24: Coming to grips with the new FamilySearch, WEA Centre Adelaide 10:00 to 1:00pm
27: Introduction to Family History research, WEA Centre Adelaide 8:00 to 9:30pm over 7 weeks until 10 Apr 2013
3: North Adelaide heritage walk, WEA Centre Adelaide 2:00 to 4:00pm
8: Dating 19th century photographs,
WEA Centre Adelaide 7:00 to 10:00pm
17: Family history on the web, WEA Centre Adelaide 10:00 to 1:00pm
See the seminar program
for more details and bookings.
Purchasing a BDM certificate using the Ancestry.co.uk 'Order now' link will cost you more than double the cost of purchasing online from the GRO in England!
Standard of Proof
I was interested to read an article by Else Churchill, the genealogist at the Society of Genealogists, in the November 2012 issue of Your Family Tree magazine that makes mention of the Genealogical Proof Standard. This is something I been advocating at my lectures for many years. In Else’s words, ‘Proof is based on the quality of evidence, not its weight.’ Unfortunately many believe what they want to believe and then selectively seek facts that will confirm their beliefs.
In research one needs to keep an open mind about whether the information located is actually true. As my students know, a researcher should actively seek independent confirmation of all the facts they hold about their ancestry. This means collaborating information by chasing up more than one source and ensuring that they were created in a differing process. For example locating a birth certificate AND a newspaper notice in the personal columns that agree is a far stronger foundation than just locating one or the other! In this example both records have been created by a completely different process and possibly by different people! This particular example may even be further confirmed by locating a baptism record if it contains a birth date.
Standard of proof
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As part of the quest for rigour in research I provide my students with the following basic principles of research:
• Always work from the known into the unknown
• Never assume anything
• Be objective and do not let emotions and preconceived values get in the way
• Be organised and systematic
• Develop a planned research strategy
• Maintain a set of research log books to manage your research program
• Plan visits to repositories thoroughly
• Seek out and accept good advice
• Widely advertise your research interests amongst appropriate target groups
• Be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of resources
• Use indexes appropriately and effectively
• Understand the need to corroborate facts with at least two independent sources wherever possible
• Record your sources clearly and concisely
• Evaluate your findings in the light of the reliability of the source
Effectively this all means that you will conduct an exhaustive search of records and will be comfortable that you have reduced the possibility of making hasty decisions using minimal information. By being systematic and progressing from the known into unknown realms indicates that you have analysed the data collected and fully resolved any conflicts in the material without bias before progressing back to the earlier generation. It is vital that all issues and research in each generation, especially in regard to birth/baptism and marriage records are resolved before moving on as it is quite easy to find one working down the wrong ancestral line. In fact one needs to be quite sceptical about any family line that ventures into any era that predates local parish registers without demonstrating a confirmation with high quality sources. Such family lines are, for the most part, purely speculative!
It is important to evaluate the evidence collected
and its mode. Clearly the provenance of the record is very important. Original sources are records that contribute written, oral, or visual information whereas derived material, that is material copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarised from existing sources, may carry less weight. It rather depends on the process. Obviously a photocopy/photograph/scan (providing it is complete) must have an equal weight as its original and far more weight than a transcription, abstract or summary. This can of course be over simplistic as the original or primary record may be wrong—either by accident or intention! Rather than provenance, this latter aspect relates to quality. In spite of what has just been written, primary material, that is material recorded at or near the time of the event is deemed more correct than secondary material, that is material compiled at a later date. Sometimes it can be quite difficult to determine the status of the record in question. For example, consider the census returns widely used to develop family histories. They are in fact, not primary records but compilations of household schedules and therefore very much secondary records prone to a higher level of error. Consider the 1542–1712 parish register for St Mildred Tenterden in Kent. The register statement in the front [pictured] clearly indicates that the material within it is both primary and secondary in that the 1542–1599 records were copied from the original [paper] register, while the subsequent entries are the originals! The St Mary the Virgin Docking NFK register probably has the same combination as its cover indicates a pre-1599 start. [pictured] In 1599 it was decreed that registers henceforth had to be written on parchment when previously they had been paper. Many incumbents or parish clerks copied the contents of the former register into the new one. Knowing that this behaviour was widespread also demonstrates another requirement for successful research—understanding the family in their historical context!
Lastly we have to consider the evidence itself. Is it direct, namely it answers the question, or is it indirect? Indirect evidence, the result of making conclusions from circumstantial data clearly carries less weight. For example consider concluding a birth year from an age on a marriage certificate. Many marriage certificate ages were adjusted to comply with convention that grooms should be older than their bride and often ages were put up to 21 or full age to overcome the need to gain parental consent!
Any conflicting data must be resolved and we may use the weighting as outlined above in this process reminding ourselves that even the primary data may be incorrect and that could in fact lead to giving greater weight to indirect evidence. Finally we need to arrive at a conclusion. More often than not this may be so obvious that it is understood without thought, but on the other hand your conclusion may require a lengthy report weighing up all the available evidence.
Have you recorded such material in your research records? Such deliberations should be written down for the benefit of future research as such conclusions are never final in that new information may disprove them!
As a consequence the research process has several distinctive stages:
1. Think: plan your research and consider the most likely repositories/ records to search.
2. Find: locate the records.
3. Record: photocopy, photograph, scan or transcribe as written (even if known to be incorrect).
4. Source: provide enough detail to allow anyone else to find the record.
5. Query: all material recovered requires sound evaluation/reasoning.
Failure to observe these processes is obvious in many published ancestries, be they in hard copy or online. Never take on any such material that fails to provide you with sourcing that enables you to locate the data and follow the steps taken to reach the same conclusion. Inability to replicate the research must cast a doubt on the veracity of the published material. Where doubt exists in the published material, that too should be disregarded unless the author has put forward their reasons. Thus seeing a family chart with an imprecise birth date not accompanied by the reasoning for including it in the material is not helpful. For example, Mary JONES b. 1796, without an explanation is worthless but a simple explanation makes all the difference—Mary JONES b. 1796 (determined from age given in 1851 census).
For an audio presentation on this important understanding of research, play the following online tape by clicking on it. It is sponsored by FamilySearch and that is rather ironic given their poor record in providing visitors to their website adequate sourcing of much of their material!
You may like to download the research process chart created by Mark Tucker. It uses differing terminology, but essentially summarises this article as a comprehensive flow chart.
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