Why and How to Build a Research Framework

You can avoid a lot of frustration with your genealogy research if you approach it with a framework in mind. Here's how you can build your own research framework.


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 21

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 20 minutes.

What Is a Genealogy Research Framework?

A framework is a a general plan, a method of approaching your research. It's a way of ensuring that you're covering the basics and not missing something obvious. 

A framework is something that you can duplicate no matter where your research takes you or who you are researching.

A Framework vs. a Checklist

In a way, a framework is like a checklist, in that it's a list that you can follow. Where they are different, though some may argue with this, is that often a checklist is seen as the end. "75 Records To Find About Your Ancestor" sounds like once you've found all 75, you're done. What happens when the answer you want is in record type #76?

A framework isn't the end of your research; it's the beginning. Much like framing your house isn't the end of building your house; it's the beginning. 

The beauty of a framework is that not only does it help ensure that you're taking care of the foundational research, it also helps spark ideas for new types of records to look at and new places to look. 

3 Ways to Build a Genealogy Research Framework

There are many ways you can build a framework, but here are 3 that I have found useful over the years. The cool thing is that you can combine them as you need to.

Consider aspects of the ancestor's life. Beyond the his or her name, have you considered things like occupation, ethnicity, religion, and military status? All of the facets of someone's identity can lead us to search for more records. (You can learn more about identity-building in the podcast episode, "Can You Identify Your Ancestor?")

Think About Record Types. Certainly there is no way to list every single source that you might want to use. However, you can develop a list of records that you want to make sure that you look for. These would include sources that you have at home (like letters and photos), vital records, and census records. Then moving on to more in-depth records like land, tax, probate, court, and military records. 

Places to Look. This is my favorite framework, as it is easy to implement and it generate so many more records to look at, including types that you might not have been aware of. 

A Framework of Places to Look

Besides your favorite websites like Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, etc., it's good to have other sites in your framework. Here are the type of websites that I look for, no matter where my research takes me (especially in the U.S.)

Reminder #1: This isn't to say that everything you need is online. (I know you know that, but if I don't say it, someone will make the comment, and then I'll have to answer, and it's easier to just say it here. Thanks for listening.) 

Reminder #2: This isn't to say that these are the only websites you should look at. But you already knew that from what I said before about what a framework is.

The Local Public Library. You never know what you're going to find at the public library where your ancestor lived even if you never actually go there. More and more public libraries of all sizes are adding materials that are of interest to us as family historians. Just one of many examples that I've found is the Boyd County (Kentucky) Public Library. On their website, they have obituaries, cemetery records, marriage records, and a really cool local historic photograph collection.

It's always worth looking at a library's catalog. Even if you aren't planning on going there in person, you never know what you're going to stumble across in the catalog. So if you find something of interest, maybe you do plan a trip to the library or contact the library to see if you can get photocopies or see if you can get materials on interlibrary loan. Maybe you contact a researcher to go look at that material. 

The County Genealogy Society. Most counties in the U.S. have some kind of genealogy. I cannot stress enough the importance of these societies in your research. Their materials are often a mix of members-only materials and material that is available to the public. One such society is the Iroquois County (Illinois) Genealogy Society, which has a ton of materials on their website, including a collection of family Bibles. 

Local and County Historical Societies. Please don't fall into the trap of thinking that your ancestor's hometown was too small for a historical society. You would be surprised the size of the towns that have their own historical societies. Also think about countywide historical societies. The Clinton County (Michigan) Historical Society has all kinds of materials on their website, including yearbooks, vital records, and county home records.

State Genealogical Societies. There are some very, very active state genealogy societies in the United States. For example, the Indiana Genealogical Society has more than 2,200 databases on its website. Some of these databases are restricted to members of the Society, but many are open for everyone to use.

The State Historical Society and the State Archives. I put these together because in some states the state historical society acts as the state archive. In these organizations, you'll find more original records and manuscript materials. State historical societies collect materials that are relevant to the state; these could be from individuals, organizations, businesses, churches, etc.

State Archives are responsible for preserving the permanent records of state government, so they're going to have original records of state government, such as records of the state adjutant general, state prisons, and the state hospitals. Often you'll have to use those records in person, but more and more of them are digitizing records and making them available online. A great example of this is the Wisconsin Historical Society. They have so many great records on their site that I wish I had Wisconsin ancestors so I could use it more often!

The State Library. State libraries often focus on the published materials, so things like annual reports and other published materials that come from state government. If you have ancestors in Virginia, you definitely need to check out the website of the Library of Virginia and when you do, don't say that I didn't warn you, because that website is massive. (And I'm thankful I have ancestors from Virginia!)


