Are You Researching Through a Peephole?

We’ve probably all used peepholes to peek out and see who is knocking at the door. The tiny opening gives a glimpse, but it isn’t large enough to provide the full picture. If the visitor is too close, off to the side, or looking down, there’s a good chance we won’t be able to see much. It’s very easy to be fooled when we don’t have a full, clear view. Peepholes can be helpful, but we must be aware of the related pitfalls.

Using a “peephole approach” in genealogy—drawing conclusions based on one or two sources of information—could easily set a researcher on the wrong track. Genealogists may encounter sources that seem to be relevant at first glance, only to find later that hasty acceptance was a mistake. Or they may latch on to information as fact and move forward using that data but eventually discover they’ve wasted time on a false lead.

Take, for example, a researcher who sees a new name on her list of DNA matches. The new match’s public family tree includes a surname that points to a likely common ancestor. Limited data in the match’s tree fits what the researcher knows about her own family and the predicted relationship of the testers is consistent with the proposed common ancestor. The “peephole view” could lead the researcher to a conclusion about the testers’ connection. But other evidence points away from that theory. Analyzing DNA from the researcher’s known cousins in the same line reveals that the new match is from the side of the researcher’s family that does not include the observed surname and proposed common ancestor.

Traps lie in wait as we research—sources reflect incorrect data; multiple people have names, ages, and occupations that are the same or similar; and records carry sparse information. New and unsuspecting genealogists can fall victim easily. Less-than-careful researchers incorrectly link records to their own families. Many rely on databases and abstracts without checking the actual records. These genealogists are counting on a peephole to give them a clear view—something that just isn’t possible.

Genealogical standards tell researchers that they can’t rely on the peephole approach.[1] Thorough research provides a wider, more complete—and therefore better—picture than what is seen by looking through a peephole.

What does thorough research involve? For one thing, rather than quickly latching on to records, individuals, relationships, and families, genealogists should use what they find to form theories and continue investigating. And rather than haphazardly examining sources, genealogists should plan their research. They can’t limit themselves to information that pops up on web browsers and in genealogical databases. They must ensure that their view extends beyond the peephole. Successful genealogists—those who know the importance of thorough research—regularly use the following approaches:

  • They strategize about the most effective ways to answer a research question. They design approaches to research based on what is already known, what has already been examined, and what is available. Their strategies include a creative use of sources extending beyond simply examining them.
  • They seek out the most reliable sources, which means they look at original sources even if they have information from a database or a published abstract. They know that because of possible errors and omissions, looking at the original source is the best way to obtain all the information as it originally appeared.
  • They pursue sources that provide the most credible information. They know that it is best to gather information from a person with first-hand knowledge. When looking at information in a source, they always assess the level of knowledge of the person who provided it.
  • They obtain evidence from multiple independent sources. They appreciate that it is not enough to have just one source provide a piece of information because there is no way to test its accuracy. They look for other sources to corroborate or contradict the information.
  • They learn about the sources they intend to use. They seek to understand the sources’ original purposes and reasons for creation. They comprehend abbreviations, terminology, and other subtleties found in those sources.
  • They address inconsistencies and conflicts by analyzing the details and planning additional research to try to resolve the problem.
  • They look at the entire body of evidence from various angles. They read, interpret, and analyze the sources. They consider what the sources don’t say. They contemplate why some records are not found where they are expected to be. Successful genealogists compare and contrast. They skillfully piece together clues that can form bodies of indirect evidence.
  • They have open minds about theories. As new information is uncovered, they remain flexible enough to recognize when evidence might point in a different direction. They evaluate, analyze, and adjust their approaches and theories accordingly.

Genealogists who place their trust in tiny little pictures seen through peepholes are unlikely to succeed in research. Sound conclusions require details gained through a broader perspective. Effective researchers expand their views by researching, studying, analyzing, theorizing, and concluding. Successful genealogists never rely on peepholes.


Further reading:

Board for Certification of Genealogists. Genealogy Standards. Nashville:, 2014.

Fox, Judy Kellar. “Ten-Minute Methodology: Are You Searching or Researching.” Springboard (blog). 8 July 2015.

Jones, Thomas W. Mastering Genealogical Proof. Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013. See esp. chap. 3, “GPS Element 1: Thorough Research.”

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2015. See esp. chap. 1, “Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis.”

———. “Reasonably Exhaustive Research.” Evidence Explained (blog). 4 March 2016.

[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville:, 2014), 1–3 (for Genealogical Proof Standard), 14 (for Standard 17, “Extent”).

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