Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources
- Newsletter of the BCG
Linda Woodward Geiger, "Guidelines for Evaluating
Genealogical Resources," OnBoard 14
(May 2008): 14-15.
Genealogical resources come in all shapes and sizes—paper
documents created by a governmental agency; paper records
created by private agencies such as churches, newspapers,
and fraternal organizations; photographs and paintings;
dairies and journals; tombstones, etc. As we gather genealogical
facts and background we must be careful to consider the
many facets that each record provides.
Elizabeth Shown Mills explains the process of analyzing
evidence in a simple model. The following has been adapted
from her models:
We need to process every resource by examining every fact
and clue. Only then are we able to draw reasonable conclusions.
The process includes identifying three basic elements.
- Source type—is it an original or a derivative?
- Information type(s)—is each piece primary or
- Evidence type(s)—is each piece direct or indirect?
Original or Derivative?
A source is original if it is the ﬁrst written
statement, photograph, or recording of an event. Subsequent
copies are derivatives and may be reproduced by hand, machine,
camera or scanner; they may be reproduced on paper, in
microform, as photographs or digital images, or in any
other medium that records the image whether transcribed
by hand or technology. Derivatives include the clerk’s
copy of deeds (the originals are in the possession of the
grantee), transcripts, abstracts, and notes produced from
viewing the original or a derivative. In some cases various
generations of derivatives exist, and frequently there
is no record of the generation number. By way of example,
Marriage Book A in the Probate Court of Hall County, Georgia,
is a copy of the ﬁrst clerk’s volume which
had became worn. Subsequent copies may prove to be problematic.
Following are ome scenarios that may occur:
- Every handwritten or typed copy is prone to additional
errors caused by mistakes in deciphering the hand-writing
of the document being processed. Typographical errors
may occur; the current copier may be careless about punctuation
- Sometimes documents may have been interlined with
additional comments (generally in a smaller size and
as a superscript), which may not be copied.
- An original document may contain additional comments
written with a different pen or ink type that strongly
suggest they were not made at the time the document was
created; but a copy made later may not indicate that
the comments were not in the original document. Microform
and grayscale digital copies do not allow the viewer
to access variations in color or equipment and a comment
added to a 19th century document with a blue ballpoint
pen would probably not be evident to the reader of the
microform or grayscale derivative.
Trained genealogists and historians need to make every
attempt to get as close to the original as possible. Correct
analysis may rely on such diligence.
Primary or Secondary?
A piece of information is primary
when it is recorded by a knowledgeable eyewitness or participant
in that event, or by an ofﬁcial whose duties require
him or her to make an accurate record of the event when
Secondary information is supplied by someone who was not
at the event and may include errors caused by memory loss
or inﬂuenced by other parties who may have a bias
or be under emotional stress.
It is not at all unusual for documents to contain a combination
of primary and secondary information. Examples include
death records, tombstones, pension records, marriage applications,
etc. Consider a death record: primary information may include
the name and residence of the deceased, date and place
of death, cause of death, sex, marital status, and name
of the surviving spouse. Secondary information is supplied
by an informant who does not have primary knowledge; such
information may relate to date and place of birth of the
deceased as well as names and residences of the deceased’s
Direct or Indirect Evidence
Direct evidence is any fact that is explicitly stated,
while indirect evidence is inferred from one or more
pieces of evidence within the record. It isn’t
surprising, then, that some evidence within a record
may be direct while other evidence is indirect. Sometimes,
there is no direct evidence, or there is conﬂicting
evidence that necessitates the use of the Genealogical
The Evaluation Process
In order to reach reasonable conclusions, it is essential
to perform a complete analysis of each resource. The
process includes careful scrutiny of each fact (stated
directly or implied) to determine plausibility, possible
contradictory evidence, and impact on the particular
At the same time, it is important to remember that a single
genealogical resource is analogous to a single man—neither
is an island, and neither stands alone. Every effort must
be made to identify additional resources and connections
to the particular project.
A precise discussion of evidence-evaluation standards
(standards 19–34) is available in The BCG Genealogical
Standards Manual. They should be studied carefully.
Each of us will be judged by our colleagues and professionals
as well as by future generations. I want to be valued as
a signiﬁcant researcher who is careful and methodical—a
genealogist who thoroughly analyzes and evaluates each
and every piece of evidence and scrupulously acknowledges
and explains possibly conﬂicting information.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists. The
BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000.
Devine, Donn. “Evidence Analysis,” in Professional
Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors,
Lectures, and Librarians. Edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills.
Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2006.
Leary, Helen F.M., Elizabeth Shown Mills, and Christine
Rose. “Evidence Analysis,” in Virginia:
Where a Nation Began: Program Syllabus, 1999 NGS Conference in
the States, Richmond, Virginia. Arlington, Va.: National
Genealogical Society, 1999.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence
Analysis: A Research Process Map. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co.,
———. Evidence Explained,
Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical
Publishing Company, 2007.
Linda Woodward Geiger , CG, CGL
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