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Principles of Family History Research > Decide what you want to learn
At the end of this step you should have a research log that includes—
- The name of a person you want to research.
- What you want to find (the objective.)
- If appropriate, the approximate time and place of the event.
Step 2: Decide what you want to learn.
Nothing is more important to the research process than deciding what you want to learn. What you want to accomplish may vary, but usually, building up to it with well-documented research will help. It is not practical to thoroughly document all information on all of your lines by yourself. So thoughtfully select a few families of greatest interest to you. Do the genealogical research on those families especially well. Have faith that, in time, someone else will research the families you could not, and join their work with yours through programs like the new FamilySearch.
Most researchers have a final destination in mind even before they begin research. This is your research quest. However, to achieve your quest, you should divide it into several achievable goals. Goals are achieved by dividing them into specific research objectives and then accomplishing each objective in turn. A research objective is a specific piece of information about one person. See the examples in the following box.
| Setting Objectives|
| This example shows how a quest can lead to goals which in turn lead to research objectives. Goals and objectives may be either genealogical or reference. They may be easy or difficult to achieve.
Possible Goals for Quest A:
Possible Objectives for Goal 5:
A single, clearly defined research objective will—
- Focus your efforts, one step at a time, on a single task (such as a name, event date, event place, relationship, etc.)
- Improve your chances of selecting a record that has the information you seek.
- Reduce the confusion of trying to work on several objectives at once.
- Help you succeed and enjoy your research experience.
In order to select a specific research objective, you will first identify several individuals or families you could research, then you will choose one. With one individual or family in mind, you will have a goal and can then identify questions about him or her. Next, select one question as the research objective. Then you will prepare and use a research log.
Identify Candidate Families for Further Research
Your genealogical quest has already pointed you in a direction, such as learning when your mother’s family first came to the country. Now identify goals that will advance you towards your quest. Most goals focus on researching an individual or that individual’s family.
Browse through your various family group records. Look for families you could research to move you toward fulfilling your quest AND be easiest to research first. This would probably be a family closer to you in time—a parent or grandparent family. There is a greater chance living people would recall events, and have records or mementos of more recent generations. Starting research on earlier generations before pinning down the information about more recent generations might cause time consuming errors. Don’t skip any family links.
Search from the known to the unknown;
recent generations before earlier generations.
One Family at a Time
Research is usually more successful when you work on an entire family group (father, mother and all children). Important clues about an individual are found in his relationships to his family. Community and family context helps us correlate and corroborate data, or reveals inconsistencies. Often it is only by learning about brothers or sisters that you can prove parentage. Experienced genealogists recognize the importance of completing work on an entire family before moving to a different family. It may even help to work on clusters of families that married into each other.
|Research works better on an entire family group.|
If researching two or more families would move you toward your overall quest, start with the family that is already the best documented and has the most complete event places and dates. Leave the families with less well documented events, or events with vague places or dates until later.
A good research goal is to complete genealogical research and document each event on a selected family group record.
Research a Family in Community Context
Proximity implies a relationship of some kind. Good genealogists use this to their advantage.
|Proximity implies a relationship.|
Learn to be aware of neighbors and associates. As you gather information and sources for individuals, strive to understand their family, friends, associates, and neighbors as well. You will soon realize that people are born, raised, married, have children and grandchildren, migrate, live, die, and are buried in clusters. Their community relationships often provide clues to solve difficult genealogical problems. The more a genealogist can discover about an ancestor's community, the greater the odds of uncovering significant relationships.
- Make note of pastors, godparents, witnesses, bondsmen, partners, suppliers, executors, and similar community members on documents.
- Always investigate anyone living in the same household.
- Neighbors in the area with similar given names or surnames, occupations, or place of origin are good candidates to be relatives. Study the neighbors and associates in land records, plat maps, censuses, tax records, and directories. Strive to figure out their relationship to your ancestor.
