Stepping Toward a Solution

Beginners struggle with the task of planning and conducting efficient research, and the ready availability of online records and databases can actually add to the confusion. Would-be genealogists have easy access to information that may or may not relate to their own families. Many newcomers to genealogy spend hours at the computer gathering whatever scraps they can find to connect to names on their trees. They don’t realize that sound research leading to valid conclusions starts with well-defined research goals and strategic plans.

All projects should begin with a clear problem—a specific question that can be answered through genealogical research. “Who,” “what,” and “when” are the most appropriate questions. Researchers could seek, for example, a person’s spouse or parent (“who”); a person’s occupation, religion, or ethnicity (“what”); or the date a person married, died, migrated, or naturalized (“when”). Genealogists should state their questions with as much detail as possible.  Focused questions help genealogists plan, research, and analyze.

Keeping the specific question in mind, researchers should look at what they already know and evaluate the strength of the supporting evidence. Also, they should evaluate all previous research, thinking about records that were already searched and the results of those searches. Occasionally, backtracking—redoing some of the previous work to ensure the starting point is valid—is necessary.

Researchers must know about a wide variety of sources before they can identify records that might help answer the stated research question. Genealogists, therefore, have to do some homework. They must learn about sources’ dates of coverage, contents, and access. They must think about using sources in all types of repositories. Those who limit themselves to online sources could build an unnecessary roadblock. Online collections are growing all the time, but content providers don’t have everything. Some of the best sources might be accessible only by visiting a courthouse or archive.

Genealogists plan their research by listing relevant sources in a logical order of examination. Sources that are likely to be of most help are given high priority. Plans should include full citations. They should also include where and how to access the sources, names and dates to be searched, and any other helpful details to guide the work.

As plans are carried out, new discoveries could alter the course. A newfound record might mention another location or person. Uncovered evidence could contradict an established theory. For these reasons, plans should not be too lengthy or excessively detailed—it’s possible the plan will have to change within a few steps.

People who read the National Genealogical Society Quarterly know that most of its articles focus on solutions to difficult research problems. Readers see the problems and the ways they were solved, but research processes usually remain in the background. In “The Search for Margaret Ball: Building Steps over a Brick-wall Research Problem,”[1] author Elizabeth Shown Mills uses a different presentation style. While she doesn’t address every dead end and false lead, she presents her work in a series of nine steps—a nice way to show researchers the path from stalemate to solution. Her steps include developing a strategy, surveying specific records, expanding her search to include Margaret’s known and suspected associates, and more.

As Mills followed records of Margaret’s neighbors, friends, and associates, she was alert for subtle clues. She noticed names and places that appeared in various records. She analyzed migration patterns. In her search covering several surnames, families, and locations, she applied her knowledge of society, religion, and sources to make sense of the findings. She moved from a basic plan to extensive exploration of records in multiple states for multiple families.

Despite the fact that no single record links Margaret Ball to her parents or her origins, Mills was able to establish both. The author’s explanations and presentation style reveal her path working from known to unknown, expanding to associates, and linking multiple families through marriage. Other genealogists’ problems, places, and people may differ, but all readers will benefit by studying the approach illustrated in this article.

[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, “The Search for Margaret Ball: Building Steps over a Brick-wall Research Problem,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 77 (March 1989): 43–65; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives ( : 17 June 2017). Readers should be aware that the field’s terminology has changed since this article appeared in print. For example, in the field of genealogy, “primary” and “secondary” now refer to information rather than sources, and the “preponderance of the evidence” principle has been replaced by the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

  1. June 26, 2017 11:12 am

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