GPS Element #5: Writing your conclusions

typewriterThis is the third of a series of articles about the Genealogical Proof Standard. [1]  The elements are not being published in numerical order, primarily because I had presentations to make on some of the elements, and I completed those first.  You can read about GPS #1 (thorough search), GPS #2 (source citations)  and  GPS #3 (analysis and correlation), by clicking on the links.  I haven’t yet published GPS #4 (resolving conflicting evidence).

My ProGen class is in its second month of writing their proof arguments. Proof arguments are the basis of the BCG case study and components of the Kinship Determination Project, both requirements for certification.  Proof arguments are a type of genealogical writing that describes, in a scholarly way, our findings to a question.

I won’t dwell on the definition of a proof argument, you can find explanations and examples in a variety of places, including the BCG website ( Almost every article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly is a proof argument.

As our class discussed their first drafts, I started to see some trends in my writing as well as that of my cohort. These observations may reflect a single paper or sometimes the issue is systemic.  One thing remains clear–these are my personal comments.  Each of the items below is composed of 1.) what I see/experience, 2.) any documentation or analysis which clarifies the issue and finally 3.) a statement of how I plan to approach the issue in my own writing.  What you select to incorporate into your proof arguments is a personal decision; your choice may be different than mine.

I pause here for a minute to thank Karen Stanbury, my facilitator for Mastering Genealogical Proof (MGP) by Tom Jones.[2] She made the course, taken in late 2013, rigorous and demanding. I utilize daily the information contained in that book and emphasized by Karen. I know that some facilitators were not as rigorous as Karen and that is their loss.

1. Research Question:  The crafting of the research question seems easy at first and then reveals itself to be surprisingly difficult. At times I was struggling with defining exactly what I was trying to “prove.”  Did I want to answer when Mary was born, or her location of birth or who were her parents?  In the end, for this assignment, I decided to focus on the parents because I had the evidence to support that question.
Analysis:  The research question is composed of two parts: a clearly defined and unique individual and a measurable interrogatory. To identify an individual who is “unique in the world,” you must supply enough known descriptors that there is only one person who could satisfy those requirements.  The interrogatory may be relationship (e.g. who are the parents of…), or an identity (e.g. Which Alonzo Fedpussle paying taxes in Whichamacallit County in 1879, was the son of Alphonso Fedpussle?) or an activity (e.g. What military service, if any, did Alonzo Fedpussle, born in 1847 in Whichamacallit County, provide in the Civil War?)  The interrogatory also needs to be measurable.  A question such as “who is John Smith?” fails on two counts.  John Smith is not unique in the world but, in addition, the interrogatory “Who was…” is not measurable; said a different way, how would you know if or when the question of “who was John Smith” had been answered?
How I plan to approach it:  I believe that I understand the concept of the unique individual but I will continue to work on the crafting of the good question.  I am hopeful that writing more PAs will result in more efficient writing.  Reading more articles will help as well.  I struggle most with research questions that are implied in the writing but not specifically stated.

2. Organization: The organization of the writing is very challenging. It’s not that I cannot organize the writing, but rather I have trouble picking the best organization for the question, the evidence and the reader.
Analysis:  I am not sure I see too much written about this.  In MGP Dr. Jones describes how the work must have a beginning, a middle and the end (I work with several people who always start conversations “in the middle.” Irritating, isn’t it?)  I think this is harder for some people than others.  Dr. Jones discusses various constructs for the argument, including single hypothesis, alternative hypotheses, building blocks and syllogisms [3]
How I plan to approach it:  My articles usually use one of these techniques as the prime organizing methodology and then within that structure some or all of the others will be utilized.  It sounds like I know what I am doing but it is still hard to pick the right structure for the evidence you have.  I’ll probably blog about this more later.

