Reference Centre, Genealogy 101

Organizing your Search - the Methodical Genealogist

Genealogical Research Method

  1.   Identify a research goal.

  2.   Define any problems.

  3.   Collect information.

  4.   Organize information.

  5.   Analyze that information.

  6.   Discover a possible solution.

  7.   Apply the solution to achieve your research goal.

There are seven distinct steps involved in every ancestral research project.  Each of the seven steps of the genealogical research method outlined above will be repeated an infinite number of times throughout the course of your search.  Steps numbered 3, 4, and 5 also have their own separate procedural methods.  Step 4, above has been written as a separate article and can be found at:  Organize your Records.  Steps 5, 6 and 7 form a complete unit and have not been dealt with in this article.  

Most new genealogists often seem to have arrived mysteriously at step 3 - collecting information, before they have even gone through the process of identifying a research goal and defining any problems in attaining that goal.  Interestingly, that is not the case.  Without taking thought, the new genealogist has already decided to pursue a course of seeking out information about his or her family.  In other words, and in very broad terms, the new genealogist has identified a research goal - seeking new knowledge about his or her family.  Similarly, they have also very generally defined the problem - insufficient information on hand.  Thus, every person who is new to this gripping hobby has, in fact, adopted the first two steps of a methodical search.  They just haven't understood that a concise research goal is required in order to achieve the desired end.

Identifying a research goal

A research goal in a genealogical search generally takes the form of a desire to know more information about a particular ancestor.  If you are just entering this fascinating world of ancestral discovery I strongly urge you to work just on one or two people in your lineage at a time until you have had success and gained familiarity with the laws, methods and tools at your disposal.  In order to help you to determine which ancestor with whom you would like to begin your search, for now, fill in as much information as you can on the chart in Figure 1. This chart is called an Ancestral Lineage Chart and you can learn about its various features and uses in the article titled Organize your Records, also on this website.  Your name and information is entered as person numbered 1.  Your father and his information is entered as person numbered 2 and your mother as person numbered 3.  Continue filling in the chart with as much information as you know.  All male members of your family will be numbered with an even number on this type of chart, while all females will be numbered with an odd number.  Also, be sure to show all of the women on your chart with their maiden surname, not with the surname of their spouse.

Once you have finished entering all of the information that you know, this chart will form a guide to identifying a beginning specific research goal.  This chart will also continue to function as your guide to forming new research goals throughout the evolution of your project.

Looking at your chart, which of your ancestors do you know the least about? Do you have their birthdate, marriage date or date of death, their spouse's name and the names of all of their children? Every piece of missing information becomes an opportunity for you to identify a new research goal even if it is to find something as elementary as a birth certificate for one of your grandparents.  Just being able to say that you want to find a birth certificate for your one of your grandparents now forms the basis of a definable and quantifiable research goal.  You have progressed out of the rudimentary stage and into the realm of a more directed and focused search.

I do have a few pointers on which ancestors to avoid while in the learning stage of genealogy:

  • Do not start with an ancestor who was born in a non-English speaking country unless you are fluent in that language or have contacts in that country who are ready, willing and able to assist you.
  • Do not start your research with an adopted ancestor.  Adoption records are protected by stringent privacy statutes.  Furthermore, the research methods and documents that you will require for an adoption search are significantly different than those required for a purely genealogical search.
  • Do not choose a distant alleged ancestor and work forward to your own proven ancestor of that same surname.  Climbing the wrong tree is easily enough accomplished while working backwards from generation to preceding generation.  Besides, in order to conduct a thorough research of someone's descendants each child, grandchild and great-grandchild and so on down through every succeeding generation would have to be followed.  People migrated.  People emigrated and some people even seemed to have vanished from existence.  Literally years of your valuable time can be flittered away attempting to trace all of the descendants of one individual.

If you are not yet deterred from working forward in time allow me to provide you with some mathematical equations to reinforce the enormity of researching a family via its descendants: The average family had between nine and fifteen children.  If six of those children survived and married they, too, likely had six children that had survived into adulthood.  We are now only two generations removed from the distant ancestor - at the level of grandchildren.  But, there are now 36 people that you would be obliged to trace.  If those 36 children also each had six surviving children you then would have to track the lives of 216 great-grandchildren.  Add one more generation to the 216 great-grandchildren, again assuming on average six surviving children per person, and you would have 1,296 people to keep straight.

  • Lastly, do not start with an ancestor simply because there is a rumour that he or she was descended from a noble, wealthy, or otherwise illustrious individual.  Most people who sit fourth, fifth and even sixth in descent from such an ancestor are intimately aware of their heritage.

