Have you ever found that you have entered a piece of information in your genealogy program and attached a source citation (maybe even more than one), but you can’t remember how that source led you to the conclusion that it did?
For example, maybe you have Travis Brown attached to Jane Brown as her father with the 1870 and 1880 censuses for the Travis Brown household, John Brown’s obituary and John Brown’s death record shown as the citations for that relationship. This is puzzling because although Jane was in Travis’s household in 1870, this census doesn’t specify relationships between individuals, and you know that Jane was married before 1880 and was not in Travis’s household in that year. Why, then, have you used the 1880 census for Travis Brown as a citation for this fact? And why have you cited John Brown’s death record and obituary?
When there is no direct evidence for a genealogical fact, researchers often must rely on a “proof argument” to explain how they know the fact is so. In this case, let’s say that Jane and John Brown were in Travis Brown’s household in 1870, and were of age to have been his children. In 1880, Jane was out of the household and married, but John remained in Travis’s household and was enumerated as Travis’s son. John’s death record named Travis as his father, and John’s obituary named Jane as a surviving sister. For the sake of this illustration, let’s also say that we know that Jane’s surname was Brown when she got married. If there is no conflicting evidence, we could make the argument that since John Brown was the son of Travis Brown, John’s sister, whose maiden name was Brown and who lived in Travis’s household in 1870, also was a child of Travis Brown. The sources just named, when analyzed all together, support this conclusion.
However, a string of sources attached to a fact in a genealogy database does not spell out how we reached this conclusion; only a narrative can do this. If we can’t remember how we determined the answer to a genealogical problem, how can we expect someone else looking at our work to do so?
Barbara Vines Little, CG(sm),* professional researcher and lecturer, spoke on proof arguments at the National Genealogical Society Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, last week. She said a proof argument should have a topic sentence stating the conclusion, followed by supporting sentences explaining the evidence found, how the pieces of evidence fit together to prove the argument, and a description of the depth and breadth of the search. Negative searches also should be described if they apply to the conclusion, such as when someone is not found in a particular record, or if a certain type of record expected to be found in the area for that time period is not extant, for example.
It is not enough to know what conclusion the researcher has drawn, Little said in her lecture last week, “We need to know how you figured it out.”
*“CG” & “Certified Genealogist” are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and are used by authorized associates following periodic, peer-reviewed competency evaluations.