Teaching about Evidence

Ken Aitken profile

Thomas W Jones wrote an important article entitled. "A Conceptual Model of Genealogical Evidence: Linkage between Present Day sources and Past Facts" that appeared in National Genealogical Society Quarterly 86 (March 1998) pages 5-18. I think I must have read it four or five times trying to get my head in gear. In the end I concluded that evidence was the product of the interaction between the researcher and the information before him. Before there is evidence there must be the resercher's question. Let me explain.

One of the fist things I teach students about research is to select one person to investigate, then identify one question you want to answer about that person. Let's say for example that the person selected is George Hambrook. The question you have(for the purposes of this learning experience) is "When did George Hambrook marry Eliza?"

1. A 1900 census suggests that he was 28 and Eliza 25 and they had a child, Esther age 1 year.

2. An ornately illustrated, framed marriage certificate claims he was married 25 May 1899. It also indicates that his brother Horatio signed as a witness.

The county clerk's register of births shows Horatio Hambrook was born in October 1879

3. The biographical sketch in the county history publshed in 1922 says he was married in May 1900.

4. In a letter to her granddaughter written in 1969 Eliza states she was married on Saturday, May 24th.

5. A newspaper clipping dated 1 June 1934 reports, "…the 30th wedding anniversary celebrations for Mr. & Mrs George Hambrook were held at the Golden Valley Community Hall last Friday night".

When we assess the relevance of evidence, the first consideration is whether it is direct or indirect evidence. By this we mean, "Does the evidence answer the question directly, or do we need to make calculations or manipulations to determine that answer."

The question is "When did George marry Eliza?" Look at the five statements and tell me which directly answer the question. Do not be disturbed by the fact that there could be incomplete, incorrect or contradictory evidence.

Now for indirect evidence. Remember that indirect evidence requires you to do some sort of mental manipulation to get the answer. Which statements are indirect evidence?

With direct evidence, we need to address another factor– is the direct evidence adequate to satisfy our question. There are a couple of pieces of direct evidence that are incomplete, thus inadequate on their own, Can you find these?

For the student learning these concepts, there is generally confusion because they cannot seperate the notion of direct/indirect evidence from their concerns about source or information issues. Only when we can isolate these factors, can we re-pack the elements: Source, information and evidence and start "weighing the evidence".

The challenge here is teaching folks to recognize the elements. How do you do it?


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