3. Inclusion/Exclusion: We want to include all we know. We worked so hard to get all that information and just because it doesn’t support the research question doesn’t mean we should eliminate it, does it? Well, yes, it does. The focus of the writing should be on the research question and all other material which does not support the thesis should be deleted. On the flip side and equally as “wrong” as too much information, is making the paper so “bare bones” that the author forces the reader to make assumptions and “leaps of faith.”  A third type of problem with writing of proof arguments is where the author writes something which “begs the question.”  In the latter, the reader is busy wondering why something wasn’t covered; just the inclusion of a brief discussion would have eliminated the alternative focus by the reader.
Analysis:  Inclusion of other information which does not directly support the question, leads the reader away from the prime focus; the author appears to have wandered off topic. The reader should also not be making assumptions because the writer has failed to include necessary evidence.  This type of writing leaves the reader with questions which interrupt the flow of the reading.
How I plan to approach it:  I actually have the problem of putting in too little information and making leaps of faith, under the guise of “isn’t it self-evident?” My writing improves if I have the opportunity to let it sit for a while before rereading.  I also write the paper and then outline it after the first draft.  I find outlining helps identify errant bits of evidence which do not support the question, but notice — I outline after I have written the draft.  If I have difficulty outlining the paper, the area of writing which needs improvement is immediately identified.

4. Proof Argument/Research Plan?: Some in the class wrote the argument as if it were a research plan. This sometimes looked more like a listing of sources which supported the query.  The author would include all the evidence in a source list/discussion but never pull it together and correlate by contrasting and comparing.  They told the story but seemed more interested in the sources than the proof.
Analysis:  The eleven points of MGP continue to guide us in the writing but everyone needs to improve on this. [4]
How I plan to approach it:  I will continue to read NGSQ and study other articles.  I admit I was amazed how much I had learned in the past two years by reading and rereading these articles.  I am a much better consumer of peer reviewed articles than I was before–it’s a bit scarey!

5. Analysis of sources: Am I the only one who doesn’t want to read about whether that will was original or derivative or the information was primary, secondary or undetermined?  The inclusion of source analysis after source analysis which is not additive to the argument makes for difficult reading.  The author has the responsibility to provide informative citations which tell the reader the viability of the source that was used; it is not necessary to do the analysis in such a visible way.  For all the analysis, the evidence could still be wrong.
Analysis: These citations should make obvious whether the author was looking at an original, derivative or authored work; using primary, secondary or undetermined information and providing direct, indirect or negative evidence.  Only when two sources conflict is it reasonable–it seems to me– to expect the author to discuss the quality of the source and then draw a conclusion.   The inclusion of that analysis can happen in one of three places– in the body of the proof, in the footnote of the proof and outside of the paper altogether. Authors who analyze every source and include their analysis in the narrative, make for difficult reading. Note the fifth bullet of the 11 in MGP, “We discuss sources to a lesser extent, because most information about sources belongs in the citations and footnotes.” [5]
How I plan on approach it:  I leave out most and sometime all references to the categories of my source, information and evidence.  I have a tendency to write about the analysis of the source only when it is in conflict, i.e. does the source analysis make one answer more appropriate than another?

6. Style of writing: Some authors wrote a portion of their article in a very familiar style- first person, present tense.
Analysis: The third bullet of the 11 points in MGP states “present-tense verbs refer to extant sources and living people….(consequently, much genealogical writing is in the past tense.) and the tenth bullet “the tone of a proof argument or summary is that of a “defense” in the academic sense.” [6]
How I plan to to approach it:  I have little difficulty using past tense fairly consistently in my writing but occasionally, a present tense verb sneaks in.  I just have to be aware of the issue and address it at the time of writing.  Generally, my writing is rather academic (read: dry) so the use of the first person does not often enter my writing.

