historical and genealogical skills

8 essential genealogical skills to know when finding and analyzing records.

Being a history researcher comes with the need to learn and use important skills of how to research and analyze records, find the key information, follow clues,  and develop a plan that will take you to all available information.  Every time I conduct research in a new location, I feel like I have to learn/relearn how to conduct historical research.  Why? I need to learn where the records are kept, what is available, develop a plan of how to research this location and so much more.  In this article, I want to share these 8 skills that you will use over and over in history and genealogy research that I use over and over again to continually have research success.

8 Important Historical and Genealogical Skills
Table of Contents


Learn About and Use the Genealogical Proof Standard

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a principle associated with information found indirect evidence and cases built upon multiple pieces of diverse or contradictory evidence. Following this standard will substantially reduce costly mistakes of connecting family and generations. To comply with the Genealogical Proof standard, your research must include the following features:

Reasonably exhaustive research. Identify and use all relevant sources, including finding aids. The keyword here is “all.” It requires you to search beyond what is conveniently at hand or published online, and it is more than finding just three pieces of evidence that “say the same thing.” Without searching all documents, you will miss critical clues and opportunities for verification.

Complete and accurate source identification. Record all details necessary to relocate the source. Abstract analytical and descriptive details are necessary to evaluate the reliability of the information you’ve taken from the source.

Skilled analysis and correlation of data. Start by learning about the nature of the record and the conditions under which it was created. Make sure you understand the language of the record based on the meaning from the period. Learn about the relevant laws of the place and time and the cultural context of the community. Compare and contrast minute details to establish the meaning of the entire document and the information contained. Then select which facts you will consider as evidence.

Resolution of any conflicts in the evidence. Don’t overlook any evidence that contradicts what you feel is the appropriate conclusion. Take all the time necessary to sort out this issue. I spent several years researching the wrong line because I jumped to a conclusion without taking the conflicting evidence seriously.

A soundly reasoned conclusion or “proof argument.” This is a formal statement of evidence you have gathered to prove a point. Statements are written for both corresponding direct evidence and complex or contradictory evidence. A proof argument for corresponding direct evidence includes citations to multiple sources that are independently created and a proof summary that identifies a source or sources of direct evidence and discusses the factors that support its credibility. A proof argument for complex or contradictory evidence provides a thorough discussion of the problem (such as the available resources, the methodology used, the evidence found, any contradictions, and how those contradictions are resolved) and a concise, clearly expressed, convincing conclusion. This includes the reasoning that supports the conclusion and thorough citations for every piece of evidence.


Consistently Conduct Evidence Analysis

Always be asking, “Does my research provide the evidence to prove the relationship from one generation to the next?” Analyze your sources. It would help if you determined how much weight or validity each source gives.

I have found that history and genealogy research involves more than just examining records. It involves understanding the difference between primary and secondary information, original and derivative sources, and direct and indirect evidence. I learned about and used the Genealogical Proof Standard to measure the credibility of genealogical statements. I’ve learned to do the following in my research:

Carefully consider the source

Sources are anything or anybody that provides data, and sources vary in reliability. Sources are most reliable, but derivative sources can also contain helpful and accurate information. A source is still in its initial forms, such as a birth, marriage, or death certificate. A derivative source has been modified from an earlier form, such as someone who transcribed the information from the original record. More reliable sources are generally given more weight; thus, sources usually carry more weight than derivative sources. But be careful and make sure to double-check the information provided from any source since even reliable sources can provide erroneous information.

Always ask, “Who provided the information?”

Information is the data provided by sources. The reliability of information depends on the credibility of the person who provided it. Primary information—which comes from someone with firsthand knowledge—is generally more reliable than secondary information—someone who learned it from somewhere or someone else. Primary information usually carries more weight than secondary information. An informant’s credibility depends on how the information was obtained, how soon after the event the details were recorded, and circumstances such as age, illness, or bias.

Turn information into evidence

Sources are carefully analyzed to extract relevant information. Relevant information from different sources is compared to establish similarities and inconsistencies. Data analysis and correlation turn relevant information into evidence. Evidence may be direct or indirect. Direct evidence provides an answer to a research question on its own. Indirect evidence doesn’t provide an answer, but it can help establish a solution when combined with other evidence.

