I spent an hour or so with a professional researcher a day or two ago helping find a German immigrant to Michigan. There were a couple of things about the conversation, where we were both on computers looking for records from a variety of source, that stood out. The researcher had spent hours on the project and had already found a number of records, but was trying to find either the names of the immigrant's parents or the place of her birth in Austria. She did have a copy of a 1930 U.S. Census record showing the immigrant married with one daughter.
After a few minutes of discussion, I asked her where the town on the Census record was located? It had not occurred to the researcher to look at a map. We immediately found the town and county and discovered that it was a suburb of Detroit. This opened up a whole list of possible records to examine, everything from school records to city directories. After more discussion, the researcher said she also had found the immigrant in the Social Security Death Index. I suggested obtaining her SS-5 form by means of the . Social Security Freedom of Information Act, Request for a Deceased Individual's Social Security Record. The researcher did not know these existed. I further suggested looking at the FamilySearch Research Wiki to give her more suggestions. She didn't know the Research Wiki existed either.
The researcher also had a copy of the immigrant's Naturalization Index Record. The immigrant had been naturalized in California. I suggested locating the naturalization file in the National Archives or determining if the records were still in the Federal Court system. I suggested she start with the Wiki page on United States Naturalization and Citizenship. We didn't have time to go into this further.
Here are some hard and fast rules for starting research about anyone who lived a substantial portion of their life in the 1900s.
Rule One: Always identify all locations by map and always make sure you have county and city information. Anytime you find someone, unless you already know where they lived, look up all locations on a map. Find out the next larger jurisdictions, such as the counties or municipalities. Don't go searching for specific records until you are sure where those records should be located.
Rule Two: Put the person in their historical context. For example, did the person live a substantial portion of his or her life after 1932? If so, the person was likely on Social Security. Think about wars and draft registration, think about where the person might have worked and if the person might have belonged to some affinity group or religious organization.
Rule Three: Use the resources that are the most useful for helping with research. In my opinion, that means starting with the Research Wiki. As of today, the Research Wiki has 56,837 articles and is still increasing by about 1000 articles a week.
Before you spend a lot of time searching in Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org, you should take a few minutes to put the person into the geographical and historical context of his or her life and look at the bigger picture. Make a possible list, either on paper (preferable) or mentally, and begin your search by looking at the records that might have the information first.