Navigating The Research Process

By Drew Smith Premium

Any research study has three basic steps, which go hand-in-hand with formulating your to-do system. Here’s a breakdown:

1. Articulate your questions.

Identify specific questions you want to answer, as this will guide what you’ll be researching. Even a simple project like researching my eight great-grandparents could involve a large number of questions, but I’ll limit myself to some basic ones: When and where was the person born, and where and when did he/she marry and die? What were the names of the person’s parents? Your research questions should reflect your current knowledge about your ancestors and experience (if any) with the project. Asking yourself these questions will help you refine your projects and sub-projects.


2. Identify and investigate sources.

Begin answering your research questions one at a time by pulling together information you already have and identifying genealogical sources likely to hold the answers you need. Use how-to resources such as Family Tree Magazine and the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Seek local genealogy guides that cover the places you’re researching. Make a list of sources to consult for each question, ranked in order from most to least relevant. Add investigating these sources into your project to-do lists.


 As you consult each source on your list, record the information you do and—just as importantly—don’t find. Negative findings tell you something even if they don’t directly answer your research question, and recording them helps keep you from consulting the same resource twice. Use a research log, such as the ones available at Family Tree Shop, to keep track of the sources you consult and your findings in each one.

3. Draw conclusions.

Analyze the information derived from each source to determine whether it provides evidence to address your research question. If so, you’ll use the evidence to decide upon a conclusion that (you hope) both includes an answer to your question and documents the process of selecting, analyzing and evaluating the sources, information and evidence. 

So your conclusion doesn’t just answer your question, but it explains the reasoning behind it and cites the evidence you used. In my Organize Your Genealogy book, I’ll show you several tools you can use to monitor your research sources and the information gathered from each one.

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