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Beginning Genealogy: Genealogy Research Strategies

This is a guide to print and online resources useful to the study of family history and genealogy. Many of these materials are available through the Government and Heritage Library.

Understanding sources

Picture of a squirrel reading a newspaper, from Pixabay creator Sammy-Sandor, royalty free license.Information, or source, literacy means understanding the elements or characteristics of different types of sources or types of information.

In genealogical research, it's vital to know what exactly you are looking at when you're staring at a document, photograph, or other type of resource or record. Are you looking at a primary source -- an original record -- like a will or a photograph or a letter? Or are you looking at a secondary source like an historical publication, an abstract or index made from original sources, or interpretive work? 

Every source, whether it's an original record or a work produced by an historian, is subject to scrutiny and analysis! 

Here are a few important things to consider when you're evaluating both primary and secondary sources:

  • Who, what, when, where, why and how: examine and understand the context of the creation of the item in question. Do you know the historical context in which it was created? Do you know if the item is authentic? Also consider that sources may exist in more than one iteration, depending on the source. They may have been copied, transcribed, and transformed. Consider whether you are looking at the "original" or a copy or a transcription of an original. This is especially important when looking at records online, without the tangible physical properties to help you.
  • What are the biases and subjectivity of the creator? Every source has a viewpoint or a bias, even those created by government entities. Think about the decennial census: it includes many, many biases of both the collectors and the subjects in the "data" it presents. Photographs include bias -- think about how they represent only a small slice of a setting or scene, the elements of the photograph and what was or wasn't included, and even the way the photographed was developed. Also consider the ways that records may have been changed or altered. And if you're using newspapers as potential primary sources (they can also be secondary sources), think about the personal and historical bias they contain. They and their content are products of the people, times, and communities in which they were created.
  • Is this a reliable or credible source or are there possible errors? This is often the million-dollar question in any research! Whether you are looking at an original record or a secondary source like a history book, or even an abstract or index, the "record" is fraught with errors, mistakes, and even the judgments of creators. Also consider what is missing in the record.

The bottom line: interrogate all of your sources as if you were Perry Mason, with a witness on the stand!

Organize and document your sources

A key concept for any good research is reproducibility. This means that either you or anyone else who looks at your work has the proper information -- that is, source citations from your work -- to check behind you AND reproduce your results. It might sound like a tall order, but it's really the cornerstone of good research. And this means making sure you organize your research and cite your sources. One of the biggest rookie mistakes in research is inadequate documentation!

Here are a few tips for documenting your sources: 

  • Keep a research log to record your tasks and what you have looked at for each task
  • For each piece of information you find, document the source with a well-formatted citation that includes:
    • Source title
    • Author/editor
    • Publisher and location, place of publication and date, and the page number
    • For manuscript materials: gather the catalog number of the resource and the repository
    • URL (i.e. web link) for online sources, the website/repository name, and date you accessed it
  • Make paper copies and store in a well-organized folder system and/or keep digital copies in a well-organized folder system on your computer.

Here are links to a few citation building tools to help you:

Understanding evidence and the genealogical proof standard

Photograph of antique brass scales of justice and a gavel, Pixabay contributor succo, royalty free license.Have you ever heard the expression "the devil is in the details"? This is especially true for genealogical research. The goal of your research is to come to conclusions about your ancestors that you can back up with the evidence you have found. Sounds simple, right? The devil is in the details! And in genealogical work, the farther back you go, the less likely you are to have complete certainty that your conclusions are "true"!

Consider these key points about finding and analyzing evidence for family history research:

  • What type of evidence have you found: direct, indirect, or negative?  None of these are specifically better than the other, they're just different!
    • Direct evidence is an explicit statement and generally doesn't require more documentation.
    • Indirect evidence is evidence that is used with other evidence and sources to come to a conclusion about something. This is used when you can't find a single source to answer a single question (which, more often than not, the case the farther back you go!).
    • Negative evidence is when you develop a conclusion due to the absence of evidence for a particular event, situation, or relationship. 
  • What contradictions are there in the evidence you have found? Contradictions and discrepancies will arise!  The best solution for this is to research exhaustively, find as much evidence as you can and apply tools of source literacy. Construct the most likely and plausible narrative from the evidence you have found.

The Genealogical Proof Standard

You've probably gathered by now that genealogy has its own standards and best practices for the work of coming to sound conclusions about your ancestors. Here are the five components of the standard:

  • Do reasonably exhaustive research
  • Gather and maintain complete and accurate source citations
  • Resolve discrepancies and conflicting evidence
  • Write narrative conclusions using the best and strongest evidence you have found

Have you ever heard the term "preponderance of evidence"? In the legal world this means that the burden of proof is satisfied when the party with the burden (in our case, you the researcher) are able to convince a fact finder that there is a greater than 50% chance that your claim or conclusion is true!