Planting the Seeds

What Constitutes a Reasonably Exhaustive Search?

Certified Genealogist, Michael Hait, in his Planting the Seeds blog, discussed in a recent post his interpretation of what constitutes a reasonably exhaustive search in genealogy. To get the non-certified genealogists (which is most of us) up-to-speed on why this is important, let’s remember that genealogy isn’t just a hobby, it’s a science. Whenever you have a scientific field, there is usually some board which oversees that scientific field of study. That board for the field of genealogy is the Board of Certification of Genealogists or BGC. In attempting to strengthen the actual science behind genealogy research, the BGC created the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) which consists of five elements:

  1. Reasonably exhaustive search.
  2. Complete and accurate citation of sources.
  3. Analysis and correlation of the collected information.
  4. Resolution of conflicting evidence.
  5. Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Michael tackles the first of these by clarifying what “reasonably exhaustive” means and doesn’t mean. I’ll let you read his article for an interpretation of a professional in the field, I’ll just deliberate on the usage of this element by online weekend genealogist hobbyists who conduct the search more for curiosity of their family tree, then for a scientifically conclusive study. After all, for most online hobbyists, the very idea of visiting a family history library and/or renting microfilm is foreign. Isn’t everything digitized and freely online?

Of course it’s not.

The definition of “reasonable” I hope you adopt in research of your family tree, and take away from Michael’s well constructed article, is to expand upon your present idea of what is reasonable proof. The idea isn’t to eliminate all sources of possible research, both online and offline, but to build up enough sources which can confirm in your own mind, the fact you are thinking of entering (or have already entered) into your family tree is true. Michael uses the fictitious example of identifying the father of John Smith to illuminate his reasoning. For most weekend genealogists he has likely taken the research much further then we would feel is needed. In my eyes, outside of a chance of illegitimacy, the identity of the father could have been reasonably concluded with only a few of the six type of sources he used in his example. But then, that’s the rub of the issue. What is reasonable to one person, may not be reasonable, or feasible, to another. What is determined as reasonable to Michael, a certified and often paid genealogist, is likely to be over-reasoned to the casual hobbyist who just wants a general idea of who their ancestors were. What I hope you take away from his article, though, is to increase the number and quality of sources you are presently using, before concluding that the fact you are entering into your family tree is indeed a true fact for your ancestor. If your own level of reasonableness presently determines that a published family tree is enough evidence for you to conclude the connection is true, then expand it by looking for corroborating evidence in direct sources, such as vital records, census, etc. If, in your own present concept of reasonableness, you can base a fact on only one direct source, expand that by requiring more then one direct source, or at the least, multiple supporting sources (outside of a published family tree) before considering the fact as truth. By each of us expanding our own concept of “reasonable” we can each increase the accuracy of our family tree’s and minimize the chance of attributing a fact to the wrong person.