Basics of Research: A Beginner's Guide
Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
Love the movie, "Where's Bob?" with Bill Murray. In the film, Bob is a neurotic, overly attached to a psychiatrist who has taught him the valuable concept of "Baby Steps" to overcome his fears. Not that genealogy researchers are neurotic, but the idea of Baby Steps is a great approach for newbies, who can feel a little overwhelmed when first starting out. This series on the "Basics of Research" takes a step-by-step approach from assembling the right materials to publishing your work and moving on to the next project.
Where some hobbies can require a big investment, genealogy can be done with as little as pencil and paper. Of course, a few select tools and materials can make it easier and more efficient, many of which are free online or available at a nearby Family History Center. Even computers and the Internet, which figure largely in genealogy today, can be accessed without charge and not too far from home, as outlined in Genealogy Can Be a Cheap Hobby.
When first starting out, new researchers may be delighted to find so much available on their ancestors — or who they think are their ancestors. Unfortunately, there is almost as much misinformation available today, as there is information available, so understanding the role of documentation in genealogy will ensure you follow the right family line, but will lend credibility to your work as you progress. The value and process of documentation is explored in Documentation Saves Pedigrees.
A common question for beginning researchers is, "Where do I start?" The past is a formidable thing, stretching back eons of time. But the best place to start is also the most familiar and often the most accessible (irascible family members notwithstanding). The term "family records" or "home sources" covers a lot of territory and may include everything from original documentation to bit of ephemera that can help you leap brick walls in a single bound. For more on home and family sources, see Family Records Are The Best!.
It is said "The map is not the territory,"1 and so it is with genealogy: only the thing itself is true, and even the territory can change over time. Surveying the landscape can give us a sense of the territory, and so it is with genealogy. Going out to see what's there — that broad appraisal of a particular ancestor or research problem can significantly help in narrowing the field. In the past, we might have sat down with a card catalog to analyze subjects related to our interest or simply browsed the shelves. Today, we can do that and more online, making our research easier and more efficient. Tips for on conducting a survey is the focus of Survey Sets Up Research.
One of the great challenges in genealogy is finding multiple people with the same name in the same general area, often within the same extended family and kids of the same name. The question is, "How do you sort it out?" There is a strategy, and the secret is not to start mid-stream. For more insights into this subject, see How Many Marys Did David Merry Marry?.
Everyone loves a mystery, which is probably half the allure in doing genealogy. The popular TV show CSI has nothing on us! "Like criminal detectives, genealogy detectives first want to precisely identify the one whose body lies on the living room rug or on the next line of the pedigree chart. This identification must belong to only one person of the billions who have lived." And that's not all, the comparisons continue: forensics does play a role in genealogy. For an examination of the subject, see Genealogy Detecting.
The reasons for publishing your research are many and varied, not the least of which is preserving all your hard work — not everyone shares the same values. In publishing, you are not only sharing your work, but leaving a legacy and making connections, as well — perhaps across generations. Today more than ever before you have choices in how and where to publish, spending as little or as much as you are comfortable. Ideas for publishing is explored in Publish or All Your Research May Perish.
Analysis is one of the most important steps in the research process, reviewing and verifying the data for accuracy and error. The goal is to be objective and willing to question what you think you know. Much of your credibility as a researcher depends on this step. And because it is sometimes difficult to edit our own work, there are ways tools and strategies to make the process easier, as discussed in Evaluate and Decide.
And speaking of review, as you go progress in your research, it's good to go back periodically to review old data for new insights. Time is an amazing thing — as our research develops, old data and information can take on new light; a fact, a photo or a resource that meant nothing five years ago may be full of meaning today.
Genealogy is a lifetime pursuit, never truly finished. There will always be more stories to tell and new resources to explore. Enjoy the journey.
1 "Language in Thought and Action", by S. I. Hayakawa,
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