Reading Mastering Genealogical Proof

Cover of Mastering Genealogical Proof

I picked up Tom Jones new book Mastering Genealogical Proof when I was at the NGS conference and started reading it seriously tonight.  I’ve read through the text of chapter 2 and so far the book is real good.  The goal of the book is to teach one good practices and sound reasoning to make solid genealogical proofs.  Remember that something isn’t true in genealogy just because it shows up in a record, it has to be weighed against all the other things you can find out and these things need to be documented and assembled into a proof report.  This book explains that process, based on the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Before getting into the first part of the GPS, the reasonably exhaustive search, Jones defines some basic terms and then gets into a discussion of the different levels of sources, information, and evidence.  This chapter was very valuable, and while I know the concepts, some of the examples he gave explained things I wasn’t sure about.  For example, genealogy books, family histories, and articles are not considered derivative sources, as I had always assumed.  The information in the sources is the result of the author’s own analysis, so such sources are generally considered original. He credits Elizabeth Shown Mills for explaining this distinction on the Evidence Explained web site.  I have heard that before, but not explained as well as in the book so now I understand it better. Having said that, I’m not sure I agree.  Derivative sources are generally (but not always) considered inferior to original ones, and I’m not sure why I should give more credence to someone’s article than to a transcribed document.  Either way the authored work is derived from other records, as long as the author is not making things up in their head.

Another helpful example was that of someone providing their birthday.  This is considered secondary information, as someone had to tell them when they were born.

Because of Jones’ teaching experience, he has provided a good set of examples to illustrate his points, which is very helpful.  He does this succinctly and clearly.

Another feature of the book is that each chapter ends with exercises, so you can put what you have learned into practice.  I’m now on the exercises for chapter 2, which include reading two of his articles from the appendix.

In spite of my disagreement with the one example, I’m so far very pleased with the book. By explaining the whys behind good genealogical practice and giving clear examples this book is very helpful.  I look forward to reading the rest of it.

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Going Paperless: Digitizing Old Letters | Jamie Todd Rubin

Some good advice from Jamie Todd Rubin on saving old letters in Evernote.

Going Paperless: Digitizing Old Letters | Jamie Todd Rubin.

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Superscripts with Evernote

One of my favorite programs, for genealogy as well as other things is Evernote.  It has always had one shortcoming, though, which is that the computer versions didn’t have a direct way to do superscripts.  That makes transcription of older documents difficult, where superscripts are common in abbreviations.  My workaround was to type the word into Microsoft Word and then copy-and-paste it into Evernote, but this was inconvenient.  Another workaround is to use the web version, which has supported superscripts.

Now, though, Evernote for the Mac supports superscripts, and even subscripts.  You can turn letters into superscripts with Cmd-Ctrl-+.  This will make it much easier for me to do transcriptions.

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Last day of the NGS conference

Today was the last day of the NGS Family History conference. I didn’t initially have a lot scheduled but found some good sessions.  This week I was appointed publicity chairman for my local genealogy society so I went to a session about how to have your organization better support remote members.  I don’t know if I’m ready to jump on that but the speaker talked about a number of issues facing local societies so I still got some good information.  After that I went to the Federation of Genealogical Societies booth and talked to them now that I’m part of the board of my local group.

In the afternoon I went to hear Judy Russell, the legal genealogist.  She discussed the law in two contexts for genealogists: in interpreting sources from the past and pushing for access to documents in the present.  She gave some good examples where some basic knowledge of the law can help one correctly understand a document.  She also told of various restrictions being put on documents today, beyond the recently publicized issues of the SSDI.

Yesterday I mentioned how indirect evidence was suggested as a way to work around the dearth of records in New York, and in the last session today it was given as a way to work around burned courthouses.  The point was clearly made that the lack of documents with direct information is no excuse.

Now to fly home and get back to real life.  I got a lot of good ideas at the conference and enjoyed talking with other genealogists.  I look forward to going next year in Richmond, Virginia.

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NGS National Conference

I’m at the National Genealogical Society family history conference again this year, this time in Las Vegas. The city is sort of wasted on me since I’m not real interested in gambling but it’s a good conference.  Some highlights after three days:

  • Three really good sessions on New York state.  Most of my brick walls are there, and there turns out to be good reason for that, because records are pretty sparse compared to other states.  A variety of source types were discussed, along with the problem of the dearth of records.  The cheerful answer is that this isn’t a problem, just do cluster genealogy and indirect proof.  Time to work more on the FAN club.
  • Yesterday I went to a session on chain migration from Wójtowa, Galicia to Chicopee, Massachusetts taught by David Ouimette.  I was worried that this was a bit too specific but it turned out to be real good.  The story was interesting and provided good advice for Polish as well as other nationalities of genealogy.
  • I mostly avoided the sessions by big-name genealogists only because I’ve heard them a lot already and wanted some other points of view.  I did go to one session by Josh Taylor, though, called Borders and Boundaries, that covered the importance of researching a location before researching the people there.  The idea is that the more you know about a location the better you can plan your research.  You can also learn what life for the person would have been like even if you don’t have a lot of specifics on them.  This approach was also built into the Polish session in the previous bullet, but not as explicitly.