So this was, and continues to be, a great exercise. I have written a few proof arguments now and although I cannot say I am comfortable, the efficiency of writing is better and my initial output is stronger.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: commented on my classmates proof arguments; got the SGS newsletter out to our membership; campaigned to have our society join FGS; purchased, received and deeply skimmed Applied Genealogy by Eugene A. Stratton and Genealogical Evidence by Noel Stevenson. Both are older books but are still the go-to reference for genealogy fundamentals. Also read the ProGen assignment for next month and 4 NGSQ articles (one is related to my BCG case study, one was written by a friend, one is the Q study article for March and one is about a special schedule of the 1880 census where a great grand uncle was enumerated as he was labeled insane. More about this later—I am doing some deep research on the topic of incarceration in an insane asylum in the late 1800’s.)

[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Turner Publishing Company, 2014) p. 1-2.

[2] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, VA: National Genealogical Society, 2013).

[3] Ibid, p. 88-89.

[4] Ibid, p. 90.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


GPS Element 3: Analysis and Correlation

How many sessions at conferences or webinars have you attended where they talk ABOUT the Genealogical Proof Standards (GPS) [1] and its five elements, but then did not show us how to apply each element to a real world problem much less apply it to our own readings and writings?  I have been taking the Mastering Genealogical Proof class based on the book of the same name by Thomas W. Jones [2].  I am finding it very informative (however, I will be the first to admit there are some moments that, for me, were incredibly dry.)

I will address each of the five elements of the GPS in separate blogs and apply each to what i specifically have learned in that chapter.  I hope you will share your findings as well.  Application is the component which is missing in most presentations.  Even if we “know we should know it”–do we really understand how to apply the GPS to our genealogical work?  I will also confess upfront that this has been an evolving awakening on my part.  Once again, I am struck by how much I do not know about qualitative analysis.

Some of you may have been followers of this blog when I wrote my first two blogs on qualitative analysis over two years ago:

Are there tools which can improve our analytical skills?    published on 22 December 2011


Does the concept of thematic networks have a place in the “analytical tool box?”  published 24 December 2011

Dr. Jones does not address the issue of thematic networks in his book, but I still think they have a place.  In the blogs noted above I showed how the creation of a visual “thematic network” can assist in organizing data we obtain from an oral interview which often seems disconnected and haphazard even when using structured questions.  If we ever watch NCIS, or CIS or Rosselli & Isles, visual thematic networks are often pictured…..they are the big walls that have all pertinent crime data collected to date posted on a wall so the crime solvers can see all the myriads of clues in a single visual scan.  The crime solvers start grouping and eliminating suspects and irrelevant information as they assess other information that is more pertinent to solving the crime.  All is posted on the wall–they are correlating the evidence!  Are we so different?  Perhaps if you have a particularly tough “brick wall” you might consider such a wall.

I would like to come up with a new name for this wall; how about, BRICK Wall for “Better Research In Correlation of Kin” Wall!!  🙂

If thematic networks are already in our “analytical toolbox, what other tools does Dr. Jones put into the box?

ANALYSIS: Analysis according to Dr. Jones is the in-depth look at the source.  He analyzes the source, the information it provides and applies the Process Map [3].  What is the quality of that source?  biased?  manipulated?  an index (derivative) or and original?  If an authored work, what standards did the author use in the compilation and conclusion making?  We, too, can analyze the source and the information it contains for its validity.

CORRELATION: Dr. Jones adds narrative discussion, lists, timelines, tables and maps to our toolbox, and then illustrates ways to analyze the information we have to determine if it rises to the level of evidence, either direct or indirect.  These, too, can go into our own analytical tool box.

I had not analyzed my sources with any discipline before engaging in the exercises in the book, except at the most superficial way, as in “Yeah!  They have the microfilms of that parish’s records.”

