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

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Essence of Genealogical Research

When I was very young, my father purchased a complete set of the Encyclopedia Americana. These 30 volumes were a regular part of my education. The Encyclopedia Americana was not written for young children, the articles were usually quite long and most of the articles were signed by the contributor. The earliest real research project I remember was a paper for a high school class on the Civil War. I remember that I went to the library to find some information about specific battles of the war. I was disappointed to discover that the Phoenix Public Library, at that time, had no specific histories of the Civil War. So, I resorted to reading about the Battle of Chattanooga in the Encyclopedia Americana, where there was a reasonably detailed article about the topic.

Today, it would seem inconceivable that a major public library in America would have little or no reference material on the U.S. Civil War, but we now live in a different world. Very early in my life, whenever I would become interested in any particular topic, from mountain climbing to woodworking, I would simply go to the nearest library and proceed to read every book they had on the subject. You can imagine that now that I have the Internet and unlimited access to topics of interest, that I could spend all of my time reading about things that interest me. Once challenge of the Internet is staying on topic. It is too easy to get distracted with unproductive topics. But fortunately, I am able to focus on one topic until I see it through.

Merely having an interest in a topic, such as genealogy, does not guarantee that you will ever learn anything about that topic. Unfortunately, many of us got a bad impression of the idea of doing research from our school experience. I remember that taking notes and making note cards was more important than actually learning anything. The students who were able to do the best presentations, with notebooks, note cards, drawings and diagrams, got the best grades whether or not they actually learned anything in the process. Research isn't about formalities, it is about learning. In genealogy we can get caught up in organizing our research and using proper citations and forget about doing the research in the first place.

To begin to do research, you need to have some basic reading and retention skills. But more importantly, you need a sense of discovery; you need to have a desire and a passion for answering questions and resolving mysteries. Most of all, I think you need to have a love of learning and even more, a love of good books. How would I suggest you start learning to love doing research? Everything we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do. Why not start with a long visit to your nearest public library. If you don't have a library card, sign up for one. Spend an hour or two or more just wandering around looking at the books. As the reference desk or librarian if they can show you the library's research tools. Walk up and down the shelves (stacks) and look at the non-fiction books. Find a topic of interest and check out whatever books the library has on the subject.

Now, if you have trouble finding a topic of interest, I suggest you start with your own local and state history. But, you say, this isn't research. Where are the note cards and the notebook? Believe me, this is research. One of the very first stages of the research process is the "Survey" stage. This is where you decide what you know and what you don't know. If you are like me, you very early discovered that no matter how much you think you know, the amount you don't know seems infinite.

But isn't research focused on answering a particular question? Hmm. That is an interesting question. Yes, research is focused on answering a particular question but you don't know the questions yet and more importantly, you don't know how to answer the questions you do identify. That is the reason for going to the library in the first place. As a side note, I am amazed at how many people come to the Mesa FamilySearch Library and head right for the computers. Granted the Library has access to a few programs that are usually subscription only, but these people ignore the thousands of books in the Library that they have no access to anywhere else around Phoenix or likely in the State of Arizona. Why not look and see if there is a book of interest before jumping into the Internet?

So, do you see why I say visit the library before you start looking? The essence of research is not just pounding away at trying to locate some ancestor, the essence of research is a love of books, a love of learning and a love of work. If you think of research as something negative, you are not there yet. Start with the library. When learning, research and books become a higher priority in your life than your own comfort, you will not have any trouble at all learning the rest of the research skills.


  1. I am a librarian and a genealogist. I really like what you have written in this post. Very Well Said! I couldn't have said it better than myself. I have a blog of my own and I think my next post is going to use material you have written here. Thank You.

  2. Good tips in your post. When I travel to an area where my ancestors lived I go to the local library. I have some questions in mind but often go off in new directions when I see the library's holdings.

  3. I also grew up with encyclopedias in my home, in fact 2 different ones. I have one set now in my office and one in my home. Even though they are old, 1960's, they are not really outdated. I really enjoy grabbing a book, flipping through the pages or looking up something I feel may have a better report than the internet. I like to say that when i look on the internet, I find what I am looking for. When I look in the encyclopedia, I find what I am looking for and many things I wasn't looking for! Sometimes I think I could win on Jeopardy!