Defining Problems

A 'problem' in a genealogical search generally takes the form of lack of information about a particular ancestor.  Even for your beginning steps in research this general lack of information does not constitute a sufficiently defined problem.  You need to make a written list of your problems for the ancestor you are seeking.  If you are attempting to find an ancestor's birth registration, for example, do you know in what town or township he or she was born? If you do not know this information, then, do you know at least in what county of a country he or she was born? If all you know at this stage is the country in which your ancestor was born, you will find that your research goal will immediately change.  It will transform from one of obtaining a birth certificate for that ancestor, to one of first discovering in what part of a country your ancestor lived.  From this one brief example you should be able to sense that locating the precise geographical locale of your ancestor will become one of your foremost problems throughout your research.

Following geographical locale, the next most important problem is discovering the maiden surnames of the women on your tree.  There is only one document through which you can potentially determine a woman's maiden surname and that is through her marriage record to your ancestor.  If her marriage to your ancestor was not her first marriage, then you will have the additional problem of having to track down the record of her previous marriage.  So, using this example, another concise research problem could be defined as not knowing a female ancestor's maiden surname but knowing that she had been married 'x' number of times prior to her marriage to your ancestor.  The brunt of the problem would rest in finding her previous marriage record.

As you become more experienced in research you will find that defining your problems will take on a more complicated nature.  Defining your research problems will also include considering more fully the time frame that you are researching and what types of records are available to you for that time frame that can help you reach your research goal.  For your beginning steps you should include on your list of problems a note to yourself to find out if a particular type of record exists for a particular time period.  For example, if you would like to find the birth registration of your great-grandfather who was born about 1810 in Ontario, do such records even exist and in what form do they appear?

At the outset of your search you may find it difficult to think in such segmented terms - identifying a precise goal and then defining the problems that may stand in your way.  However, I can assure you that once your search is in full bloom and you have gained even a small amount of experience defining a new problem, or new research goal, will occur instantaneously and concurrently with every new piece of information you discover.  No sooner will you have the answer to one problem in your hands than you will desire the answer to your next question.  When that transition from conscious thought to automatic response occurs the more seasoned of the amateur genealogists will be tempted to jump straight to step number 6 - the discovery of a solution - without taking the time to consider the new problem fully and analyzing the material and tools available.  More often than not it will be the bypassing of steps numbered 4 organizing your information - and 5 analyzing that information - in the research process that will lead to the ultimate failure in reaching your goals.

Collecting Information

The collection of all readily available information is critical to the achievement of your research goals.  The type, quantity, and quality of the information gathered at the start of your research and throughout its' course will direct your attention to the most appropriate resources in the future.  Notwithstanding that you may already have collected a substantial quantity of information, at the start of every new line of research you need to become aggressive in the collection of all available data.  Collect any and all old documents - birth, baptismal, marriage, and death certificates; deeds; Wills; old special events guest registers; newspaper announcements; old letters and postcards; immigration papers; school records, and so on.  Where will you find these items? Anywhere and everywhere! Start with your basement, garage, and attic.  Do you keep important papers in a safety deposit box? When was the last time that you went through the papers in that box?

Once you have assembled all of the information that is in your possession it is time to approach other relatives that may also have family documents and photographs.  Some relatives will be suspicious of your motives while others will be excited by your quest and most willing to assist you.  Any documents that you obtain from relatives should be photocopied and the originals returned to them immediately.  Any photographs that relatives lend should be taken straight to a photographer and copied so that a negative of the photograph is produced.  Again, at the first opportunity, return all original photographs to the lender.  These types of collection activities will be revisited at various times throughout your research particularly at the time that you begin research along a different ancestral line and when a new contact with distant kin is established.

In the meantime, however, each time you revisit step number 2 in the research process there will be new and different types of information that will be required before your research can proceed.  Some of those different types of information may take the form of a surname index to one or more major resources.  You may discover that you have to collect more biographical information about an ancestor before you are able to locate any documents of genealogical value.  For instance, if you have an ancestor that was engaged in a profession but moved to new locales immediately before each census, you may have to collect information concerning his career or follow his changes of address in a city directory before you are able to find one document that could provide his birthplace or parents' names.

As your research progresses you may also find that the material you need to collect takes the form of a treatise on the use and value to your search of a particular class of records.  For example, in England prior to 1858 all estates were managed through a particular court that existed within a hierarchical maze of ecclesiastical courts.  For many researchers understanding that maze appears sufficiently daunting a task that they completely step away from examining that valuable class of documents.  Yet, their confusion could be overcome, in large part, by reading one or two excellent guides that have been published on the subject of ecclesiastical courts.  Some researchers may find that they have to collect an array of published genealogies before they can begin to determine where the solution to their problem may lay.  Each person's ancestry is unique.  The type of material that has to be collected throughout a search is also, therefore, unique and cannot be predicted with certainty.