I always like walking around the exhibit floor.  Some highlights:

  • I talked a lot with Chris and Katie Chapman of Geungle, who are working on a proof-based approach to genealogy software. The goal is a product that covers the genealogy process from speculative research up through family trees.  Currently I have all that divided between Evernote, Evidentia, and RootsMagic.  They have some interesting ideas based on semantic web technology and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.
  • AncestorSync is working on a product that will let you sync your genealogy database with someone elses.  That way if you have another genealogist in your family you can share your work without merges or doing tricks with Dropbox and scripts like I do.  I wrote about them during last year’s conference when they had an earlier version of the product, but they have gotten a lot done in the last year.  They are now doing beta testing, and as soon as I can get the product I’m going to set it up to share work with my sister.
  • I asked Bruce Buzbee of RootsMagic about a Mac version of the program, but it is still a ways off.  Some of the libraries used in the Windows version are not available for the Mac so it is requiring a lot of writing from scratch.  Fortunately the program runs pretty well under Crossover on the Mac so I can wait.
  • I won two books, Sto Lat: A Modern Guide to Polish Genealogy and The History of the Polish Panorama from the Polish Mission near Detroit.  I sort of bounce between American and Polish genealogy, so I’ll be ready for when I get back to Polish work.Beirne with Cecile Wendt Jensen
  • I got a presentation on ResearchTies, a web application for managing your research.  You can set up a research plan, then do the tasks on your list, and log what you find.  Your results are then searchable in a number of ways.  It is more fully developed than the to-do lists and research logs in RootsMagic and more structured than Evernote.  I’m pretty attached to Evernote so I won’t be switching, but if you need a way to manage your research tasks it looks pretty good.
  • I stopped by the BCG booth to talk about certification.  They had me read Harold Henderson’s portfolio to see an example of what is required.  Nothing like pressure. :-) It was a pretty interesting portfolio and I would have like to have read the whole thing if I had time.  They also gave some advice on knowing when I’m ready to start the process.  They said that if I can read Tom Jones’ new book Mastering Genealogical Proof then I’m ready to start.  I had already bought the book yesterday, so now I’ll need to start reading.

I had an empty spot in the schedule yesterday so I went to the National Atomic Testing Museum.  It was interesting to learn how that worked and it added some more interesting local flavor than the casinos.

One more day of sessions and then I fly home on the red-eye.  I’ll be glad next year when the conference is in Richmond, VA.

Posted in Genealogy, RootsMagic | Tagged | 1 Comment

Evernote for Android adds helpful features for genealogists

One of the ways I use Evernote for genealogy is to take photos of books at the library and put them into my genealogy notebooks.  This puts them in a place where I can find them, and Evernote reads the words in the image and makes them searchable.  One tedious part of this, though, was that if I wanted to capture multiple pages of a book I would have to hit the camera icon, take the picture, accept it, hit the camera icon again, and so forth.  This was a slow procedure.  In the new Evernote 5 for Android they have added two great features to help with the process.  The first is the ability to take multiple pictures while in camera mode.  Now I can just go in and take as many pages of pictures as I need without restarting the camera.  The second feature is called page camera.  You line up the page you are photographing and take the picture.  Evernote then removes unneeded borders and does some basic cleanup.  This will make for nicer looking images.  All of this will apply to standalone documents too, of course.  You can check out the Evernote Blog for more details.

I’ll mention one other nice new feature.  If you use Evernote on the Mac you can have shortcuts to notebooks and folders so you can easily get to your current projects.  These shortcuts are now synced to your Evernote in Android.

Posted in Genealogy | 3 Comments

Review of Evidentia

Evidentia is a different kind of genealogy software, designed to help you implement the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) rather than build a family tree.  I tested the program with a recent line of research I was working on and found the program to be useful.

As a reminder, the GPS lists five requirements of a solid genealogical proof.  They are:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search;
  • complete and accurate source citations;
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Earlier, before I actually used Evidentia I wrote about what I imagined a GPS program might do.  In this review I’ll focus more on whether Evidentia does what the developer says it will do and if it was a useful tool.  I may throw in a feature request or two, though.

