1. Set a Clearly Defined Goal
There are several methods of “researching” among which are the following . . .
- Shotgun approach.
This methodology is like entering an ancestor’s name into Google® and seeing what “hits” it finds. This method isn't wrong, it is merely desultory. In fact, you may even locate information on the individual you'd not thought to seek. The core problem is that the goal of searching is undefined, or at best not clearly defined, and this takes more time.
- Serendipitous approach.
The methodology is similar to looking through a neighboring township on the census to see if anything familiar turns up. I've done a presentation on “Beginner's Luck” that discusses different means to tapping into serendipitous research. This methodology, again, defines no goals and should not be relied upon extensively.
- Directed approach.
The directed approach first determines the goal of the research and makes a documented statement to that effect. While pursuing this goal, other information may be found but the focus is on the goal of the search. Even the most careless of researchers would not fail to record additional information found along the way, but “keeping the end in mind” is a good habit for Successful Genealogical Researchers, too.
What is a clearly defined goal in genealogical research?
- Is it to “learn all I can about my mother's ancestry?”
- Is it to “document my grandfather's life from birth to death?” No, of course not. These are worthy concepts, but they are not clearly defined goals.
- How about “Learn the maiden name of the wife of my great-grand uncle, Silas Hart, Jr., who was born in 1745?”
Yes, now this works. It contains known information to link to the unknown. A clearly defined goal stated in an inquiry to courts, NARA, DAR, Message Boards, RAOGK, or relatives will get you better results and quicker, too.
Download my Goal-Oriented Form and use it to help keep your eyes on the prize. It is all right to have more than one goal while researching, but list only ONE goal per form in order to keep focussed on the goal.
2. Determine which sources to research
You'll have a “snowball's chance” in Texas, if you don't know where to search for your information. Where to search is determined by the time period and the locality of each goal and they vary widely between eras and places. Although more and more information is becoming available on the Internet, not all of it is there nor will it all likely ever be there. How will you know which sources to use, then? There are several excellent books from Ancestry, Everton’s, Heritage Quest, and a few others that list the sources currently available. New sources are being located that may not have been published in earlier copies of the Red Book, the Handybook or the Source. Stay current with what is available and it will accelerate your research. One very basic idea — consider jurisdictional authorities for the information you seek.
3. Locate those sources
This means those places where you can access the records. Who has these records? Are they available to you? How can you view or copy them? The answers vary depending on where they are and who has the records. Family Search Centers are accessible to anyone, not just members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is likewise true for public libraries. Most courthouses are also available to the public. State and Federal Archives, Historical Societies, and State Libraries welcome visitors, too.
4. Search those sources
Effective searching is a science and an art. Commit to memory the science — it should remain constant. You will have to generalize and modify the art of genealogical researching, because it is not as definite and does not always apply in every situation. What worked for searching the 1880 Federal Census, which is indexed, will not work for the 1910 Federal Census. If you are to use your time wisely and reach your goal in the shortest time, you will need to know additional techniques. What you don't know can hurt you, at the very minimum in time spent.
5. Copy the information
Does this seem like a “duh” to you? Good! But ask yourself if you have ever forgotten to record the title and author of a book in which you've found information. I now photocopy the entire Index, too, in case something else is discovered about which the book might have information. Did you get the Soundex card, but miss the complete source record on the Federal Census? Did you neglect to copy the names of witnesses to an event, which could have led to clues to other relationships? (I raise my guilty hand, although I'm mending my ways.)
6. Analyze the facts
This is a common shortcoming among new family historians — not evaluating the data found. Here are some items worth consideration:
- This source may have additional information when used with collateral lines.
- Or, perhaps a future spouse is listed nearby?
- This record could tell me other things besides the goal I'm pursuing.
- Be careful of false inferences, but be mindful that when the record was first written many things not known today were assumed to be known back then, i.e., relationships, local organizations, officials’ names, etc.
- There may be something written that you don't understand. It could be the handwriting or the vocabulary. Make no assumptions, verify the meaning when in doubt.
- Perhaps someone else can assist you in examining this information. In the AOL Research and Learning chatrooms are many people who will gladly help you.
- It is possible that among the authors notes there may be just the key to unlocking the puzzle before you.
7. Apply the results
How do you apply the results? To find other information, of course. Also, to substantiate or refute previously collected data. Sometimes the information is right there. Sometimes there are only clues about where to look for other information. Often it is what is NOT said that is significant. Use these as a springboard to other goals.
8. Organize and Reorganize
From the newly gained information, you can make more sense of your existing facts. Put them together in context to give you a more complete picture. What happens if you find a more reliable date for an event? Do you overwrite the old one with the new, or do you add the new to your research data and give it a higher validity? A good genealogist retains conflicting information and annotates which facts have higher reliability . . . and WHY! Don't forget to write down why you think one fact is more reliable than another. This will not only help others follow your reasoning, but it will likely help you in the future — long after you've forgotten recording the information at all!