Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksThe Research Process

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

While a number of genealogy beginners may already comprehend the research process, to someone who has no research background at all, the genealogy process of research can be a very difficult skill to understand and apply. Even skilled researchers will struggle at the beginning with the more complex aspects of the genealogy process.

In genealogy there is a generally recognized standard research method, and its application to the search and use of particular source materials. The steps may vary according to unique circumstances and availability of sources, or the steps may not be followed in sequence, but each step must be followed. The main thing is to stay focused and stay on task . . . and to be very, very thorough.

The following is the generally accepted outline of the genealogical research principles and process:

Select and Define a Research Goal: go from what is known to the unknown. Begin simple. Decide on one specific piece of information to search for; birth, death, marriage information, etc. Pick one individual, in one family, in one locality. Search for a name, or date, a locality, a relationship, an event.

Select a Source to Search: decide which record or records is most likely to answer the question. Learn about the general background of record types, and the locality history and types of records created that have the most genealogical value. What exists for the necessary time-period that has the information you seek.

Locate the Record: determine the existence, location, availability and accessibility of the desired and most relevant source material, and the medium format that exists for it. You will have to understand geography, jurisdictions and the relative history, both civil and religious, to determine what records were created. Determine where the record may be currently housed: library, archive, records office, home, etc.

Search the Records: once a record, or records, is determined and located, it is time to search thoroughly through the source material. Is the relative information there? Make note of information on extended family. Note errors and readability issues. Make a record of no findings, particularly noting lacking information that theoretically should have been found.

Make good Notes / Record the Information: cite your sources. Make good photocopies, and extract most relevant information. Create and proofread abstracts and transcriptions. Be consistent in size of paper or format of electronic document. Make full and complete citations of all your findings. Be organized.

Evaluate / Analyze the Information: study the record(s) in detail. This can be the most critical part of the research process. Question your findings? What is the type of information? Is it thorough and complete? Is it logical? Do elements of the information match what is already proven? Does it fit correctly in the biographical and/or family story? Do the facts connect? What is the quality of the record? primary vs. secondary. Is it verifiable? Is it direct? Is it circumstantial?

Use the Results: fill the information gap; add the information to the biography or family history. Develop a chronology. Analyze the complete picture and determine the next direction for research. With new information comes clues for new families and new directions to research. Also, in light of new information, be prepared to go back through previous research to search for new information not previously noted as relevant. Then, with this new information, Select and Define a New Research Goal(s).

At first, understanding this research process can be overwhelming, and putting it to practice even more so. However, as you progress in your research, your ability and your confidence will improve. Soon you will get comfortable in your “Sherlock Holmes” ability of ‘deductive’, and/or even ‘inductive’ reasoning; foreseeing the next steps in the research, and evaluating and analyzing the quality of the information.