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It's a very good question, one that set me thinking about how do I ensure that I'm not just throwing names together to produce a totally fictitious family history. Up to now I've used my knowledge of how historians generally evaluate evidence, tips and information from genealogical books and websites, and plain common sense, to check that my facts are reliable. But is there a widely accepted standard for genealogical research?
There is, I've discovered. It's known as the Genealogical Proof Standard, and it's produced by the Board for the Certification of Genealogists. The document runs to 190 pages and has 74 standards, which anyone who wants to work as a professional genealogist must be able to meet. I must confess, I haven't read it, but the standards are summarised under five main points which apply to any family history research. In order to be credible, the researcher must ensure:
1. A reasonably exhaustive search has been conducted.
2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.
3.The evidence is reliable, and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.
4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.
5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned.
And, any proof statement is subject to re-evaluation when new evidence arises.
Let's look at what these mean in practise.
1. A reasonably exhaustive search has been conducted. Simply assuming that the first person you come across with the right name is the person you are looking for can lead to chaos. The web is full of family trees with thousands and thousands of names attached. The sheer number of names immediately suggests that the people who created those trees have either been working on them for a very long time, or they've not done adequate research. Sadly, information from one tree often gets copied into another and misinformation gets spread.
To avoid this situation, the family historian needs to find as much evidence as possible to support their conclusions. Negative evidence (no-one else can be found who reasonably fits the facts, and no other history can be constructed for this person) is as important as positive evidence. In the case of Mr Mason in Currie Street, I have some evidence (newspaper reports) that some members of the Mason family lived in Currie Street, but I need a lot more evidence than that to link them to the other newspaper reports mentioning "Mr Mason". I know from other research that there were several people named John Mason in Adelaide at the time, and even more men with the surname Mason.
A newspaper report or other information about Currie Street that gave Mr Mason's first name, and his age or the name of his spouse would be helpful, (though I'm not likely to find that much detail). But I should also be looking for evidence that John and Catherine Mason lived in another street at the time, as a means of excluding John Mason from being the Mr Mason mentioned in the Currie Street stories. (I already made sure that the newspaper reports were from before the date that John Mason died.)
2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation. The actual standards for recording source citations are quite complex, but they boil down to being able to easily find the information again, and allowing others to do the same. Most family history software allows sources to be recorded in accurate detail. One of the reasons I prefer my current program to some of the simpler, and often more attractive, software that I've tried is that it allows for recording multiple sources for the same fact.
For the sake of brevity and ease of reading, I don't often quote my sources in detail on this site, but I do have a record of where I found the information, which I'm always happy to share with anyone who requests it.
3. The evidence is reliable, and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted. No historical evidence is 100% reliable, since it was all recorded by fallible human beings. In general, though, the closer the source to the original, the more reliable it will be considered. So if it were possible to find the full name, age and address of Mr Mason living in Currie Street on, say, a municipal record, a bill of sale, or some other legal document, that would far outweigh the reliability of a newspaper article.
Skillful correlation and interpretation is where knowledge and experience play a role. When I first started looking at family history, I was totally stumped by things like how to tell one John Mason from another. Now I know more about the sort of records that are available and how to find information, but also how to exclude some of the John Masons from my list. But I'm still learning new things all the time.
4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved. There's little point in constructing a whole life story for someone, no matter how good the evidence seems to be, if they died in infancy! Likewise, it's generally impossible for a person to appear in two places simultaneously on the same census.
Sometimes the explanation for contradictory evidence is simple, such as a family naming a later child after an earlier child who died (thus leading to two dates of birth for the same name), or a newspaper getting their facts wrong (yes, it sometimes happens!) Sometimes the contradictory evidence has a surprising explanation - a bigamous marriage, for instance, or an adoption.
5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned. It would be silly to say "The Mr Mason mentioned in the newspaper articles about Currie Street must be John Mason, because I know some of his family lived in Currie Street." All I've got is a tantalising possibility that the two may be connected, but nothing more.
Any proof statement is subject to re-evaluation when new evidence arises. That's common sense really. All history, including family history, is provisional. It's far better to say "I have a hypothesis, and here's my reasons for it, but I'm happy to change my hypothesis if new evidence comes to light." than to insist on only one possible explanation.