2021.06.30 – Learn How to Research


Learn How to Research
By Dale E. Lee


  • Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)
  • Understanding Evidence
  • Analyze
  • Plan
  • Execute
  • Report
  • Finalize


Other lessons in this course talk about many of the different components of doing Family History Research. This chapter specifically addresses what Professional Genealogists do and how they organize themselves to be effective in what they do.

Professional Genealogists are under a different set of constraints than than their clients. They strive to gain expertise in particular areas of research so they help their clients. They either have skills build up over years of experience in doing similar things, or they may spend non-billable hours to get the knowledge base needed to become effective for a particular project.

They have rules and regulations they need to follow in order to show competence in their occupation. And in addition, they may be doing research for multiple clients at the same physical repository so they don’t need to go back multiple times, once for each client. It is important to recognize they may be under constraints you are not be aware of.

Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)

Over time Genealogists have attempted to form a set of standards as a guide when working with clients. One set of standards is the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). It attempts to guide Professionals to obtain correct and verifiable research results that are easily understood and repeatable. The book Professional Genealogy Preparation, Practice & Standards summarizes the principles created by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) as follows:

  • “Reasonably exhaustive research [seeking] all evidence that might answer a question about an identity, relationship, event, or situation
  • Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item contributing … to answers about that identity, relationship, event or situation.
  • Tests … of all sources, information items, and evidence contributing to an answer to a genealogical question
  • Resolution of conflicts among evidence items pertaining to the proposed answer
  • A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion based on the strongest available evidence”

Although at first the BCG principles may seem a little strange to us, remember that they are principles given to Professionals to help them know how to help their clients. So Genealogists need to understand what the client is asking for, how to research it, how to document their findings, how to question what they found, and how to make reasonable conclusions about it. Conclusions can change over the life of the research project as new material comes to light. New findings may reinforce, modify or replace conclusions that were suspected at the beginning of the project. And something that was mentioned indirectly in a document may lead to a whole new line of research.

For those interested in getting more depth in research than we go into in this lesson, you may want to read the section in Professional Genealogy Preparation, Practice & Standards by Elizabeth Shown Mills on Professional Research Skills. And for those that want an even deeper dive into research, you may want to read Methods of Family Research by Theodore N. Greenstein and Shannon N. Davis.

Understanding Evidence

Information is not evidence until evidences, or shows, something else. For example, a birth certificate is a document that evidences a birth. It is not the birth itself, it documents the event. Evidence does not exist in isolation. A birth has other things related to it, such as a Mother and or Father, a witness, an official that records the event, etc. The certificate points to, or evidences, the birth event.

Evidence can be:

  • Direct: the information mentions the item of interest we are searching for. Direct evidence may not necessarily be accurate.
  • Indirect: the evidence does not mention the item of interest, but in combination with additional indirect items, may point to the correct answer.
  • Negative: evidence that is created by its absence where it would normally be expected.

Direct evidence is better than Indirect or Negative evidence, but if direct evidence is lacking the others may be used to build a case for what really happened.

Evidence comes in different forms:

  • Recorded: the information has been recorded.
  • Unrecorded: the information contain unrecorded spoken words, oral stories and testimony.

Until information is recorded, it is subject to change and interpretation. This does not mean that recorded information is correct. Recorded information can be incorrect and unrecorded can be correct. This is why it is important to get as many sources of evidence as possible. Other evidences collected can corroborate or refute prior information.

Evidence may be:

  • Primary: artifacts that have witnesses to the event.
  • Secondary: artifacts which do not have witnesses.

Primary evidence is preferable to secondary evidence. However, sometimes we are unable to obtain Primary evidence. Different types of artifacts have different priorities in their reliability and the information they impart. Always seek the best evidence first within the parameters of the project.

The following are just some of the means we can use to detect indirect evidence based on artifacts collected:

  • Paper aging: is the document really as old as it says it is?
  • Ink used: was this ink used in that time period?
  • Context: does this entry make sense compared with others surrounding it?
  • Trustworthiness: is the originator of the document trustworthy?
  • Derivative: is this an original document or one derived from another document?
  • Handwriting: was the handwriting used in the time period?
  • History: was this kind of document used in the time period?
  • Time lapse: was there a time lapse between the event and its recording?


The next step needed is to understand and analyze the scope of the project the client is proposing. Many misunderstandings may arise due to miscommunications, unrealistic expectations, lack of scope clarity, etc.

The Professional needs to talk with the client and clearly understand the who, what, where and when of the project, but not the why or how. To be successful, the scope needs to be narrowed down to the point where the objectives of the project are small enough to be achievable in an acceptable period of time. The Genealogist is looking for the most important things to accomplish in the time frame allotted. For example, are there sources the client wish to be searched? Has research already been done prior to this project? What images or other artifacts are currently available?

The Professional should indicate their area of expertise, as research beyond that will be more costly in terms of time. The following are some areas the Professional may have build up experience:

  • Ethnicities
  • Periodicals/Newspapers
  • Geographic areas
  • Forensics
  • DNA
  • Physical repositories
  • Internet

If the Genealogists does not understand the objective or does not narrow it down enough, there will be unexpected project overruns.