Prove your conclusions. Information obtained from sources is analyzed and correlated with developing a body of evidence for the given genealogical problem. “Proof” consists of a well-reasoned conclusion based on the sum of the evidence. Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) requires that five criteria be met before a genealogical statement is considered credible:

  • Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is pertinent.
  • Include an accurate source citation for each item of information.
  • Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality.
  • Resolve any conflicts of evidence that contradict each other.
  • Write a soundly reasoned, coherent conclusion.

All proven genealogical conclusions are subject to re-evaluation if new evidence is discovered or if an error in reasoning can be demonstrated.

Create proof summaries of your research

As a genealogist, I don’t know any document that says John Jones or James Schreiber from Vermont could  be my ancestor. It has taken a combination of clues and other documents to lead to those conclusions. After I conducted my research on a particular family line, it’s not uncommon for me to have to take a week and sometimes months before I can resume my research. It’s easy to forget the steps taken and the current conclusions, thus making it necessary to start again. While all of the facts are fresh, write down the theory in a proof summary that states what you have researched and why you have drawn the conclusions about your family. In the future, you may find new supporting or conflicting information that will alter the theory, but you have a proof summary to review and make necessary adjustments.


History & Genealogy 80/20 principle

The most important task is not necessarily the most urgent or most straightforward; it’s the most critical task. For example, I may have as one of my tasks that I want to go to a regional library to conduct research. While going to the library is essential, calling the library and finding out information such as hours of operation, and collections to search. Names of staff that can help me with my specific research are my priority over going to the library.

I applied the 80/20 principle, which tells us that 80 percent of our results will come from 20 percent of our inputs. By picking the most important task to work on, we ensure that it falls within the critical 20 percent. Also, by focusing 100 percent of our energies on this item, we’ll accomplish it much faster than we would have if we’d allowed ourselves to be distracted by interruptions—or worse, tried to multi-task and complete two or three items at once. It’s incredible how fast you can get something done if that’s all you work on. Items that used to sit on my to-do list for weeks, even months, began to disappear. I saved myself twenty hours of work for every hour I put into preparation and planning and found my ancestors three times faster.


Obtain and Search the Record

As historians and genealogists, we are continually searching for the records our ancestors left behind such as on FamilySearch.org. They come in all forms, such as vital records (like birth, marriage and death certificates), census, land, military, etc. Often, however, we only look for the name of an ancestor, dates and places.

Do you know that for every record you find, an additional search can give many clues that will lead to more documents, resources and family members than what you are searching the document for?

The key to gaining the most from your research is learning about the records you are searching for and understanding how you can use them. The more you know about the record type you are researching, the more successful you will find and use the information to extend your research success.

From my experience, once I have chosen the source I will search, I try to learn about the source and how to use the information I might find. For example, if I were going to be searching the 1880 United States Federal Census, I would search for a study guide to teach me how to research and use the information in the record. If my source were a person, I would contact them, make a list of questions, and conduct and record my interview. I would make sure that I record or make a copy of the information I have found. This provides the information necessary for citing and analyzing what is found from the source.

When researching a record or source, some of the common issues you will face include:

  • Name changes: It was common for immigrants to change or shorten their names after arriving in a new country. You may need to check for various possibilities.
  • Spelling variations: Many ancestor names have variant spellings. Many recorders spelled names according to sound. A person may also be listed under a nickname or abbreviation.
  • Handwriting: Most original documents you will search are handwritten. If you cannot read a letter, look at other names in the record to see how the writer made certain letters. Some handbooks illustrate the ways letters were written in earlier times.
  • Dates: You may want to check a range of dates for an event, and it may be recorded on a different date than you expect.

Being aware of these issues and how to use a source in its entirety will help you get the most out of your genealogical research.


What Records Can You Expect to Find

The following is an overview of the type of resources that I have found constantly valuable in my genealogy research and hundreds of other resources I have learned to research and use. When I mastered researching these resources, I could quickly expand my research to other records to help me connect the pieces of my genealogy puzzle.

In my profile of each resource, I have included what you will find, how to use the resource, and research insights for each resource. I would encourage you to use this section as a starting point from which you can search out and find other genealogical tutorials, guides and helps to provide deeper insights.

