The 5-Step Genealogical Research Process

Genealogical research, like any other kind of research, involves a cycle of 5 basic steps:

  1. What do I already know?
  2. What specific question needs to be answered?
  3. What information sources might answer my question?
  4. What do the information sources actually tell me?
  5. What conclusions can I reach now?

Step 1: What do I already know?

The first step in doing genealogical research is to identify what information you already know to be true. This information generally comes from your own experience or from documents already in your possession.

Because human memory is fallible, it is important for you to keep permanent records of the information already known to you. For many years, genealogists have recorded information using printed forms such as pedigree charts and family group sheets. (These forms are explained in detail later). Today, it is becoming increasingly common for genealogists to record their information into databases on their personal computers, and then print out pedigree charts and family group sheets as needed. Therefore, you may wish to begin by obtaining and installing genealogy software for your home computer, and then recording the information already in your possession. Don't forget the importance of backing up your information!

Even if you store your genealogical research in a computer database, you will usually want to print out copies for your files. This means that you'll need to organize a filing system to keep track of what you already know and what you are working on. You may want to create a separate file folder for each surname in your family, and then file these alphabetically in a filing cabinet.

Pedigree charts are a graphical way to represent the ancestry of an individual. Usually each individual on the pedigree chart is identified by full name, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, and date and place of death. Lines connect the individual with the individual's father and mother. You will want to begin your genealogical research by completing a pedigree chart with yourself on the far left, and then information about your parents and grandparents on the right, writing down as much information as you already know. Don't worry if you're unable to fill in all of the information at this time -- you'll be collecting more information as your research progresses.

Family group sheets are a way to record information about the basic unit of genealogy: the family. Each sheet records information about the father, the mother, and all of their children. The date and place of marriage is recorded for the parents, and for each individual, the full name, the date and place of birth, and the date and place of death is recorded. If the dates of birth are known, the children are listed in order of birth. In some cases, the names of the children's spouses are also recorded. There is often space on the family group sheet to record additional notes about the family, as needed.

Once you have recorded all of the known information on pedigree charts and family group sheets, you are ready to move on to Step 2.

Step 2: What specific question needs to be answered?

Doing research means trying to find the answers to questions. With genealogy, there are an unlimited number of questions that we could ask about each of our ancestors and other relatives. (To avoid saying "he or she", I'll use "they".) These include:

  • What was their name?
  • When and where were they born?
  • When and where did they marry?
  • Who did they marry?
  • How many children did they have, and what were the names of the children?
  • Where did they live?
  • What type of work did they do?
  • What religious institutions, military organizations, or other organizations did they belong to?
  • What did they look like?
  • When and where did they die, and what was the cause of death?
  • Where were they buried?

We could quickly become overwhelmed by the number of questions that need answers. Even worse, as you go back in time, you'll have more and more ancestors to ask questions about!

Therefore, you will need to focus on just a few individuals at a time (usually several closely related members of the same family), and also focus on just a few questions about those individuals. In many cases, it is best to focus on only one individual, and only one question at a time. Make sure to use your pedigree charts and family group sheets to help you identify the questions that need answers.

At this point, you will probably want to use another form to help you keep track of your research. For each individual, make a "research plan" document. On the left you'll list which questions you want to answer, and on the right you'll list the steps you plan to take in order to obtain the answers.

Once you've decided which question you want to focus on, you're ready to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: What information sources might answer my question?

Before you can fill out the rest of your research plan, you'll need to figure out which information sources are likely to be best for answering your question. If you're just beginning with genealogy, you'll need to understand the different kinds of information sources that can be used for genealogical research.

There are two basic types of information sources: primary sources, and secondary sources. Primary sources are sources that were created at or near the time of an event, usually by someone who was a direct observer or participant in the event. Secondary sources are sources that were created either much later than the time of the event, or by someone who was reading or interpreting a primary source.

Primary sources are generally preferable to secondary sources because they are more likely to be accurate. (It is interesting to note that the same source might be a primary source for one kind of information, and a secondary source for another kind of information. For example, a tombstone may be a primary source for the date of death, but is usually a secondary source for the date of birth.)

In the absence of primary sources, however, you may have to depend on secondary sources. Even when primary sources are available, using secondary sources first may speed up your ability to locate a primary source. For instance, it is often a good idea to locate research that has already been done by others. While it is possible that this research may contain errors, it may save you a great deal of time in locating the primary sources you need.

There are many different types of primary and secondary sources. You will find many of these described in the Genealogy Forum's Resource Center. They include vital records (births, marriages, deaths), census records, obituaries, cemeteries, church records, military records, and many others. Once you have determined which type of information source is most likely to answer your specific question, it is time to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: What do the information sources actually tell me?

Once you have decided which type of information source is most likely to answer your specific question, you will need to obtain a copy of the information, and examine it. This may be easy or difficult depending on the type of information source, its availability, its location, and the ease with which it may be searched. In any event, make sure to include which information sources you plan to search on your research plan.

Some information sources are available online, via the Internet. You may want to visit the Genealogy Forum's Internet Area to see what is available.

Other sources can be purchased on CD-ROM and then searched on your own home computer. See genealogical supply houses for information about these products.

Copies of some information sources, especially vital records, can often be obtained via postal mail. For more information on obtaining records held by U.S. states, counties and towns, see the book Ancestry's Red Book, edited by Alice Eichholz.

Many sources, especially census records, can be searched at your local public library or Family History Center (FHC). Public libraries also often have city directories or copies of old local newspapers. Call or visit your nearest library or FHC for information about this. Family History Centers are usually listed in the telephone book under "Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints" (the Mormons), who operate them for the benefit of all genealogists.

Whenever you are searching for an information source or within a particular information source, be careful not to miss information because you used too narrow a time period or because you overlooked a misspelled name.

As you search the information source, use another form to record what you have learned. A research log (or calendar) form is often used to indicate which information sources you have searched, when you searched them, and what you found or did not find. It is important to record even when you find no information, so that you will avoid having to search the same information source again later.

Once you have located the information sources, searched them, and made notes about what you have found, it is time to move on to Step 5.

Step 5: What conclusions can I reach now?

Once you have obtained information sources, searched their contents, and made some notes as to what you have found, it is time to evaluate the results. The new information you have learned may have answered your original question, or it may have been unsatisfactory. It may even conflict with other information that you already have.

If new information conflicts with existing information, you will have to decide which, if either, piece of information is more likely to be accurate. Is one from a primary source and the other from a secondary source? Is one from a more authoritative or believable source? The more time you spend doing genealogical research, the more skillful you will become in deciding these difficult questions.

As you accumulate new information, be sure to document its source. Identify the source in such a way that others can easily find it if they wished to check your sources. This will help you, as well, if you decide later to recheck the original source.

Incorporate the new information into your pedigree charts and family group sheets, if appropriate. Check this information against the information already in your pedigree charts and family group sheets to see if the new information makes sense.

Don't forget to share what you have learned with those members of your family interested in family history. You may want to include the new information in a family newsletter, announce it at a family reunion, or file it until you decide to write a family history!

Now you're ready to start back at Step 1, and go through the entire cycle again.


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