Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Looking at the Process of Doing Genealogical Research

As genealogists we live our own individual worlds saturated in the need to do genealogical research. Even if people involved with their own family history are entirely lacking in any research skills or are even aware of the need for research, at some point they must make an effort to acquire research skills in order to make any progress in learning about their family lines.

It is certain that the ability to do basic research is an acquired skill. In most cases, people who acquire research skills do so over an extended period of time involving an advanced education. That is not to say that all genealogists need some kind of degree from an educational institution, but it does mean that there are certain skills that must be learned, either acquired during schooling or self-taught.

I am not talking about the superficial research skills needed to find products online or for searching for bargains at various supermarkets or other such day to day activities. Fortunately there are enough academic subjects that require well-developed research skills that the subject is not without a substantial amount of online instruction. One assessment of the need to acquire research skills comes from the University of Greenwich [note the British spelling]:
A research degree is above all else a learning experience, which is extended typically over three to six years. The learning needs associated with a research degree are varied and often complex. They can range from being able to critically analyse large amounts of written work, developing potentially novel methods of research and experimentation, collating and analysing large datasets and the ability to summarise your research outputs in a clear concise manner appropriate for a variety of different audiences.
There is, unfortunately, the tendency among some involved in the area of family history or genealogy to depreciate the need for well-developed research skills i.e. "anyone can be a genealogist." Because of this populist view that genealogy is something that can be done by anyone, it is common to find researchers who are severely limited either by their lack of basic skills or lack of knowledge of basic research sources.

There is no particularly easy way to acquire research skills. Even attending a university will not always help because basic research skills are supposed to be "learned" at the high school level. Genealogists are on their own in trying to learn even the most basic skills. This is usually the case because there is no formal training, either required or often provided before the budding researcher is sitting in front of a powerful computer and trying to figure out what to do next. In doing research in genealogically related areas, there are six basic skills needed to be successful:

  1. The ability to establish useful research objectives.
  2. The ability to identify potential record sources.
  3. The ability to find pertinent sources. 
  4. The ability to recognize, extract and record information from the sources applicable to the research objectives.
  5. The ability to evaluate the extracted information for pertinence and reliability.
  6. The ability to use the evaluated information to develop additional research objectives. 
Another valuable asset to becoming an expert researcher is persistence in the face of repeated search failures. This includes the ability to recognize the significance of negative results. The failure to find a record can sometimes be as significant as finding one. 


  1. "either acquired during schooling or self-taught." Or closely mentored, perhaps apprentice-style.

    7. The ability to keep track of what you have done and what you intend to do.

  2. On the second basic skill, should the 'and' be 'any' or other words missing?

    1. Oops, extra word. Thanks for the correction.

  3. #1 Ability to establish useful research objectives. Such a small sentence. Such an important step. So many false starts. So many digressions. #7 keeping track of work process also is very true and deceptively difficult for me.

    1. Thanks, I suppose the list could go on and on.