- People often moved in groups. They usually moved to an area where neighbors spoke their same language, so the "new" neighbors were often known from an old neighborhood.
- Land purchases and sales may be evidence of genealogical lineage between buyer and seller.
- In cemeteries, pay attention to gravestones anywhere near your ancestor's grave.
- If an ancestor lived near a parish, county, or state line, look for people on the other side of that line who could be relatives.
One Research Objective at a Time
Within a family you can more freely choose which individual you will research. You can skip around among family members seeking first the easiest-to-document events in the family. The easier to document events will lead to new clues for finding more-difficult-to-document events in the family.
Compare all the events on the family group record. Notice which events are most complete and have the best documentation. Also note the events with missing, partial, or estimated information, or with poor source footnotes. In general, first check on the already-cited sources to verify your own records. Then one event in a person’s life at a time you look up new sources to document a poorly sourced event. Start first with events that have the most complete place, and most complete dates.
You should be able to name the exact person and identify exactly which event in his life you want to document. Stay focused on that research objective until you find at least one source that documents it. Do not give up or change research objectives lightly.
|Stay focused on one event in one person's life at a time until you find at least one source to document it.|
If at first you don’t succeed, continue with the same research objective. But look for the person's name spelled a different way or for a nickname, search a variety of records and record types, change the jurisdictions you search, inquire at many repositories, and if necessary research even kin and associates in order to find documentation for your chosen research objective.
As you begin to find things, slowly work your way to objectives involving the least sourced events in the family, with skimpiest place or date information. Sometimes events are not mentioned on the family group record, but it is important to guess they happened anyway. Stick with the same family until work on documenting all the events in their lives is mostly finished. Try to obtain complete genealogical information for each family member.
Complete Information fully identifies any individual and links him to the correct family. It includes the vital event information noted in Types of Genealogical Information. For many places and time periods you may substitute other information when some of these are not available. For example, a christening or baptism record may substitute for birth information. Burial information may substitute for a death record.
|Try to obtain complete genealogical information for each ancestor and family member.|
Minimum Information is the least amount of information nedded to continue research into other generations. It will vary depending on the family, time period, and place, but should generally include—
- First and last name of the person and at least one parent.
- Approximate birth year and probable place (state or country)
- Spouse's name and approximate marriage date
At the very least minimum identification includes the name and the date and place of an event.
|Minimum identification includes the name, date, and place of an event.|
Insufficient Information means that significant facts about the person or family are unknown or unproven. In such cases, research must not continue to other generations. Basing further research on insufficient information results in errors in family connections to other generations. It could also lead to untraceable persons or research "dead ends." Insufficient information includes—
- Missing information
- Incomplete information
- Conflicting information (unresolved)
- Unverified information
For more suggestions on evaluating information see Nature of the Information.
Select the Easiest Research Objective
To help judge easy-to-document versus difficult-to-document events on a family group record, use the following four factors. The factors are listed in order from most important to least important.
1. Completeness of the sources, places, and dates for each event.
2. Availability of pertinent documents.
3. More recent versus earlier events.
4. Quality of available documents.
For more details about selecting easier objectives see Guessing the Easiest to Research Person and Event.
Using a Research Log
- Your research objective (name the person and event) as soon as you have chosen them.
- The records you want to search. It is probably easiest to enter records as you select them (usually while still looking at the catalog). Record enough information about each source so that someone could readily find it again—the source footnote information.
- The results of your search. As soon as you have searched a record, note whether or not you found anything in the record. You may want to include a document number for copies you made.
- Your e-mail and correspondence. Include the address you wrote to and what you requested. Including e-mail and correspondence on your research log is more efficient than on a separate Correspondence Log.
- Genealogical telephone calls and visits. Include dates, full names, and results. Put interview notes on a separate piece of paper to go in the file.
- Notes about your strategies, analysis, discrepancies, and questions. Logs should be more than just a list of sources. Make your research logs as well the journals of your genealogical thinking and ideas.
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