Interviewing Family Relations

Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents are often mines of information that are all too often underestimated and, consequently, overlooked.  Old family friends can also be a valuable resource as is the information that you have assimilated over the years and consigned to the deep recesses of memory.  Names, ages, dates, places, family lore and traditions spanning a century or more lie within the knowledge of your elderly relations.  Each relative also has within his or her memory smatterings of knowledge of other branches of the family and can be instrumental in identifying at least some of those strangers in old family photographs.  For these reasons each of your elderly relations should be interviewed as soon and as thoroughly as possible.

There is some effort required to prepare for and conduct an oral history interview.  The most important requirements, though, are those of patience and a capacity for clarity.

Preparing for the Interview

Family history interviews are not a replacement for research but, rather, an adjunct to it.  Thus you should also carry out some practical field research before each interview session.  Compile a list of required information.

  • Are addresses of old homesteads missing that you could ferret out of city directories before your visit?
  • Are old residences located close enough to you that you could photograph them before going to an interview?
  • Have you checked with local libraries and museums for information about your family or for local histories?
  • Have you obtained birth, marriage, and death notices from local newspapers?

These are a few examples of the types of information that you should ferret out before an interview so that you are free to concentrate your efforts, during the interview, on obtaining quality information.

There are two distinct types of interviews that can be conducted: Those that have as their ultimate object the obtaining of facts and data that will aid in furthering your research; and, those that have as their ultimate object the pursuit of biographical information.  As it is unrealistic to expect that you will learn everything about your family's history in one sitting it is important to take the time to plan, beforehand, what information you wish to learn during each interview.  Are you more interested in obtaining factual data or do you want biographical information?

Study your descendancy chart to discover where there are holes in your knowledge.  Draw up a list of needed information.  Prioritize your list so that the events and people who are most important to you will be brought forward and discussed with your subject during your first interview.

The family interview is also the ideal time to learn the identities of people and places that are depicted in old photographs.  These, too, need to be organized beforehand.  Group together photographs in which the same person or group of people appear.  In separate piles, also group together photographs that were taken by the same photographer, those taken at the same locale, and those of people who are sporting similar clothing and hair styles.  Once your photos have been organized in this manner mount them temporarily but securely on sheets of 8-1/2" by 11", or larger, plain white paper.  Leave a space of at least two inches in depth below each photograph.  That space will eventually be used to record names, dates, places, and tidbits of family history that come to your subject's mind.   Take the mounted photographs to be colour photocopied.  The photocopied pages can then be taken to each interview session without fear of losing or damaging your original prints.

Having the opportunity to go through old photographs with your subject at the outset of an interview session is an excellent method for refreshing his or her memory about some of the older family history.  Each subsequent time you interview that person take those same photographs with you.  Although some of the history about a particular ancestor or relative may have come to the surface during your initial interview, having the photographs available for your subject to look at a second and third time will stir memories that lie ever deeper in your subject's subconscious.  Take the same photographs, with comments intact, to each person you interview.  Each person you interview may be able to add new pieces of information to that which was supplied by an earlier subject.

The Interview

One of the most common conundrums facing a family history interviewer is how to prod the memory of his or her subject.  Having the opportunity to go through old photographs with your subject as described above will start the flow of memories.  Items of personal memorabilia can also be used as memory prompters newspaper clippings, school awards, achievement awards, programmes, prize ribbons, and so on.

Take your descendancy chart as it will help to visually demonstrate to your subject the relationships between the people about whom you will be talking.  Use a tape recorder for the interview even if you are a whiz at shorthand or speed writing.  Have three or four long-playing cassette tapes on hand and either an AC adapter or several sets of batteries.  Use an external microphone rather than relying on any voice-activated internal microphone.  Internal microphones lag a few seconds behind the commencement of speech and are not sensitive enough to pick up and record the voice of a soft-spoken individual.  Place the external microphone on a stand to reduce any background noise that might be picked up from vibrations on the table's surface.  Direct your microphone towards your subject even though the ideal placement would normally be at an equal distance between you and your subject.  Your subject's words will be the most important ones spoken during your interview.  Do try, however, to speak loudly and clearly enough so that the microphone will still be able to pick up your questions and comments.

