The art of method

Bringing a little more method into your research helps with many common research problems.

Firstly, any research should have a clear aim.  The best researcher does not jump around among websites trying a bit of this and a bit of that to see what turns up, and switching families when nothing does, but instead starts out with a plan. 

Choose one person at a time, or perhaps a family group such as siblings.  Then, focus on them to the exclusion of all else.   You may have specific events you wish to find, for example a baptism or a burial.  It is handy to keep a pen and notepad by the computer as you research.  At the top of the sheet write down what you are looking for.  You might add in a quick line drawn tree to remind yourself of the family and add relevant dates.  You could print out a family group sheet from your family tree software if you prefer. Make a note of places that are connected to the family if you know them.  This will help to keep you focused.  To get to the information you seek, you may find yourself taken in another direction as you perhaps switch to a sibling, or decide to search a different date range, but you must avoid giving up before properly completing the task or getting distracted onto a totally different family.

Secondly, always work from what is known, not from any theory or assumption.  Gather together the documentary evidence you have for your person or family group.  What do you know for certain?  Disregard any evidence that is from an index, or where you have not looked at the original document images (not transcripts).  This is your starting point.  Your aim is always to add in further documentary evidence and to build a solid set of evidence for each person in the family.  Always check the original images when you have the option online.  They may provide you with information that the index or transcribed ‘record’ does not. 

Thirdly, always record your results and where you found the information.  You will probably want to try a combination of websites if you are not quickly finding what you want.  Make sure you document which sites you searched and what came from which site.  Record your negative results as well.  It is very useful to know where events are not, as well as where they are!  Yes, this slows you down, but it is worth the extra effort. 

If you wish, enter results you are certain about direct into your family tree software, but I find it useful to collate the information I find as I go along using pen and notepad as well, and to only add them into a family tree program later.  This gives me time to think and makes me concentrate on the task at hand.  If you use a family tree program like Legacy, then you can enter the supporting evidence for events.  When you do find the correct baptism, you can record where you found it, what it said, and even grade it according to the strength of the evidence.  When you come to print information out, then your references can be printed out as well.  

Finally, do not enter information into your tree if you are unsure of it, particularly if you don’t also document your uncertainty. 

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