Creativity in Genealogical Research

Genealogists’ work is grounded in sources—in records, artifacts, images, traditions, and other items that provide information used as evidence. But sources and the information they provide are only part of any given solution to a problem. Skilled, knowledgeable, determined researchers go beyond the obvious facts found in sources. They capitalize on what the sources say and on what they only suggest, and even on what they do not say. Successful genealogists take time to learn about subjects related to the individuals, time, and place they are researching. And successful genealogists also take time to hone important skills, like observation, interpretation, logic, analysis, and creativity.

Creativity? Yes, that’s right. Research and analysis require a degree of creativity. For example, some researchers may look at an estate inventory and see only a list of possessions; more creative researchers will think about how that list can help them. Do any items on that inventory suggest an occupation, an educational background, an ethnicity, or membership in an organization? Some researchers may come across a family cookbook and marvel at its contents, thinking about the things their ancestors prepared in years gone by, but other researchers will analyze those cookbooks contents for possible clues about the family’s origins—perhaps expanding the inquiry to the study of foodways.[1]

In “Creative Imagination in Research,” originally published in the December 1967 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and republished in the hundredth-anniversary issue, Dorothee Hughes Carousso reveals how imagination comes into play while analyzing evidence as well as while developing research strategies.[2] Whether or not her examples directly relate to one’s own research, her ideas are likely to inspire. When experienced researchers share their viewpoints and methods, they motivate others to conduct research in new ways.

Researchers who use or attempt to use sources without fully understanding them—for example, who created the sources, the reasons for their creation, and who maintained them—may overlook subtle nuances in the records. And when those same sources are examined by a researcher without adequate understanding of the background and context of the record, even more may be overlooked. Genealogists who are aware of things such as related laws, the typical arrangement of information in a record, and the meaning of notations (and lack of notations) will extract more clues and more evidence from sources.

Carousso emphasizes the need for background research. She encourages genealogists to study local history, laws, government, and customs related to the time and place being researched. As she explains, the same record examined by different researchers could yield different pieces of evidence based on the researchers’ knowledge of related subjects. This is especially true in the case of negative evidence—evidence provided by observation of the absence of information where it would have been expected.[3]

Beyond studying background information and fully understanding sources, a key component of success is a researcher’s understanding of methodology—the various procedures researchers can use when working with sources and evidence. Carousso discusses several strategies, including one she calls “grouping,” which is similar to Elizabeth Shown Mills’s “FAN-club” approach.[4] Carousso and Mills emphasize the importance of researching an individual’s network of family members, friends, and neighbors. Expanding research to include the subject’s associates opens doors to additional sources of information. And analyzing an individual’s relationships can reveal patterns and pathways that might otherwise remain hidden.

During research, genealogists identify the people under investigation using indicators such as name, date and place of birth, occupation, and associates. Carousso’s creative description likens each person to a star in a constellation, one star in a set of fixed stars. The constellation represents interconnected people and interconnected facts. The entire constellation must be part of the picture as genealogists plan, execute research, and analyze findings.

Creatively embracing other fields is helpful when conducting genealogical studies, according to Carousso. She recommends, for example, the use of mathematics, medicine, and anthropology, to calculate ages, consider genetic traits, and contemplate a subject’s upbringing and education.

Sources, information, and evidence are keys to successful genealogical research, but success depends also on each researcher’s skill and mindset. Background knowledge, keen observation skills, and strong analytical abilities can make all the difference when investigating a research problem. Genealogists must fully understand the sources they use to make the most of what those sources say and what they don’t say. And those same genealogists must be able to visualize and imagine their subjects as they lived, in the context of time, place, society, and culture. That imagination, as stressed by Carousso, must be grounded in knowledge and facts.

Articles such as Dorothee Hughes Carousso’s expose readers to experts’ ideas, methods, and approaches. In this case, the author’s suggestions range from advice about studying related subjects (such as law and history) to creative strategies for resolving difficult research problems. Reading articles such as Carousso’s and listening to presentations about methodology help genealogists learn to be more creative—and more effective.


[1] Foodways is defined as “the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” See Merriam-Webster Dictionary ( : 18 January 2017).

[2] Dorothee Hughes Carousso, “Creative Imagination in Research,” in “Celebrating 100 Years,” ed. Melinde Lutz Byrne and Thomas W. Jones, National Genealogical Society Quarterly 100 (March 2012): 53-63; digital image, NGSQ Archives ( : accessed 5 January 2017).

[3] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.:, 2014), 71. For a recent presentation on this topic, listen to Judy G. Russell, “No, No, Nanette! What Negative Evidence Is . . . and Isn’t” (webinar, Board for Certification of Genealogists, 20 December 2016), available for purchase through Legacy Family Tree Webinars (

[4] For more information on the FAN principle, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2012). Also, Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 11: Identity Problems and the FAN Principle,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( : accessed 5 January 2017).

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