Archive for the ‘Research Skills’ Category

Finding what you are not looking for

While focused research is vital it can also unintentionally lead to what is called “inattentional blindness,” that is, looking without seeing[1]. In other words, if you are looking for one thing–one name, for example–you might miss other things.

Take a look at the following video:


Are you guilty of this when researching?

When you are searching tax lists or census records, do you focus tightly on certain names or surnames? Or do you search with your eyes open, noticing what else is happening in the records? You might be surprised at what you see in the records when you simply pay attention.


[1] David McRaney, “Inattentional Blindness,” in You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self-Delusion blog, posted 1 October 2009 ( : accessed 21 Nov 2011).

How to conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for relevant records

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a set of guidelines by which researchers can judge the thoroughness of their research and analysis, and the reliability of their conclusions. Over the next week or so, I would like to discuss the Standard as well as how to apply it to your research.

The first condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we have conducted a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer.

In order to meet this condition a researcher must first know what records exist for the time period and location in which you are researching. The following tips will help you discover this information when you begin researching in a new area for the first time:

1. Read research guides. Most states have numerous research guides available. It may be necessary to consult more than one, as each may have its own individual strengths and weaknesses. General research guides include the following wikis now available online:

You will want to be careful of some research guides written and published by some “genealogists.” A few authors have endeavored to write and publish “research guides” for many locations across the country. In most cases these research guides contain only general information about each state, but no specific information with enough detail to effectively research in those locations.

Instead, check to see if any research guides have been written and published by reputable researchers in the location itself. The National Genealogical Society’s Research in the States series of research guides is a very good start. Each of these guides has been written by a researcher recognized in the subject state.

Many historical and genealogical societies have published research guides. In most cases these research guides have been written by researchers with many years of experience in the specific location. These guides can be extremely detailed and informative.

2. Explore repository holdings catalogs. Many repositories have put catalogs of their holdings online, and these can be searched for information relevant to our ancestors. I have compiled a directory of the online holdings catalogs for the state archives of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, where available. A few states have not yet put this information online.

Many repositories also have online descriptions or research guides to using various records collections. See, for example, the “Reference and Research” section of the Maryland State Archives website and the “Using the Collections” section of the Library of Virginia website. Each of these sites contains numerous descriptive pamphlets relating to specific record groups and the record history of the states. You can find similar information on other state archives websites. For links to the websites of all state archives, read “Using the online catalogs of state archives to locate records of interest.”

One must not forget to check the catalog of the Family History Library on FamilySearch. In many areas, representatives of the FHL visited multiple repositories in each given location, microfilming diverse record groups. Don’t only search for county records, though. Also search for state and town records.

You will also want to identify other repositories of interest. I found the record that finally broke down one of my long-time brickwalls, for a family that lived in Connecticut and New York, at the Primitive Baptist Library in Carthage, Illinois.

3. Identify newspapers that were published. The Library of Congress has compiled a “U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present.” This directory can be searched by date and place of publication, with the place able to be specified by state, county, or city. Newspapers can offer many opportunities for research, including obituaries and death notices for those who died prior to state vital registration, and notices of estate administration and court proceedings in burned counties.

4. Search online finding aids. Many researchers neglect the private papers and other manuscript collections that may be held in historical society or university libraries. However these collections can hold some of the most important records, including many created by the subjects of our research. These may include family bibles, plantation account books, personal letters and photographs, etc. The key is to search collections relevant to the locations you are researching. You may locate information about your ancestor in a collection of the personal papers of the local town doctor or Justice of the Peace, for example.

There are numerous ways to find these records. You can go directly to the repository that you think may hold collections of interest. Finding aids for many of these special collections are available online at the repository websites. The finding aids may contain extremely detailed information, or may contain only a short description.

You will often find a relevant collection in an unexpected place. A recent project I researched involved a family that lived in Georgia, but family papers were found in Duke University in North Carolina. Duke University happens to have amassed a large collection of antebellum southern plantation records. You will find that historians resident at other universities may have compiled similar collections of historic material based on their own research interests. Collections which may involve families in other states.