Document a Source

Initial window for Evidentia

When you start Evidentia you are tossed right into the Document a Source screen.  This immediately tells you that you are in a different kind of genealogy program, but it makes sense with the GPS.  Unlike family tree programs, you have to enter the source details before you enter the information.  You have to eat your vegetables before you get dessert.  This is in keeping with the GPS, though, which requires accurate and complete source citations.  Fortunately, though, Evidentia does help you with the citations, via templates for common source types.  You can also create your own source types for things you run across a lot to save you even more data entry.  The mechanism is similar to that of RootsMagic, with a little less detail.  Also, when documenting the source you will indicate it’s provenance, such as Original, Image Copy, Transcript, etc.  This will help you judge it’s reliability later on.

By the way, before you get started in Evidentia it will really pay off to read the help pages and especially to go through the video tutorials.  I normally dislike video tutorials because I can read faster than I can listen, but the ones for Evidentia do a great job at explaining the philosophy and reasoning behind the program.  Once you understand that Evidentia is pretty easy to use.

John McKelvey 1830 residence claim

So after you have entered a source and an associated citation, you can then enter a claim, such as “John McKelvey lived in Oakland County, Michigan Territory in 1830”.  This is free-form.  You then assign a quality value for the information, with the choices being Primary, Secondary, or Unknown.  You will also assign the claim to one or more subjects, which is a fact type combined with a person (or place). In this case my subject was “John McKelvey (b. 1789) (Residence)”.

So to build your proof you first need to do a lot of data gathering and entry.  This is the way serious genealogical research is supposed to work.  If you don’t have the sources before you do your analysis your analysis will not be as reliable, and Evidentia’s approach helps you do genealogy right.

There is one thing, though, that would improve Evidentia’s support for the reasonably exhaustive search, and that is some sort of to-do list or research plan support.  That way I could enter the kinds of sources I’m going to search for and then check them off as I finish each one.  Once everything is checked off and I don’t have any other sources to add then I know I’m done.  I can do this on my own in a file but it would be a nice feature for a future version.

Analyze Evidence for John McKelvey

Analyze Evidence for John McKelvey

So once you have finished your reasonably exhaustive search and documented your findings you are ready to analyze your information.  The Analyze Evidence window lets you pick a subject and claim, such as John McKelvey, Residence and see all of the claims that are made for that subject.  The assertions are all listed on the left.  For each assertion you assign an Evidence Quality of Direct, Indirect, or Negative.  Finally you will also write up an analysis of that assertion, based on the quality of the source, information, and evidence.

Note that this means that you are proving one kind of thing at a time.  In my case I was trying to prove who the father of John McKelvey was, and I ended up having to do three proofs, one for John’s residence to get back to his birthplace, one for his birth date, and finally one for his parents.

Once you have finished the analysis the Summary Conclusion box is then enabled and you can write up your results and resolve any inconsistencies.  These last two steps are pretty much up to you, as the program just gives a text box for you to write your conclusions, but I’m not real sure how a program would help here anyhow.

Evidentia report on the birth of John McKelvey

Once you have written your summary you can then produce your report.  I have provided a link to the birth report above.  The proof report lists the summary of findings at the top, followed by an itemized list your your claims with findings, and finally a list of citations.  This is helpful to get all of your work into one place, but I’m not sure it is useful to useful to give to someone as a final product. While the claims are footnoted with citations, the summary of findings, the part a person would read, is not.  It is up to the reader to connect your analysis in the summary with the big list of findings and then the source.  This puts needless work on the reader.  Being able to add footnotes to the summary of findings would make a much more useful final product.

There are also other reports summarizing information by subject and source.  These will be helpful to find gaps that need filling in, but I did not do much with them.

So after all this the question is, does Evidentia improve the GPS process?  Overall I would say it does.  Family tree programs let you enter a lot of facts, but they do not arrange them for analysis as well as Evidentia does and they do not enforce the entry of quality ratings.  RootsMagic is better for the GPS than other family tree programs in that it lets you mark facts as proven and gives you a place to write your proof, but this proof is buried deep down in individual facts.  Evidentia lets you pick the kind of fact you want to prove and focus on it.

Even though I made a few suggestions as to how Evidentia could be improved, using it to go through the GPS process was helpful for me and I actually bought a copy of the program tonight after having used the free download.  Doing a proof with the GPS requires a different mindset, and Evidentia helps support that mindset.

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The reasonably exhausting search

I recently decided to try applying the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) to some research I was working on to determine the parents of John McKelvey (1789-1847) of Ionia County, Michigan.  The first requirement of the GPS is that a reasonable exhaustive search be done, so I worked on my search.  In this case I didn’t have any information from John’s lifetime about where he was born, which was going to be needed to help narrow down where to look for birth documents.  One of the methods I used to determine where he was born was to look at the census records for his children, and depending on the year see where they were born or where their father  John was born.  Since John died in 1847 his census entries did not help on the birthplace, but knowing where his children were born helped provide a chain of residences as I worked backwards, and in later censuses the form directly says where John was born.

