genealogy research process

What Do We Already Know?

The beginning of any genealogy research project starts with the information we have available to us. Research sometimes begins with a family Bible you have in your possession that lists family members and birthdays on a page, old postcards with names and locations, or any information you provide about the immediate family. We will carefully analyze and scrutinize to glean as much beginning data as possible. Sometimes it means reviewing precious research to find what we already know.

Next we input this information is into a database. The Technology section of this site has more information about this. Additionally, we have an organized system for both digital files and paper files. As much as we try to digitize everything, working with genealogical records still involves a lot of paper.

We study and understand from the very beginning the types of records available for research and the standards for recording that data. (What are the standard acceptable practices that genealogists use? Ex. Dates and locations) More on this later.

What Do We Want to Learn?

Whether we received this information from an interview or it is something we have determined during our research, it is important to start out with a goal. We’ll go into the specifics of creating a research plan in another post, but every research plan must start with a goal or objective. And it should be very specific when answering the question “What do we want to learn or know?” It is also very important to not make this goal too broad.

The easiest way to do this is to make the goal specific to a person or family. For example, “When did grandfather die?”. This type of focus will keep our research from wandering off the tree and missing the mark. This way we will be able to know which specific records to search.

Which Records Should I Search?

Now that we have a specific goal for our research, we make a list of the records to search for that information. This is the area of research that can possible eat up the most time, therefore it is extremely important to have knowledge of the best records to search. We keep a clip file of records lists in Evernote so that we can cut and paste into our research plan. From there, we can weed out the records we know for sure will not have what we are looking for. This saves a lot of time up front.

Here’s a great tip to help speed this up. When researching records, go for the compiled records first. These will point us to the original records. It’s like speeding through an index to find the topic you want to read. Of course, once we find the compiled record we need, we retrieve the original record it references if at all possible for evidence.

This is an area where we must be careful of course. While there is a great likelihood that someone has already researched these records and therefore – why reinvent the wheel? – we also want to be sure their research is accurate and well-documented.

Where Do I Get These Records and How Do I Search Them?

We have a section on the website for repositories. The key thing to note here is that even if time and expense prevent you from searching the repository yourself, it is still possible to get the record you are searching for. For many reasons we prefer to visit the repository in person, but if we cannot there is always telephone, email and snail mail to reach someone at the repository to look it up for us. Sometimes we will get lucky and the search will be free. Sometimes we will need to pay for someone else to do that research.

We live in a wonderful digital age. Thousand of volunteers (and paid employees) are putting in countless hours to digitize many records that were on microfilm and are making them available on the Internet. There are so many wonderful genealogy research websites for tracing the family tree. Again, we use free options as well as paid subscriptions. We will delve into this more when we discuss technology.

Searching these records is not always easy. Many times we find that the record we find doesn’t match the exact date we need, or the original documenter did not spell the person’s name the same way as the record we are researching. Handwritten records can be difficult to transcribe. We use many different search techniques to overcome many of these difficulties.

What Do I Do With All of This Information?

We have gotten this far and successfully located some records. What do we do with all of this information? There is such a thing as a negative search – when we don’t find the information we were looking for. We record this information also because it is just as important to know where something isn’t as to know where it is.

Most researchers are going to use a database of some kind to log this information. It is possible to log it on paper, but in this modern world there are some really fantastic tools to use to keep up with all of the dates, names and locations we will be collecting. Key point: as we move along in our research we are sure to cite our sources as we go! New or beginning genealogists usually focus on collecting data and then forget to cite where the data came from. This is very labor intensive later on in the project to have to go back and figure that out.

Also, along the way we will begin to find conflicts in data. Maybe mom wrote a birth date of an older family member in a family Bible, but later we see a different date listed in a census. How do we decide which one is right?

It is important to document how we determined this for future research. We hope this beginning guide to explaining our research process will help you as you search for help with this process. You can find many more details on this website regarding records, repositories, technology, etc. The process outlined in this guide is basically a rinse and repeat approach to research.

If you have questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. We’d love to hear your feedback or answer any questions you may have about this process.