Evidence Explained, with thanks to Elizabeth Shown Mills

Genealogy, at the very least, should show sources. I am sure that we have all found wonderful stuff on the web about our own family tree with no idea of where it came from or how reliable it is. If you can’t tell where a piece of data came from you can’t tell whether you can trust it.

I recently acquired a copy of Evidence Explained by respected genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. The book is 885 pages long and was published in the USA. I am in Australia and was hesitant to pay almost as much for shipping as I was paying for the book, so I didn’t rush my order in as soon as it became available. No-one in Australia was then selling the book*. I then found an electronic version for sale** for half the price of the book and no postage so I bought it and spent the rest of the afternoon printing the parts of it that I thought would be useful to me. So far I’ve filled up a 200 page A4 ringbinder.

I have owned Elizabeth’s previous book Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian, a slim volume which explains genealogical standards for citation and analysis of source materials, so I was really looking forward to the updated version. I wasn’t disappointed. Two chapters on the fundamentals of Evidence Analysis and of Citation are followed by detailed chapters on the types of records we are likely to come across as sources: Archives; Business and Institutional records; Cemetery records; Census records; Church records; Court and Governance records; Licenses, Registrations, Rolls and Vital Records; Property and Probate; National Government Records; Books, CDs, Naps, Leaflets and Videos; Legal Works and Government Books; and Periodicals, Broadcasts and Web Miscellanea. Each of these chapters have pages of “QuickCheck Models” for each type of source, with general explanations. Examples from countries other than the USA are given, although they are rare. The principles, though, are the same whichever country you need.

So why should you buy it? You know all about source citations, right? You just stick them in your family tree program when it asks you. In truth, the more you know, the more there is to learn. I will let Elizabeth explain it:

“Evidence Explained is a guidebook for all who explore history and seek to piece together its surviving bits and shards. As a guide, it is built on one basic thought:

We cannot judge the reliability of any information unless we know

  • Exactly where the information came from; and
  • the strengths and weaknesses of that source.”

 She goes on to list the reasons for identifying sources:

  1. to provide “proof” of what we write
  2. to enable others to find what we have used
  3. (most importantly) we identify sources, and their strengths and weaknesses, to reach the most reliable conclusions

This identification of the strengths and weaknesses of a source is where the analysis comes in. It is not enough to record your sources – we have to analyse them thoroughly. Accuracy in analysis comes with experience but the will has to be there from the beginning, to question every assumption and conclusion made.

As an example from my own family tree, I was sent a digital image of a photocopy of a New Zealand death registration by a distant cousin of mine in Canada, who had probably never seen a NZ BDM registration before. In the accompanying family tree file he had an exact birth date for the deceased, even though none of us had ever found one before. When questioned, he said he got it from the death registration.

New Zealand BDM registrations are copied directly as a single entry. The page headings are not included. In the death registration, the column for the age at death was followed by the column for the cause of death, duration of illness, name of attendant and date last seen. My cousin had run the two columns together and given the age at death as 79 years 14 days. The mistake was understandable, perhaps, given that the headings for the columns were not shown, but perhaps there was some wishful thinking there as well.

The source for the birthdate, then was the death certificate, usually a reliable source, but because it had been read incorrectly it was not reliable in this case. The most that could be said for the birthdate was circa 1804, rather than 6 August 1804, using this source.

So the analysis may continue as you find more information. It is never finished. There is no “preponderance of evidence” that leads to a verdict once and for all, as in a legal court. A new document, perhaps a will, may come into your hands that changes your evaluation of all the evidence you had previously. You can’t just discard new information that disagrees with your conclusions; you have to look at your conclusions, and all the information you had based these conclusions on, again, and perhaps come up with different conclusions.

For the family tree you have spent years working on to be any use at all to future generations it must be done properly. With the help of Elizabeth’s new book, there is now no excuse.

* Gould Genealogy in Adelaide is now selling it.

** I bought it from www.footnote.com. I have been searching the site to see where I bought it and I can’t find it. I eventually found this link from Dick Eastman’s genealogy blog, although I’d already bought it by the time he wrote about it. I must have found it through Google. Footnote is a great site for finding images of American historical documents, but not so good for shopping for other items.


Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.

Note: The family tree that I, personally, have put on the web here is a long way from the standard I aspire to, and it raises a common question for genealogists – Now that I know how I should have done it, should I go back and redo all the citations I did years ago? For me, the answer is Yes, and so it becomes a question of time. I am slowly working my way through them, starting with my direct ancestors and working outwards, and it will take a lot of time until I am happy with it. I argued with myself for a long time about whether to hold off putting it on the web until I was happy with it, and I finally decided that if I leave it too long the people who can give me more information will have died. So I’ve put it up there, incomplete citations and all.

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