The analysis of the project should include:

  • Identification of the objective
  • Breakdown of the components
  • Collection of existing artifacts, maps, etc.
  • Creation of a timeline
  • Identification of related people and associates
  • Search for gaps in prior research
  • Search for additional sources
  • Creation of a tentative approach

The following is an example of one of the discovery activities, the creation of a timeline. (Dates are in universal format.)

Timeline for McIlanie, John

1528.01.28Birth, Perth Scotland
1528.01.30Christening, Perth Scotland
1550.07.14Marriage, Belfast Ireland


Once the scope of the project is understood, a Work Plan should be created. The plan should be evaluated for completeness based on the artifacts and information presented by the client and should represent as accurate a roadmap of where to go from this point as possible. It is best to have agreement with the client on what is to be accomplished before starting the project.

Work Plan

  • Repository xxxx
  • Person xxx
  • Objective xxxx
  • Sources x, x, x
  • Results xxx, xxx, xxx

Planning should take into account:

  • Currently missing or misinterpreted documentation
  • Quality of sources to be researched
  • Time constraints
  • Gaps in understanding
  • Avenues of research
  • Assumptions made

The Genealogist can make use of SMART goals during the planning session:

  • Specific: goals should be as specific as possible. Break them down until they are realistic.
  • Measurable: goals should be capable of being measured. If not, you don’t know if they are possible.
  • Achievable: goals should be achievable. If you can’t achieve them, why attempt doing so?
  • Relevant: goals should avoid scope creep. If they are not relevant to the objective, do them in a future project.
  • Time-based: goals should be time constrained. If you can’t do them in a reasonable amount of time, the project may be too expensive to attempt.


During the execution phase, the Genealogist will probably start searching for sources using guides they are aware of. Guides can greatly help speed up the search. We have discussed many different sources of information in other lessons and will not repeat them here, but will give a few sources as examples: survey records, business associations, universities, and periodicals.

The important thing to note is that once the artifacts, copies and or notes have been collected, they need to be evaluated for relevancy, as we talked about in Understanding Evidence. Some records are better than others, but none of them should be taken at face value. Collect as many as possible to provide collaboration between differing sources. Professionals should build their citation list as they go, so they won’t have to go back and revisit artifacts later. And while they are collecting and evaluating each source and citation, they should evaluate their expected conclusion. The conclusion may change, either being proven or disproven by new evidence, up to the end of the project.

Documentation of citations and conclusions is critical and should be done while the project is in flight. This way the Genealogist can remember what the references were and what were thinking at the time of the discovery of the evidence.

One of the tools that is very valuable during the execution phase is a Trip Planner. Whether a Professional Genealogist or not, Trip Planning is critical whenever going to a location away from home. Always have the mindset of being prepared for contingencies, as many times they will occur.

The following is a list of things to prepare for:

Trip Planner:

  • Contact Info
  • Hours of operation
  • Paperwork for access
  • Admission fees
  • Copying fees
  • Toll fees
  • Parking fees
  • Food and lodging
  • Payment method accepted
  • Type of copying allowed, if any
  • Repository’s holdings
  • Access to records allowed, if any
  • Credentials
  • Note taking restrictions
  • Etc.


The Genealogist should have been collecting evidence, making notes and citations up to this point. If done during execution, it will be easier to create the final report. Reports are used to report back to the client on successful research and as a means of stating those items they were unable to complete in the time period and which may turn out to be the starting points of future projects.

The following are helpful when finalizing the report

Project Report

  • Reevaluate all materials collected in the project
  • Reanalyze the relationships and conclusions discovered
  • Look for additional correlations in the evidence
  • Create a summary of findings
  • Document pertinent notes
  • Document items remaining
  • Document citations
  • Add Appendices and crossrefference to notes


After the report has been completed there is still important steps to take:

  • Review the report to be sure it fulfills the client’s objective.
  • Resolve any loose ends.
  • Send the report and communicate with the client to determine satisfaction and future possibilities.
  • File all physical and electronic materials used in the project so they are easily accessed in the future.
  • Continuously improve. Review what went wrong and determine how to fix it. Document resolutions found for use on future projects.
  • Reorganize the materials as needed.

Seekerz LLC, © 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Post

2021.07.07 - Become Certified

Become CertifiedBy Dale E. Lee2021.07.07 Summary: Understanding Certification Credentials Offered Knowledge Required Experience Required Educational Opportunities Employment Opportunities Books Available Detail: Over time fields of specialization tend to build up knowledge and expertise. Genealogy is a field of specialization just like Law, or Accounting or Dentistry. However, Genealogy has not yet achieved the force of law, as other professions have. As this field of knowledge progresses and matures it has and will become more formalized and the need for professionals in this area will increase. Already we are seeing off-shoots, such as forensic genealogy being used to good effect in […]

Subscribe US Now