Jul 052013

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I started as a name collector and progressed to being an information sponge.  Thanks to Thomas W. Jones’ Mastering Genealogical Proof and Ed Thompson’s Evidentia software, I am early in the movement toward a third phase of my practice as a genealogist / family historian — namely, correlating and analyzing evidence.

A couple years ago I became introduced to the Genealogical Proof Standard via Mark Tucker’s Research Process Map.  I understood the importance of categorizing sources, information, and evidence.  I even started to provide citations for my sources. But something was missing!  Something was holding back my progress as a genealogist / family historian!

When I began to experiment with Evidentia, it became patently clear that I needed to shift my emphasis from subjects to sources, from information per se to the claims made by the information.  Along the way I had learned that quality research begins with a research question, but I had not yet integrated that learning into my own research.

I have been entering sources into my Evidentia database and extracting the claims within those sources.  Yesterday I began to analyze the evidence related to the birth of my great grandmother Mary Ellen Cole (Brenner).  Actually, I had done this previously as I was evaluating Evidentia on a trial basis.  This time, however, the lights went on!

I find it interesting to note that, while Evidentia will not allow the user to advance in the process until the steps necessary to keep within the GPS standards are met, there is no requirement to pose a research question prior to analyzing evidence.  One might contend that the process of assigning claims to a subject (e.g., Mary Ellen Cole) and a category  (Birth) assumes a question, but not a specific question. And, as I understand it, it is the specific nature of the research question that determines which information becomes evidence.  As an example, I was assigning claims relating both to birth dates and locations to the Birth category.  (I may have to expand my categories.)

I had entered the claims from the 5 census  records containing information for Mary Ellen Cole (Brenner), her death certificate, and her tombstone.  I had moved to analyzing those claims as evidence about when and where she was born.  In the middle of that analysis I came face-to-face with the reality that it is the research question which changes information into evidence.  One of the claims of the 1930 census was that Mary Ellen Brenner was 22 years old at the time of her first marriage.  The date of Mary Ellen’s first marriage was now evidence that would contribute to the analysis. Here’s the rub…  I had two sources, but not yet extracted the claims from those sources —  a report of the marriage in the East Liverpool, Ohio, Saturday Review and FamilySearch’s index of Ohio Marriages, 1800 – 1958.  (O.K., I know, an index is not a source.)  Since FamilySearch has un-indexed images of Ohio county marriage records, I browsed through the 1887 records of Columbiana County and found their record — license issued on 30 September 1887; marriage certified for 1 October 1887.  I entered this source in Evidentia and extracted its claims.  I also discovered that I had a copy of their Marriage License / Certificate and a newpaper article reporting on their 50th anniversary. I had not previously considered these information items as evidence.  But, now they were and, having found them, I entered them into Evidentia. The closest any of them came to identifying birthdate was to declare that Mary Ellen was over 18 at the time of the application for a license.  They did however identify the date of the wedding.  Indirect evidence is still evidence.  So, I then re-worked the analysis of the evidence.

The new evidence did not change my conclusions, but it did help me better to understand the relationship between the research question and evidence — without a research question, information remains information.  I now understand more clearly how information becomes evidence.  Now the task is to transform more of the information that my research has found into evidence.  This means that I have to start asking more questions (and learn how to ask appropriate research questions).

  One Response to “A Preponderance of Information; a Plethora of Evidence”

  1. Bart,

    Great write up. I like it. In fact, I understand what you said because I have done, and doing what you are doing.

    My best example is that I had “information” that I tossed out, because I could not confirm one statement in a paragraph from an un-reliable source. By breaking down that information, into Evidentia, It in fact has the key to answering my research question “Who are the parents of ….”. I disregarded the entire source because of a claim that “Samuel was the brother of …..”. No Samuel, Source tossed. I now tossed that Samuel was the brother, and was left with the answer to my question.

    Thank you,


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