Striving to Meet Genealogy Standards: Part 1 – Understanding the GPS and Genealogy Standards

For about as long as I have been researching my family’s history (nearly twenty years now), I have worked to improve my genealogy research – not only in the number of ancestors I have identified or how much I have learned about each of them, but also in terms of the quality of my research methods and products. Most recently, that has included becoming more and more familiar with the Genealogy Standards and trying to do my best to meet those standards in my research.

When some people see “Genealogy Standards” they may think of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The Genealogy Standards and the GPS are related, but they’re not the same thing. Many researchers may have heard of the five steps of the GPS, beginning with “Reasonably exhaustive research” and ending only after sources have been cited, evidence has been analyzed, conflicts have been resolved, and conclusions have been written.1 While it is helpful to learn about these guidelines representing the gold standard of genealogy research, it can also be a bit intimidating. Hearing experienced genealogists discuss their case studies, it can become apparent that for some questions, achieving thorough enough research to reach a conclusion can take years, if not decades. This sounds like a wonderful goal, in an ideal sort of world, but what about mere mortal genealogists who can’t achieve that for every bit of their family tree? 

It took me a little while to realize that we can still do good genealogical research without meeting GPS for everything that we do. As the Board for Certification of Genealogists states on their website, “To reach a sound conclusion, we need to meet all five components of the GPS” [emphasis mine].2 Meeting GPS is something that happens at the end of a process – when we have a proven answer. While it’s great to attempt to do this for everything we research, this is not always feasible. We can still share our findings that don’t meet this standard of proof; we should just be clear about what evidence there is to support each fact we present, and we should acknowledge the uncertainty in incomplete or unresolved research and distinguish confidently answered questions from works in progress. And if we haven’t met this standard, we need to be aware that using unproven facts can possibly mislead us as we move onto other research questions.

Even if we don’t always meet GPS, there are still ways that we can try to push ourselves to work efficiently and effectively, to get as much out of our genealogical research as we can, and to produce high quality research products – whether we work for others, work to share research through blogging or with family, or simply work to further our own knowledge into our family histories. We can follow the Genealogy Standards,3 a published series of best practices for genealogists.

photograph of the book Genealogy Standards by the Board for Certification of Genealogists

What are Genealogy Standards?

The Genealogy Standards are principles that go beyond the concepts embodied by the GPS. These provide guidance for all stages of genealogical investigations, including documenting, researching, and writing, as well as for genealogical educators and for continuing education. Some may think that only professional genealogists or Certified Genealogists need to follow the Genealogy Standards. I keep the book nearby as a reference, and I reread it every so often (it’s not a large book). These standards contain a lot of good guidance for genealogists of all skill levels, no matter how seriously we pursue our genealogy research. As the Introduction states, “This manual presents the standards family historians use to obtain valid results. These standards apply to all genealogical research, whether shared privately or published.”4

Some of the Genealogy Standards describe concepts that seem obvious; for example, Standards 20 and 21 tell us to respect source materials (don’t go damaging records) and to be courteous to librarians, archivists and other staff working in repositories.5 Similarly, other standards point out how we should be using others’ work, stating that “[g]enealogists ethically, lawfully, prudently, and respectfully use others’ information and products,” no matter the format of the work, correctly attributing the work to its creator, and ensuring that we do not plagiarize or violate the copyright of others’ efforts (Standards 22 and 62).6 Again, these ideas should be apparent, but sadly, we know that genealogists’ research products, images, photos, and more are not always respected by others. 

Other standards encourage us to follow habits that may not be surprising, but that we might not always do automatically. For example, when gathering information, we should give priority to sources and evidence that are more likely to be reliable, but we should also be thorough enough to gather and evaluate all relevant information from sources, to consider a variety of different sources and types of records, and to not overlook or ignore possible sources or pieces of evidence without good reason (Standards 38-42).7

There is also advice about questioning our assumptions (Standard 45),8 guidance on using DNA evidence (Standards 51-57,9 and also see updates to Standard 57 on the BCG website), and explanations of the concepts of proof statement, proof summary, and proof argument (Standard 60) (see also information in the pages listed at the BCG website).10

With ninety standards listed and described, there are many other concepts covered in detail, and they are all helpful for us to be aware of as we do the best we can to understand and faithfully represent our ancestors and their lives. Many of the standards are not actually that difficult to follow, if we can become familiar with these ideas and keep them in mind as we research. Regardless of our overall genealogy goals (researching as a casual hobby, professionally, or anything in between), if we aim to follow the Genealogy Standards as much as possible, all of our efforts are likely to be more fruitful, possibly allowing us to solve problems that we couldn’t before. And whatever results we end up with at the end of the day will leave a better foundation to build on for tomorrow’s research – whether done by us or by others. 

For more on understanding and using the Genealogical Proof Standard, here is a series of posts from the FamilySearch blog: 


1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, second edition (Nashville, TN: Ancestry, 2019), 1–3.

2. “Ethics and Standards,” Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/ethics-standards/ : accessed 11 February 2022), Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

3. Genealogy Standards.

4. Genealogy Standards, xix.

5. Genealogy Standards, 16.

6. Genealogy Standards, 16, 36.

7. Genealogy Standards, 23-5.

8. Genealogy Standards, 26-7.

9. Genealogy Standards, 29-32.

10. Genealogy Standards, 34-5.

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