I didn’t even think about the differenty types of tools to use for correlations: narrative or lists, which I have not consiously done.  I also had not specifically thought of how maps, tables and timelines contribute to my analytical tool box but I use them frequently.   As a visual person, I gravitate towards these tools.  I will normally put information into a table, sometimes even when a narrative would do.

post-it exercise 2So I would like to propose that before we do a Research Plan, perhaps a “BRICK Wall” would be a good place to start.  This would allow us to move information around and put it in the most logical order.  It should be dynamic–as we gain information, it should be posted on the wall.  the earlier we start with such a wall, probably the better; however, we might find ourselves in an intractable position with a problem well into the analysis and this tool might “rescue” us from what seems to be an intractable problem.  The BRICK Wall would also have the advantage of assisting us in the writing of the report as well (We’ll talk about that when we get to GPS Element 5: The Written Conclusion”.)  So if we are having problems with organizing complex data for a proof; such a wall might help.  There are programs out there which create a virtual wall such as Scrivener.

I will be assessing my sources.  I will be think first about which is the best of many tools to use that assist in the correlation of my collected information and evidence. And, I will determine if a BRICK Wall is a good tool to use for my problem before I get too far in the process of conceptualizing the problem.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting:  I am working on the next SGS Bulletin, submitted by assignments for both ProGen and MGP, attended an PS-APG meeting on Family Search (check out their Terms and Conditions before you post your information, photos, videos etc. there).  I have not been working on my portfolio, other than indirectly through these classes.  Did some client work that I need to wrap up.  My aunt has yet to do the house plan exercise which I hope she will do soon.  Made very cute Halloween cookies! I have sent to USCIS requests for naturalization papers on my paternal grandfather and Pat’s paternal grandfather.  I got the C number from them ($20) and armed with his file number, made my request (another $20) for the portfolio on my grandfather before the government shut down.  Haven’t heard anything about Pat’s grandfather yet.  Haven’t received the portfolio yet.  Let’s hope this silliness is over soon.

[1] Board for Certification for Genealogists, “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” ( : accessed 13 October 2013).

[2] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013) 53.

[3] Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Model,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( accessed 13 October 2013).

What happened today?

(I started this blog posting on the ship.  Unfortunately, due to connectivity problems it did not get posted.)

We had two great days of presentations while we sailed from Skagway, Alaska, back to Seattle.

There were a couple of the presentations that warrant some comment and they may be of help to you.  (Note:  I asked the presenters if i could blog about their presentations and they gave approval.)  Here are my comments about Tom Jones’s presentation on the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

In an early lecture, Dr. Jones mentioned that the BCG Standards Manual was being revised (1).  At a scheduled on-on-one session, I asked him the extent/type of changes that we might expect.  Dr. Jones stated that the changes were more clarifications of some concepts (2).

In a lecture later that week, Dr. Jones presented “This Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS): What It is and What It is Not,” and outlined specifically what constitutes “a reasonably exhaustive search.”  He made special note of the fact that the emphasis should not be on the phrase “exhaustive search” but rather on the word “reasonably”.  He pointed out that “overkill” was to be avoided.

He outlined six criteria:

“GPS Element 1–A reasonably exhaustive search:

  1. At least two independent sources in agreement
  2. All sources competent genealogists would examine (varies with time, place, and the research question and answer)
  3. Some primary information
  4. Some original sources
  5. Relevant derivative sources or secondary information replaced by findable corresponding originals and primary information
  6. All findable sources suggested by relevant sources databases and indexes.” (3)

My “takeaways” were:

  • Dr. Jones is defining for us what a “reasonably exhaustive search” constitutes, a discussion topic by genealogists for many years.
  • He may be “testing’ the standard before it is incorporated into the BCG certification criteria.
  • I could see that we may need to assess our sources in the reports we write for certification.  Perhaps this will take the form of an additional rubric or it might be an internal assessment within the report itself.
  • In a presentation later in the cruise and not yet presented at a national conference, “Overcoming Surprising Research Barriers: A Case Study,” he presented a methodology for the assessment of sources which was very helpful.
  • Researchers who wish to achieve a high standard of professionalism should not use transcribed indexes as the source, e.g. SSDI, CaDI, or many of the family search finds which do not have an image.  One must go to the source of information on the index if it exists.
  • Books should be considered “finding aids.”  When using a book as a source, we need to assess where the author obtained the information and go there instead.  (This also was stressed later in the week by Craig Scott in his “Brick Walls” sessions.)