Try these ways to locate manuscript collections:

  • The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections has been produced by the Library of Congress since 1959, originally in annual printed volumes. The Library has now ceased publication of the printed volumes, but contributes entries on manuscript collections to OCLC WorldCat. You can search WorldCat for surnames and locations, and it will also return the nearest library that holds books of interest.
  • Records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations is a microfilm collection created by UPA (now owned by LexisNexis) containing reproductions of various family papers collections from throughout the Southern United States. A guide to the collection is online. Visit the LexisNexis website for similar microfilmed publications available. While these microfilms are expensive, many university libraries have them.
  • Read published historical articles in your area of interest. Pay attention to the citations. Many historians access unpublished manuscripts. In other words, someone else may have already found what you are looking for. Use JSTOR or SAGE or Project MUSE (or any other similar journal-hosting services) to search for articles written about your location. Google Scholar also includes entries from these databases. Don’t limit yourself to your specific family. In some cases, these historical journal articles may provide context that reveals useful information about the world in which your family lived. In other cases, you may find that one of the records they used holds information on your ancestor! You can search most of these databases for free and read abstracts of relevant articles, but individual articles can run in the $20-$30 each range. However, many university libraries offer free access to the databases (in some cases remote access online).

5. Find out what churches were active in the area. Two good sources for identifying churches are the county or state historical society and contemporary city directories. In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration also conducted a Historical Church Survey. This survey contained questionaires about historic churches, usually including a profile of the church’s history, and an inventory of the records of the church then extant. These surveys are often difficult to find, but many are held by state archives, historical societies, and university libraries. More information can be found in “Soul of a People: the WPA’s Federal Writers Project.”

It is helpful to know what religion your ancestors followed. But do not limit yourself to those churches. Sometimes ancestors converted. A funny thing that I discovered is that every man in my direct male line, including myself, converted to a different religion than the one under which they were born–for seven straight generations! Also keep in mind that in rural areas where no church existed for certain denominations our ancestors may have attended a separate church out of necessity. In some minds, a Christian was a Christian, first and foremost, regardless of denomination! In other cases, such as in the colonial period, there may have been an established state religion. I have seen the births and marriages of Catholics in colonial Maryland recorded in the records of the established Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) Church.

All of these tips will help you to become more familiar with the area in which you are researching. You must not only know what records are available, but what information these records contain, why they were created, and where they are held. (See also “Five things you have to know about every record.”) As stated above, one must know what records exist before one can claim to have completed an exhaustive search for all relevant information.

Related articles:

The Genealogical Proof Standard: an introduction

About two and a half years ago, in my National African American Genealogy Examiner column, I wrote a post called, “What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?

The GPS recognizes, as you will discover in your own research, that genealogy research often leaves unanswered, and unfortunately unanswerable, questions. Not every fact can be proven with a simple statement on a document. However, through the use of the GPS, and indeed through practice, you can be sure that your conclusions are as close as possible to the truth.[1]

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a set of guidelines by which researchers can judge the thoroughness of their research and analysis, and the reliability of their conclusions.

My understanding of the Genealogical Proof Standard has grown further in the past few years. Over the next week or so, I would like to discuss the Standard as well as how to apply it to your research. Each post (and occasionally more than one) will discuss one or more of the conditions of the Genealogical Proof Standard:

1. Conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer.

2. Completely and accurately cite every source of information discovered in this search.

3. Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.

4. Resolve any conflicts caused by contradictory items of evidence or information contrary to your conclusion.

5. Arrive at a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”

I hope you enjoy the coming posts.


[1] Michael Hait, “What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?,” in National African American Genealogy Examiner, posted 15 May 2009 ( : accessed 20 Nov 2011).

For more information, see

Board for the Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).

Brenda Dougall Merriman, Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians (Toronto, Canada: Ontario Genealogical Society/Dundurn Press, 2010).