Frameworks help you ensure that you're building a good foundation for your research and helps you generate more ideas of places to look and things to look for. If you're using a framework of places to look, explore their websites even if you aren't planning to go in person. You never know what you're going to find on their website. Besides their online databases, take some time and explore their catalog because even if you aren't planning a trip there in person, you might be able to order copies or find someone to go research those materials for you. 

Posted: February 20, 2019.

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  • Thanks, Amy. Good info as always. I do have lots of WI ancestors and use the WI Historical Society archives a lot. I’m envious of other states that share death records on line with complete info so I don’t have to pay $15 and wait 2 weeks for a record that may or may not have any useful information! But I will appreciate it more now that you’ve mentioned it.

  • Amy, as always, your blog generates new leads for me to follow. I have found joining Facebook genealogy groups helpful. I follow one for my county, one for my state, one for the large city nearby, one for Acadian ancestry, and I just joined one for Irish DNA. Members post new sources coming online, workshops and are willing to help others. Thank you!

  • Amy, Very interesting info. I Volunteer at Randolph County Genealogy Society @ Steeleville, Illinois .we are small but have a lot of records. Glad I found you site. Thanks again.

  • Excellent reminders, Amy. I have become so dependent on the “big” research sites that I had forgotten about local town and county resources. In the ’70s I made many trips to county courthouses and found primary sources that aren’t online even now. Again, thanks!

  • Thanks for the reminders Amy. I too am guilty of tunnel vision in my research when it comes to websites. Good timing because I’m a bit “stuck” right now as to which ancestor I need to work on. Why? Because I spin my wheels every week trying to break down two HUGE brick walls. They’ve driven me nuts for over 16 yrs. I’ve even hired professionals and still …. nothing. DNA has not yet helped, but I’m hopeful.
    Maybe setting up a framework will not only help my overall research but give new life to these 2 frustrating cases.

  • Amy, thanks so much for sharing. I would offer two additional places to search in Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma has a huge library with all kinds of historical information including information about the Native American tribes that were removed to the Indian Territory before we became a state. And, the Oklahoma State University also holds many historical collections.

  • There are also group organizations – I have gotten so much information from the “American Historical Society of Germans From Russia” especially historical information from what used to be the Soviet Union. Thanks for the other tips – I do get tunnel vision once in awhile!

  • Thank you, Amy, what valuable information! I am preparing a presentation based on 210 letters written between 1882-1887 by my great aunt and her husband. I would like to provide additional information about them and will use the framework method to obtain more information.

  • Amy,
    A great start for researchers. I’d suggest you add to the framework ethnic and religious genealogy groups. There are lots of Jewish Gen societies, Italian gen societies, etc.
    Also, ethnic and religious historical societies – for the same reasons.

  • This is an excellent guide for building a framework for genealogy. Another part of your framework might be a writing aid such as ZOTERO which is a free download for researching.

  • Thanks, Amy. Good information as always! I’m visiting the Colorado State Archives on Monday. Will check out all these other ideas too!

  • I like the idea of the framework rather than the checklist. I’ve given up too early several times in the past because “the birth certificate/marriage record/obituary” wasn’t there, only to find a newspaper article, or a lodge notice, or a school program that provides a clue to that very thing. That is one of the things about Rootsfinder that I like. It does find hints from more than just the usual databases and typical records.

  • Hi Amy, I just came across your blog, and am looking forward to reading/listening. On a whim, one cold weekend last month I picked up a carefully typed 1903 report from an ancestor, passed down through my grandmother. I had only casually looked at it before.
    I thought I would honor this unknown relative’s hard work and see how many more dots I could connect. His report documented family back to early Colonial 1600’s. Given these early settlers well documented names, other (unknown) relatives have done research before me.
    Thankfully I had the insight to make a framework for what I was discovering on my iPad. I gave specific symbols to different family lines, so i could easily read it over later and not get confused.
    I followed whichever lines I could
    ( male & female) in an unbroken line and managed to go back to 1000 c. It was 2am and I sat completely dizzy with astonishment at the historical journey I had just discovered I was connected to.
    I never knew the relative who typed the original report I inherited, but I feel so greatful he took the time and had the heart to do it. He was 70 when he did it, which would have put him as a young man during the Civil War.
    Am looking forward to the tips on this blog to finding more specifics.

  • This is fantastic! I wish though that a visual could be given of the framework. (You could say that I’m a visual learner with this type of thing?)
    I also have quite a number of ancestors from Wisconsin, and my biggest issue is figuring out how to navigate the Historical Society website! I also wish that the Dakota’s had something like this available. South Dakota especially. I was told that a few collateral gggg uncles were instrumental in the founding of Pierre, SD.

  • I use the census records to build a research framework. I use them to try and build what looks like a family group might be and then use the data in them to search for vital records.