This was one lecture on one day!  And the rest of the lectures were “chockablock” with info throughout.  I will blog about some of my other enlightenments I received on the way to and from Alaska in subsequent postings.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: Arrived in Seattle this morning, and was picked up by our neighbor and friend, Joan.  Very well coordinated exiting of 2500 people from a ship to the ground (an amazing feat).  I went to yoga but for some reason couldn’t do “tree” very well!  🙂 ; cleaned out the suitcase and petted the cat.  Did an BCG assessment of 5 client reports I have completed.  I will post that assessment and solicit your input in the coming few days.

(1) Lecture by Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG (SM), CGL (SM), FASG, FUGA, FNGS,  (address withheld), “Missing Something?  Getting the Most out of Genealogical Evidence,” referring to the Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, (Orem, Utah: Ancestry,2000), 1a. 2012 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, 16-23 September 2012.  Syllabus held by Jill Morelli (address withheld).

(2) Interview with Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG (SM), CGL (SM), FASG, FUGA, FNGS, (address withheld), 2012 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, 20 September 2012.  Notes held by Jill Morelli (address withheld).

(3) Lecture by Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG (SM), CGL (SM), FASG, FUGA, FNGS,  (address withheld), “The Genealogical Proof Standard: What It Is and What It Is Not,” 2012 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, 16-23 September 2012.  Syllabus held by Jill Morelli (address withheld).

Don’t you love being the detective?

Yes, I do!  More than once in my conversations with others they have noted that being a genealogist is like being a detective….you gather clues, some of which will turn out to be germane and others are just so much chaff; you study the clues and assess the quality of your source and eventually, when you have enough information, you draw a conclusion.  Sounds like NCIS or The Closer (sigh)!  Like a detective, sometimes there is one clue (after gathering a lot of evidence) that seems to tip the scale.   Other times, it is the weight of all of the evidence that leads one to a conclusion.

Last post was about a discovery of a second marriage of my great great grandmother and answering the question of whether I had enough information to say that THIS Ida Berg who married Frederick Eiler was MY Ida Berg.  No piece of evidence discounted it from being her but the weight of the evidence did seem like enough to say, in fact, it was her.  Some would have already said it was her.

Some of us just keep looking.

Yesterday I was filing some of the information that I had found on the trip to Freeport.  I was entering information into the database of the many original sources  with primary information I had found, and there it was!  The tipping point!  When Ida’s daughter Sophia got married at age 15 in 1862, Ida had to attest that it was with the family approval.  On the marriage form of the daughter was the name Ida Eylen.  Clearly not Berg and written sloppily enough that the “n” could be an “r”.

So, Ida’s mini-timeline looks like this:

  • 1857:  immigration
  • 1858: husband, Siben Berg dies
  • 1860: found in Lancaster Township as Eda Baird
  • 1861: marries for a second time
  • 1862: daughter marries and Ida Eylen signs her consent
  • 1864: “Ida Berg, widow” becomes a member of the Silver Creek Reformed church
  • no found document after 1864 indicates a name other than Berg

The mystery to me is now: What happened to Frederick?  There was no record of death in the parish records of St. John’s Presbyterian or of Silver Creek Reformed church. There was another German Reformed church in town, perhaps the death is there.  Newspapers are not extant for that time period and in my culling of them that I could do, very few deaths (accidents only), no marriages and no births were entered as news.

So, the mystery continues, with a different slant.  The focus is now on Frederick.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post:  filed some, but not all of the information I found in Stephenson county (next up: all the land and probate records), have the very rough draft of Stephanie’s book about 90% complete and I will get it to her the end of this week.  It looks pretty good!  about 30+ pages and it went faster than I thought it would.