Christine Rose, CG, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, Third Revised Edition (San Jose, Calif. : CR Publications, 2009).

Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, Quicksheet: Genealogical Problem Analysis- A Strategic Plan- Evidence! Style (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2010).

Do I have a citation obsession?

I discuss source citations in this blog a lot. I know. I just can’t help it.

But academics in other fields are not above obsessing over citations either.

Kurt Schick, a writing teacher at James Madison University, posted “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!” in the Commentary section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mr. Schick agrees with many of my readers, I am sure:

What a colossal waste. Citation style remains the most arbitrary, formulaic, and prescriptive element of academic writing taught in American high schools and colleges. Now a sacred academic shibboleth, citation persists despite the incredibly high cost-benefit ratio of trying to teach students something they (and we should also) recognize as relatively useless to them as developing writers.[1]

Mr. Schick decries the time and energy that universities spend teaching how to cite in specific formats: MLA, APA, Chicago/Turabian, etc. In his opinion citation formats are nearly indistinguishable and relatively simplistic:

Why, then, could we not simply ask students to include a list of references with the essential information? Why couldn’t we wait to infect them with citation fever until they are ready to publish (and then hand them the appropriate style guide, which is typically no more difficult to follow than instructions for programming your DVR)?

In Mr. Schick’s opinion, citation format is unimportant until publication. I have heard this same argument used in the genealogy field on numerous occasions. (Of course, Mr. Schick refers mostly to published sources, whereas we genealogists should be using mostly original record sources.)

Instead of teaching citations, universities and colleges should instead “reinvest time wasted on formatting to teach more-important skills like selecting credible sources, recognizing bias or faulty arguments, paraphrasing and summarizing effectively, and attributing sourced information persuasively and responsibly.” These are all very important skills, I agree. However, in genealogy, why separate the two processes?

To me an accurate source citation is more than just how we know “where we got the information.” It’s more than how a reader can reproduce your research or assess the quality of your sources.

The internal process of a researcher creating an accurate source citation develops certain necessary evalution skills. In order to fully cite a record source–whether a published item, a government record, or an unpublished manuscript–you must understand certain things about the record. Who created it? When and where was it created? Where is it currently stored? How does this record fit into the larger collection of records of which it is a part?

These questions are among the five things you have to know about every record. In other words, taking the time to create a full and accurate citation itself inspires a deeper understanding of that source. I believe that this th reasons that the Genealogical Proof Standard contains the condition about citing your sources separate from the other four conditions, stated after searching for relevant sources and before analysing and correlating the information. Creating the citation allows the researcher to evaluate the source itself, rather than solely focusing on the information that source contains.

This explains my seeming obsession with citations.


[1] Kurt Schick, “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!,” in Commentary, Chronicle of Higher Education, posted 30 October 2011 ( : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

For another response, see also Carol Fisher Saller, “‘Citation Obsession’? Dream On,” in Lingua Franca blog, posted 3 September 2011 ( : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

Does a “reasonably exhaustive search” include online family trees?

There is a lot of junk on the Internet.

More experienced genealogists, both professionals and hobbyists, know this. We repeat it in our blogs, in our research plans, in our conversations with other genealogists. We stay away from the Public Family Trees on and FamilySearch‘s International Genealogical Index. After all, these all just have junk put online by those “shaky leaf” clickers, right?

One should by no means trust an online family tree.

But neither should one trust a death certificate or a 19th-century county history or a federal census record or an obituary.

Just because it’s online does not make it more or less garbage than any other source. You still should evaluate the information the same way you would in any other record. Identify the informant. Determine their involvement in the reported event or the source of their information (if secondary).

Two cases are perfect examples of this philosophy:

Almost fifteen years ago, when “Internet genealogy” barely had an existence, I came across a family tree that contained my then-earliest known ancestor in my male line: Myron Grant Hait, my great-great-grandfather. I contacted the owner, who turned out to be my grandfather’s first cousin. My great-grandfather, who lived in New York, was one of six brothers, all of whom lived in different and distant states: California, Montana, North Carolina, Louisiana, etc. In those pre-Facebook days, distant relatives did not always maintain close contact. When my grandfather moved to Washington, D. C., to work for the federal government, he had even less contact with the extended family. He knew his uncles, but did not know any of his cousins.

