But what should you look for first? And where should you look?
Slow down there, pop tart! First, you need a research plan.
“Arrrgh, that’s stupid. I just want to find the information, Cynthia!”
Yeah, I know. But there is a method to this madness, and those who thumb their noses at the proper process are essentially throwing efficiency and accuracy to the wind. I should know because I used to be one of the thumbers.
Taking Boston University’s online courses, Genealogical Essentials and Genealogical Research, really made me realize how little I knew about proper research technique and how much time and effort I had wasted over the years. I also came to realize how false presumptions can send research down the wrong path. In the first module about the foundations of genealogical research, the research process was thoroughly explained. This is what I learned:
1. Carefully examine the information you have.
2. Decide what question you are trying to answer.
3. Determine what sources will have the information you seek.
4. Develop a strategy for gathering and reviewing the information.
5. Search for and gather the information.
6. Examine and assess the information.
7. State your conclusion.
Click here for a research planning form, it will help greatly: You enter your "List ‘O Blanks" in the first column on the form and in the second column decide what kind of records will have the information you need. For instance, if you are seeking a birth date, you can combine census records with military records and marriage records to make a pretty close determination. Once you know the records you want to look at, you have to figure out where those records reside.
For example, if you know great-great grandpa was born here in Kentucky, but you don’t know his birth date, you’d want to try to find a birth certificate for him, right? Well, except for the fact that the keeping of civil vital records requirements vary by state. Here in Kentucky, the state wasn’t required to begin keeping the records until 1911. Since great-great grandpa was born before 1900, no birth record, right? Maybe, maybe not. Some counties were keeping birth registers as early as 1850. You just might luck up on great-great grandpa’s birth date. So look for his birth record at the county courthouse where he was born.
I know it seems like a lot and that it seems to be awfully confusing, but just un-torque yourself for a minute and try comparing the research planning form to a shopping list.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I try to shop only once per week. Some weeks I’m lucky and I only need regular groceries. A quick run to Aldi and I’m done!
Some weeks, not so much. Some weeks, I may need special or occasionally purchased items. Local honey—goin’ to Whole Foods; windshield wiper blades—Auto Zone (‘Cause they put them on for you. It’s not that I can’t, I just don’t want to!); organic butter made from the milk of grass fed cows—Trader Joe’s (best price); cat litter and cat fud—the Walmarts (allof’em); organic cold pressed coconut oil—Vitamin Shoppe.
Much like knowing where the special or occasionally purchased items can be found so that I can shop in an efficient manner, you need to know where you can find genealogical records that may contain the information you seek so that you can work efficiently. So fill it out that research planning form because it helps!
The internet is teeming with message boards and free and for-a-fee sites with tons of information. While many records are available online, there are literally millions that are not.
Once you have exhausted the internet with your research plan, it will be time to head to the repositories, keeping in mind that there are issues of records availability due to loss or damage or simply because “they weren’t keepin’ ‘em yet.” Click here for a good article regarding civil vital records requirement dates by state. Educate yourself about a repository and its holdings before you show up. Most have websites so you can know before you go:
♦ Where is it located?
♦ Where is the parking? Is it free?
♦ What are the hours?
♦ What materials are held at the repository?
♦ What are you allowed to bring into the repository?
♦ Are scanners and/or cameras allowed?
♦ Can copies be made? How much do copies cost?
♦ Do you need to call ahead so that the material you wish to peruse can be “brought up?”
ALWAYS be kind and courteous to repository staff. They can be lifesavers when you hit a snag, or they can remember how you stomped in eleven years ago believing you were the center of the universe. If they have been especially helpful, give them a gift card at Christmas.
Libraries, archives, genealogical societies, state historical societies, county courthouses, cemeteries and Family Search Centers are repositories with extensive holdings. Click here for a printable guide to some of the information available at each. Use it to fill out the third column of your research planning form.
Now, grab that research planning form, head out to that repository and have some fun!