The problem is that John McKelvey had 12 children.  Going through each census record for each child is a real tedious task, noting the information and creating the source citations.  And if I want to be real thorough, I should look at the later census records of the grandchildren, to see if the location they give for their parents matches where the parents themselves say they were born.  This can easily end up at 100-200 records to track down.

I know what the answer to this should be, and that is that I should look up all of the records.  If I stop after child two or three I might miss contradictory information from the children I skipped.  In spite of that I still looked for a way out.  I did some research to see if there were applicable guidelines for a reasonably exhaustive search.  Michael Hait did a good blog posting on the topic, but the emphasis was on getting a variety of independent sources.  I then read the article When Enough is Enough How Much Searching is “Reasonably Exhaustive”?”  by Thomas Jones from the March 2010 APG Quarterly on what constitutes a reasonably exhaustive search.  In it he gives six criteria for a reasonably exhaustive search, and number six applied to my situation.  This criteria requires that the search include “All findable sources suggested by relevant sources or indexes”.  In my case it is no problem finding census records, as I just have to go to  There is no hardship here beyond tedium.

To learn more on the subject I tried one more avenue and that was to listen to Michael Hait’s webinar on the reasonably exhaustive search at last week.  Like Michael’s article, it covered trying to find more independent sources.  During the question time I really wanted to ask if there was a way around my problem but expected the answer to be something like: “You have the sources right in front of you and you don’t want to look at them?”, so I kept quiet.

In the end I went through all of the children who weren’t born in Michigan.  They were all born in New York according to their census entries, which was consistent with biographical information from several books about Ionia County.  The census entries listing their father’s birthplace also all said New York, except for one that said Scotland.  This gave me a contradiction to resolve, but in a backhanded way may confirm the truth.  Through other sources I traced John’s birth back to the New Scotland, New York area where he was baptized.  So while John McKelvey is likely Scottish, the child could have misunderstood the birthplace.  Or, of course, the informant could have just been wrong.

I did not however, take the additional step of reviewing the grandchildren’s census records to see if there was conflicting information about their parent’s birthplaces.  I don’t have a good excuse, but sources from several directions were already putting John McKelvey in New York, and even if the grandchildren had different birthplaces for their parents I wasn’t going to give that information much credence.

I did do a couple of things to make the task a bit more tolerable.  Since this is personal work I did most of it while watching TV, and I used templates to build the census source citations.  Since the second requirement of the GPS is good sourcing there are no shortcuts on the citations.

My next conundrum is determining if supporting facts in a GPS proof need their own GPS.  For example, I wanted to prove who the parents of John McKelvey were using the GPS, but I happily used census records, biographies, and death certificates to determine who his children were.  These are all helpful sources and I’m pretty sure they are correct, but I did not use the GPS to prove that the children I found were actually his children.  A chain of reasoning is only as strong as its weakest link, but sometimes common sense is necessary in balancing out ones time.

So my lesson from all this is that the GPS can be a lot of work.  Lots of proofs require less work than this one so it isn’t always this bad, but being thorough is real important.  It is better that you find the contradictions in your argument than having someone else find them.

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King Richard III and DNA

Richard III

Richard III

The story of the confirmation of the discovery of Richard III‘s remains under a parking lot in England is all over the news today and is a great story.  Reading the details it shows that they did their research the right way.  The mitochondrial DNA testing used to confirm the identity of the remains got a lot of press and it is a valuable, but not conclusive piece of evidence in an exhaustive study that included other details like radio-carbon dating and skeletal analysis.  All these different types of evidence were used to make the proof case.

For the DNA portion of the research, they went generation-by-generation to confirm the female-line descendancies of two living men whose DNA could be tested.  Their mothers were in a direct line of female descendants from Richard’s sister Anne of York.  Because mtDNA does not change much from one generation to the next, and because it is passed from a mother to her children but not from a father, the mtDNA for all female-line descendants of Anne of York should be the same.  Any sons of those women will also have the characteristic mtDNA but will not pass it on to their children.

Scientists did mtDNA tests on the two living descendants as well as on the skeleton.   The mtDNA of the two descendants matched that of the skeleton.

This in itself does not prove the relationship.  Because mtDNA does not change much over time, it is possible that the Richard III and the person found under the parking lot share a common female ancestor.  If the mtDNA of the descendants had not matched what was drawn from the skeleton then it would have proven that it was not Richard III, but the match does not prove that it was him.

One thing that I have heard a number of times in learning more about genealogy is making a case is not about finding one record or fact that says what you want.  You always want independent confirmation from different directions to make a stronger case.  In this investigation the researchers did their work well, presenting varied evidence to prove their point.

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