This cousin, Linda, just so happened to have quite a number of family records in her possession, including letters to and from my great-grandparents from back in the 1970s when she started researching, and a family history written by my great-great-grandmother in the 1930s. She also put me in touch with another cousin who had in her possession a copy of a family bible, several old family photos, and a collection of Civil War letters!

Of course not all of her research was completely accurate, but much of it was, and of course the original records in the possession of these long-lost (to me) branches of the family were indispensible. Had I ignored this online family tree, I would have never obtained many of these records.

The second case involves a family that I was working on for a client. While searching for records on Ancestry, I discovered a public family tree. Though not a single offline source was cited, the information was extremely specific. I jotted down a few notes from the tree for confirmation, but then went on along my merry research way.

The next day at the Maryland State Archives I happened to run into a friend of mine: also a professional genealogist, member of my APG chapter, and a fellow Certified Genealogist. I knew that she did a lot of research in this particular county, so I asked her if she was familiar with the families I was researching. To make a long story short, the owner of the Ancestry public family tree was her client, who had uploaded the results of her research to the site without any source citations. In other words, though it looked like “junk” because it did not have any sources cited for any of the information, the tree actually reflected the work of a Certified professional genealogist. As I continued to research the family, I was able to confirm all of the information that was in the public tree.

As the first example shows, online family trees are often a great way to identify other descendants of the families you are researching. Some of these distant cousins may have family records passed down in their lines that you do not have access to: items like family bibles, old family photos, etc.

The first condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all records relevant to our research problem. If you have ignored the search for family records in other lines, have you met this requirement?

The limits of online genealogy research

Rarely do I mention my other columns (though the RSS feeds show up over on the right) on But I wanted to point readers to a series of posts that I wrapped up today.

Since February 2010 I have been working on an online case study concerning the family history of a former slave named Jefferson Clark. I call this an online case study because I specifically chose to use only records available online. My subject was chosen at random from African American families living in Texas in 1870.

I would like to invite you all to read this case study. The techniques that I use throughout the series of posts demonstrate the importance of skillful analysis and correlation of information in your research. When access to records is limited, it is vital to utilize indirect evidence to form conclusions.

Because the subject was chosen at random, the case study also demonstrates how a professional genealogist operates. In beginning this research, I had no family records that had been passed down, no older relatives to interview, and no previous research to consult. I truly had to start from scratch. Many of my client projects begin the same way. In a project I worked on last week, the only information I was provided was a newspaper marriage announcement for the client’s grandparents.

The first post in this series–“The Jefferson Clark family of Leon County, Texas: an online case study (part one)“–appeared on 21 February 2010. Because this was not a client project, and was being conducted strictly for use in my “National African American Genealogy” column, I had to fit research in when I had time.

Today’s article, the final word on this online case study, is entitled “The strengths and limits of online genealogy research.” I may continue this case study, in a more limited capacity, using records not available online.

You can find links to all of the articles in this series under the “Case Studies” section of my webpage. Unfortunately I was unable to edit some of the earlier articles to include links to the later ones, due to a change in Examiner‘s article publishing platform. However, from the “Case Studies” page of my website, you can easily open each article in a new browser tab.

Let me know what you think, either here or on the Examiner pages.

Survey for upcoming genealogy webinars

Many of you may recall my offering several genealogy webinars this past spring and summer. I am currently in the planning stages of a new round of webinar offerings sometime this winter or next spring.

I would like to enlist your help during the planning stages, so that I can best serve your educational needs.

Please take 2 minutes to answer the following anonymous survey. The survey contains only 6 short multiple-choice questions.

To take the survey, go to

Thanks so much for your input!


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