Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Research and Evidence analysis

The APG mailing list has been discussing the methods used for evidence analysis, and the opportunities to learn how to do it (I would put a link to the thread here, but the APG list Archive is down tonight). The discussion was started by Ken Aitken a week or so ago, and many experts have contributed their wisdom and experience. One of the major issues has been whether to use a "word processor" document or a software program to drive the analysis of evidence. I contributed my two cents, saying:

As I collect information from sources, I enter the VR data into the right places in my program (Family Tree Maker in my case) and I enter non-VR data into the text notes section, usually in a timeline fashion. I then make a genealogy report (usually a descendants report - I prefer the NGSQ format since I don't have to go to the next generation to see all of the details) and print it out (including sources). I can proofread it and edit it by hand (I proof and edit much better with a paper in front of me than on the screen), then add the changes to the text notes in FTM. I discuss the evidence quality in the notes, and I form hypotheses when needed. I keep the database updated with each bit of information I obtain.

When I am searching for the parents of a person and don't know their names, the results of my search to date is in my database under "Mr. Smith" or whatever, as the father or mother of the particular person. When I make my genealogy report, I start with this unknown person so that I know what I have already searched.For the "brick wall" problems, I use four forms of my own creation:

1) What information I have already found according to type (vital, census, probate, land, military, etc)

2) The books, journals and databases I have already reviewed (and the libraries, archives, genealogical or historical societies that hold them)

3) The Internet databases, web pages, message boards, etc. that I have or need to search in an organized way

4) A to-do list for the particular family or surname, including type of information, specific resources to look for and repositories that may hold them

This system allows me to identify what information I do have and to evaluate its quality, what information I don't have and need to search for, and where I need to search. If the type of record is not extant after searching, I note that too, so that I don't revisit a source, repository or a database without a good reason.

The forms get stapled to the genealogy report and I put the whole package in my research notebook that goes to the repository with me. The database and the forms are also on my laptop computer, but I usually write on the paper forms at the repository.

All of the above is evidence gathering and analysis. Classifying the information as primary or secondary, the sources as original or derivative, and the evidence as direct or indirect helps focus the effort and drive to a solution. I have a lot of experience in gathering and analyzing, but there have not been definite solutions to many of my "brick wall" problems - yet!

This is what works for me. I choose to not use the real "word processor" until I am ready to do a final report. I find it easier to write plain text in FTM and print out the results, proof it, edit it, modify the text, rinse and repeat. I have not used a spreadsheet like MS Excel to analyze genealogy problems, nor a program like Clooz (which does some of this well, I think). Perhaps someone could comment on their experience with Clooz (are there other programs of this nature?) - does it help with evidence analysis?

One thing that also helps me with my "brick wall" problems is sharing them with other researchers and asking for advice. Our local society has a monthly research group where we share our problems and their solutions when we find them. I read some of the journals (NGSQ, NEHGR, TAG, TG) for research problems (and their solutions) similar to mine. I have posted several of my research problems on my genealogy blog.

Gathering information and analyzing the available evidence are the really fun part of the genealogy treasure hunt for me.

What about you? How do you analyze the evidence you have gathered? How do you know what you need to look for? How do you lay it out so that you can evaluate it?


Barbara said...


I wrote a review of Clooz 2.0 for the NGS NewsMagazine that was in one of the summer issues, I believe.

It does nothing for evidence analysis as I think you and I understand it. What it does is create a system for keeping track of documents you've got and, if they are digital, attaching them to the people in them, which also attaches seamlessly to Legacy software, should you use it. (It's not my primary software, but maybe it should be).

Clooz is useful in that you can see at a glance what documents you have on a person -- and you only need enter the info on the document once. After that, it's a matter of attaching it to people in your database.

That said, it's a piece of software that I wish I'd had before I had upwards of 8000 people in my database. I can't bring myself to contemplate entering all the info on all the documents relating to them. But if I had begun with it, I'd be a lot better organized now.

Randy Seaver said...


Thank you for the clear explanation of Clooz. I have not explored it yet, although I've heard good things about it.