While the resources discussed will be most relevant to United States research, be aware that resources will vary in information and availability based on the time and place in which the resource was created. Resources can be found in various locations, such as online, in libraries and archives, and from societies, museums, and courthouses. Keep in mind that each repository acquires and manages artifacts specific to the community, county, region, and state they serve. While some items may be duplicated across collections, many are unique and can only be found in specific locations. It then becomes essential that you gain a comprehensive understanding of all the available resources collectively. Many state organizations provide reference guides, brochures, or leaflets (in print and online) that discuss specific aspects of their collections and how to use them or conduct research in a particular state, region, or locale. Look for guides such as the following:

  • A Guide to Genealogical Research at the (State) Historical Society
  • Population Census Records at the (State) Historical Society
  • Index to Naturalizations in (State)
  • List of Basic Sources on (State) History


Use Multiple Sources to Correlate Information

Never take anything at face value. Finding your ancestor’s name does not guarantee to find the correct ancestor. Remember that nothing is genuinely fact until you can back it up using more than one resource. When searching multiple sources, I have found the records I need in the exact location or area in which my ancestor lived. Always ask yourself, what records were created in this location when my ancestor lived here?

Learn what resources contain the needed data to further your research (or to document data) and where they are available such as in societies (genealogy and historical) and libraries (public, college, private, and governmental). Census, birth, marriage, divorce, death, probate, land, school, military, fraternal, and obituaries are all records that can contain similar data—names, dates, places, family structure, and names of family members. Some might be easily found and available, and others might require travel costs or other fees. Start with the closest and most economically available records.

Searching multiple resources often reveals family relationships and personal information that, when viewed collectively, provide a complete picture of the family and its members. For example, when I go to cemeteries, I always take a camera and a tape or digital recorder. I have often found places where there are graves of children who may have only lived a few days or months and were never listed in census records, or perhaps other family members did not know of or forgot about. Sometimes the child will be buried by parents but not listed in family records, and visiting the cemeteries is the only way you would know of their existence.


Every Record Has Value

Once you have had a chance to discover and organize records you have found at home, you are now ready to expand your search. Be prepared to conduct an exhaustive search and look for reliable sources. Make it a practice to track each key piece of information back to its source. Be prepared to search photocopied documents, digital images, and handwritten. Documents will be complete or partial transcripts, condensed abstracts, or partial abstracts.

Events create records. The most important concept I learned about searching for records is to think of events, not records. Rather than searching only for birth or death certificates, ask yourself what other types of records the event would generate in the period the event took place.

For example, in the case of my birth, there was an announcement in the paper, a baby shower, a baby book, a birth certificate, a record of my Church blessing, hospital records, and, later, a one-year-old picture in the local paper.

In the case of my mother’s death, there were cemetery and sexton records, a funeral book, funeral home records, hospital records, memorial cards, an obituary, a video of the funeral services, and her will.

The following important concept I learned was to search the records of siblings. Think about the families. When I have not been able to find any information in my family’s vital (birth, marriage, divorce, death) records, I have usually been able to find the information clues needed in the vital records of the siblings of the ancestor am researching.


Use and Record What You Learn

When doing family history research, a vital part of the process is evaluating the results of your inquiry and sharing your information with others.

I ask myself the question, “What do I see?” Sometimes what I find is only a clue; other times, it’s a gold mine. I record what I learn in my research log. Based on the information I’ve gathered, I decide where I want to go and start with step one again.

As you evaluate your information, consider the following questions:

  • Did I find the information I was looking for?
  • Is the information complete?
  • Does the information conflict with other information I have?
  • Is the source of information credible?

Transfer any new information you find to your pedigree charts and group records. It’s essential to include the source, which is valuable in helping you resolve problems with conflicting information. For example, if you have a birth record that provides a birth date, but an obituary gives another birth date for the same person, you will want to determine which date is the most reliable by reviewing your sources; the most reliable source is usually the source made closest to the time of the event.

Next, organize your records for easy access.

Several computer programs can help you organize your records on your home computer. If you are starting, consider the following tips:

  • Keep pedigree charts numbered and arranged numerically.
  • Keep family group records in alphabetical order by the husband’s name.
  • Keep notes, research logs and copies of documents behind the related family group record.


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