Saturday, February 2, 2013

Genealogical Proof Standard - Step 1 - A reasonably exhaustive search

The first step of the GPS is conducting a reasonably exhaustive search of the records.  Before you can do this you need to know what records are available for the location and time period in question. I can’t emphasize this enough.  If you don’t take the time to find out what all is available you will miss vital records.  So how do I figure this out?  I have some standard places that I check.

Be aware that everything is not online.  Every day more things are becoming available on the internet but if you limit yourself to this one source you will not be doing thorough research.  There are some things that you will only find at archives and courthouses.

I keep track of what is available and what I need to search using Research Calendars.  This is a great way to keep everything organized. You will  have a record of what you searched, when you searched it, and what the results were. You also need to record the list of available records that you found in your Research Binder (a physical binder or a virtual one) so that you will have it for the next time. You can read even more about research binders in Research Binders Part II.

Here is a very simple example.  Let’s say you find that John Doe had a son named James Doe on the 1850 census.  Do you record that James is the son of John and stop there?  No, you look for other records that support,  or possibly conflict, the hypothesis that James is the son of John.  In this particular example it is doubly important because the 1850 census does not give relationships.  You are only assuming that James is the son of John because he was a minor child living in the household.  You are looking for different types of records with different informants to put together your case. 

What sort of records would I be looking for?  John Doe’s will or intestate probate packet might name James as a son. This is before birth certificates but perhaps there is a church baptismal record.  Death certificates usually name the parents of the deceased but don’t forget that the deceased was not the informant.  The same goes for an obituary.  You will have to determine if the informant was in a good position to know this information.  If James was underage when he married his father might be named on his marriage license.  Some marriage licenses name the parents even if the bride/groom wasn’t underage.  You also need to check the other census records.  Did John have a family Bible?  Are there any deeds that name both John and James?  Sometimes you will get lucky and the deed will actually say, “to my son James.”  Remember, at this point you are only collecting your data. You will analyze and correlate it later.


Resources:

How to Conduct a "Reasonably Exhaustive Search" for Relevant Records.  This is a good article by Michael Hait, CG.  He has authored several things about exhaustive searches and I consider him to be an authority on the subject.

What is a "Reasonably Exhaustive Search?" webinar by Michael Hait, CG.  The case study that Michael presents is an extraordinary example of what you will find if you do a truly exhaustive search. 

Thomas W. Jones, “When Enough is Enough: How Much Searching is ‘Reasonably Exhaustive’?,” Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly 25 (March 2010): 25–33.  I can’t give you a link for this one because you have to be a member of the APG to read back issues.  If you need a list of reasons to join genealogical societies and groups then take a look at
Why Should I Join a Genealogical Society?


Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

4 comments:

  1. Oh I wish that everyone followed this step - the number of times I deal with requests from fellow "professional" genealogists to help them out and they failed to use the most basic of sources....well done! And thanks for including a link to a sample research calendar.

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  2. Thanks, H&H :) The case study presented in Michael Hait's webinar is one of the best examples of how important an exhaustive search is. He had oodles of sources for a place of birth for one of his ancestors. He just had a feeling there was something more out there. He found what he was looking :) I don't want to say more than that lest I give it all away. I will say that I thought his search was exhaustive before he thought it was.

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  3. A couple of months ago, I took Tom Jones' course on Mastering Genealogical principles at the British Institute in Salt Lake City. One of the things that bothered me about the definition of a reasonably exhaustive search is that it should include "all sources competent genealogists would examine to answer the same research question," and "all findable sources that relevant sources and indexes suggest." While I believe in this principle, this seem like it wasn't realistic to always require this. Thus, I asked if you have a person's birth certificate and had found him on a few censuses, do you still need to continue researching other sources if the birth and census records had no conflicts. The answer to my question was no! He said that it really means that "enough sources" have been checked to be confident in the answer. You still to have at least one primary source, at least one original source, and so forth, but you do not need to search for every possible source if you have enough information to answer the research question.

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  4. Kent, the only reason you would keep looking for another birth source in this case is if you were trying to resolve conflicting evidence.

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