When you have a question in your genealogy, it’s natural to want to go find more records. But going to your favorite website or the nearest library right away isn’t the best approach. Indeed, the answer might be in records you’ve already found. Here’s how to analyze your genealogy research (and why you need to).
Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 47
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: 11 minutes.
Genealogy is filled with questions. (In fact, asking a question is the first step in the genealogy research process.) When we have a question, our natural instinct is to go looking for more records. After all, if we already had the answer, we wouldn’t still be asking the question… right?
Why You Need to Analyze What You Already Have
There’s a reason that “Analyze What You Already Have” is the second step in the WANDER method. It can set us up for more discoveries and save some frustration.
I’m fond of the saying that you can’t step into the same stream twice. Things in the stream are always changing, whether it’s the rocks and sand moving around, fish swimming by, or leaves floating along. Our genealogy research is much the same way. Stepping into the research that you’ve already done is going to be different than when you first gathered it.
Maybe you didn’t have your current question when you retrieved your ancestor’s will or his Civil War pension file. Since you didn’t have that specific question in mind, the answer might have flown under your radar. (We do tend to focus on what it is we’re looking for!)
Experience plays a part in this as well. When you got your ancestors’ civil marriage record, did you know how to pull all of the clues out of it? When you found your ancestor’s will, did you really understand it and how it fits into the rest of the probate process? But now that you’ve gained some experience, those records make more sense to you and you can pull out more information than you could when you first found them.
There are three ways to analyze the genealogy research you’ve already done.
Rereading the Records That You’ve Found
This is usually what comes to mind when we think about analyzing our research. As I mentioned, it’s possible that you missed something when you first found that record. Did you notice (and understand) the fraternal society symbol on his tombstone? Did you catch the reference to her brother in her obituary?
But analyzing doesn’t stop with just re-reading the records in our files.
Let’s say that your research question revolves around finding a birth record for your ancestor Mary Smith (with Smith being her maiden name). You have a good idea of where and when she was born, and you’re lucky that they were keeping civil birth records in that place at that time. This should be pretty straightforward… but you just can’t find it.
What if the problem isn’t that you’re looking in the wrong place or in the wrong year, but you’re actually looking for the wrong name?
Here’s where analyzing your genealogy research comes in. What sources are you using that have identified her as Mary Smith? Have you only seen that in someone’s family tree and you copied that information? What if that tree was wrong? What if you’ve seen her maiden name as Mary Smith only from the death certificate of one of her children? Did the informant on that death certificate know her maiden name? Maybe. Maybe not.
As you’re analyzing what it is you already have, you might discover that what you thought you knew has some gaps in it.
When we identify those gaps, we might realize that we’re actually asking the wrong question. Rather than “where is Mary Smith’s birth record,” we might need to be asking, “What was Mary’s maiden name?”
Is There a Better Source?
No matter where you are in the research process, always ask yourself if you could be using a better source.
In my office is a set of books from the Ohio Genealogical Society titled Ohio Marriages Recorded in County Courts. It’s a great set and I have found so many of my ancestors in there. But if I rely solely on the references in those volumes, I’m missing out. Those books, as wonderful as they are, are just an index to the marriage records. The actual marriage records likely contain more information (and there’s always the possibility that something was indexed incorrectly). I can improve my research by taking the next step and finding the marriage record itself.
As you’re analyzing what you’ve found, are there instances where you stopped too soon? Did you only read the index of a record on Ancestry or FamilySearch or did you click through and look at the record itself? Did you use an abstract of an ancestor’s will that you found in a book or did you take the next step and get a copy of the will?
It’s natural to want to go hunting for more and more records to answer our family history questions. However, it turns out that we often have the answers waiting for us in the things we’ve already found.
I have so often found more information in things I already had. Like you say, at the time I didn’t comprehend everything I found, overlooked other information or just plain forgot I had that information already waiting to find “something better”.
Wish you and the internet had been around 30 years ago when I started collecting information on my dad’s family “just for fun” because I did not know much about his family. 20 years later I had boxes of information but had not always asked the right questions or documented source. Trying to retrace was pure hell!