Monday, August 24, 2009

Capturing the Research Process - Post 1

One of the recent discussions on the Transitional Genealogists Forum mailing list has been about how to document the research process - whether it's for a client or for yourself so that you can pick up where you left off when you get new information. Linda Gardner of Massachusetts started the discussion with her message titled "Are research reports published?" Read the whole thread to discover all of the comments and suggestions.

She, and others, know that the articles published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, The Genealogist, and other peer-reviewed journals are a distillation of the research process, and apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to reach their conclusions.

There seem to be very few step-by-step examples of research processes on the Internet, other than the random blog entry by someone discussing their research progress (or lamenting their brick wall problem). I've tried, in the past two years, to describe my search for Russell Smith and Devier James Lanphear Smith, but the process has spread over months and it is not as comprehensive as it could be.

One resource that does provide a description of a step-by-step research process is Emily Anne Croom's book, The Sleuth Book for Genealogists, Strategies for More Successful Family History Research, published by Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, reprinted 2008. There are three chapters with a detailed description of the research process for:

* "Finding the Parent Generation: The Search for Isaac Heldreth's Parents" (pages 141-149)

* "Finding Slave Ancestors: The Search for the Family of Archie Davis Sr." (pages 150-162)

* "Finding the Parent Generation: The Search for Ann (Robertson) Croom's Parents (pages 163-202).

I read the last one again last night during the baseball game, and was enthralled by how the author worked her way through many records at a time when there were no census indexes or online databases.

The problem is very typical of the brickwall problems that I have, and all of us have, in the 1800 to 1850 time period when there are few vital records, the census records are head-of-household only until 1850, and the family is spread across several states and counties.

Another book with similar Case Studies is Marsha Hoffman Rising's The Family Tree Problem Solver, Proven methods for scaling the inevitable brick wall, published by Family Tree Books, Cincinnati, 2005.

Reading these books, and the journal articles, can help researchers learn methods to solve their brickwall research problems. But the actual nitty-gritty of sorting through repositories, online websites and databases, county courthouses and state offices is lost to all of us for those published case studies.

Do you write down every small task you perform on a simple research task? Do you carefully note which book you checked, which database you queried, which search terms you used? I have tried to do that, and I fail miserably at it - I am too impatient! But if we are to perform a "reasonably exhaustive search" in our work, how else can we be assured that we did it?

I will share some of my forms and charts in the next posts in this series, in hopes that they will help somebody else and that readers may make suggestions that can help me in my research.

How do you perform a "reasonably exhaustive search" for your ancestral families? If you have useful and helpful ideas, please blog about them yourself or share them in comments to this post or on Facebook. I will summarize ideas posted in comments and link to blog articles.


  1. Thank you for the mention of those books. They sound like they would be helpful to read.

    I am not good either at marking down all the places that I have checked and the search terms that I have used in my own family history work.

    I like to use timelime lines but I tend to use them only for key members of my family.

  2. Randy,

    I record sources with repositories listed on photocopies or on computer downloaded documents, put them directly on Legacy and then assign an number. (there is more to it than that but this is condensed for explanation purposes) This way I don't duplicate my efforts which I had problems with in the past. As far as methodology goes I usually conduct a locality search first, then I go to the Census, city directories, county histories and follow the leads from there.