So why should the non-professional genealogist be concerned with a standard that is used by professional genealogists? After all, you are probably doing your research for yourself and your descendants, not for publication.

I think the answer to this question comes down to one word: credibility. For many of us who have been doing genealogy for decades, we have experienced the excitement of finding a surname book written by a distant member of the family – only to read it and realize that all of the names, dates, places, and stories have no source citation or “proof” that they are true. We all have seen that online family tree that seems to hold the long-awaited answer to where your ancestor was born – but upon further inspection, that tree includes dates that don’t make sense, such as mothers dying before their children are born or giving birth when they are 70 years old.

Without analyzing our evidence and citing our sources, all the hard work we’ve put into our family tree may be discounted and ignored. Worse still, it may not even be true.

Why use the GPS in your research? It’s tempting in genealogy to find information on websites and quickly add it to our family tree without much analysis. The Genealogical Proof Standard elements help us do better research and be more confident about our findings as we solve family history dilemmas like same name problems and research prior to 1850.

You can read more about the Genealogical Proof Standard and how to incorporate it into your own research on the Board for Certification of Genealogists website.

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(1) Dowell, David R. Crash Course in Genealogy. Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited, 2011. Page 21.
(2) “Genealogical Proof Standard,” FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Genealogical_Proof_Standard: accessed 13 March 2019).

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