Take a notebook along with several pens and pencils.  The notebook will be necessary as there will inevitably be an occasion or two during your interview that your subject will feel uncomfortable having his or her words recorded.  A notebook and tape recorder are significantly less threatening objects to your elderly subject than a laptop computer.  Many elderly people are completely befuddled by today's electronic wizardry and, consequently, quite unnerved by its' presence.  Even if your subject is visually impaired consider how distracting the clicking of the keys on a keyboard would be to him or her.

There are also a few practical points that you will have to consider both during your interview and while arranging a time to conduct the interview.

  • Does your subject have any medical condition that requires strict medication dosing schedules?
  • Does your subject experience any adverse reactions after taking routine medications?
  • Is your subject a diabetic? Diabetics must maintain a regular eating schedule in order to maintain optimum insulin levels.
  • Does your subject become confused at certain times of the day? Are mornings better than evenings, or afternoons better than mornings for your subject?
  • Does your subject take a mid-afternoon nap? You can expect to receive very little co-operation from your subject should you disrupt their daily routine.

During the interview be alert to how quickly your subject is tiring.  An interview should not continue beyond two hours.  After that length of time both you and your subject will begin to lose your concentrative powers.  If your subject is very elderly or medically ailing you may find that you will not be able to continue your interview beyond one hour.  Bear in mind that the more pressure a subject feels to recall distant events and people, whatever the nature of that pressure is, the more likely the accuracy of their recall will diminish.  Conversely, the more relaxed your subject is the greater the likelihood that their memories will be recalled accurately.

Your function during the interview is to concentrate, unwaveringly, on the who, what, why, where, when and how of your family's history.  This, you will discover, is not such an easy task.  During the interview you will find that your subject will talk in circles divulging information in a disjointed manner.

He or she will also tell you what they believe to be the truth about the family or an individual.  Any family lore that your subject imparts was possibly handed down to him or her through several generations.  For this reason you need to discern the circumstances by which your subject came to possess such knowledge.  Ask your subject how they came to know of the family lore under what circumstances was it told to them and by whom and who told it to that other person.  In other words, try to establish the flow of the family lore back to its' source.  Was the ultimate source a blood relation or an in-law?

You may wonder why it is necessary to trace the origins of family lore.   Consider the possible ways in which the following statement can be construed.  'He lost all of the family's money on the horses and was never heard of again.  Of course, the family lost the estate.' This statement surfaced during research of my own Hill ancestry and came to me by way of an elderly first cousin.  Although that cousin lived in England he had become distanced from his closer cousins and this tidbit of information concerning our mutual great-great-great-grandfather came to him through his mother.  That lady had married into the Hill family and possessed a flair for the dramatic.  A flurry of correspondence with more distant Hill cousins, also in England, eventually revealed a more plausible and, as it turned out, accurate recapitulation of the story.  My great-great-great-grandfather was, during the late 1700s, the tenant-in-chief of Bradford Manor near Pyworthy, Devon.  One day while he was out collecting the rents from the sub-tenants he was attacked and robbed of all the money.  Bear in mind that during that time period the principal form of transportation around an estate was via horse.  Unfortunately, my ancestor did not survive the attack and the family was unaware that anything was amiss until his horse returned, riderless, to the manor house.  Subsequent research in appropriate resources proved this second version of the "family scandal" to be the correct one.

As to the claim of losing the family estate? That, too, was not entirely accurate within the confines of the original statement.  Many years later, my great-grandfather, John James Harris Hill, upon enlisting with the Devon Constabulary, found that his heart and interest did not lie in farming and not wishing to continue with the onerous responsibility of occupying and managing a landed estate deeded the manor and its' properties back to the Duchy of Cornwall.

If there is a piece of information that is revealed by your subject that you cannot immediately associate with a person or place ask your subject to be more specific.  Ask for the names of that person's parents, a sibling, or a child, or how that person is related to your family.  Ask whether that unknown person is actually a family member or merely a family friend of long-standing.  How many of us grew up having an Uncle Lindsay or Aunt Ada only to discover many years later that that person had no consanguineous relationship to the family whatsoever?

One name, date, or place of residence brought to light during your interview will eventually prove beneficial to identifying the relationship of any unknown person and may even lead you on to the discovery of previously unknown cousins.

Lastly, during your interview remain sensitive to the feelings and issues arising in your subject.  What you may think is fascinating but of little consequence may be a source of great embarrassment or ill will to your subject.  Be prepared also to hear news that you may find disconcerting for it just may be that your elderly relation has decided that the time has arrived to lay open some hitherto well-kept family secrets.  Figure 1 is a questionnaire that can be used during your family history interviews.  This questionnaire is a standard guideline and undoubtedly you will develop other questions that are pertinent to your particular family and its ancestry.  Having now gathered all readily available information, the time has come to organize that information and your materials.

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