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Setting Goals to Focus Your Research


Setting realistic research goals or objectives for a trip to a repository such as the FamilySearch Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, involves more than just looking at your data file and picking a person to research. The preparation involves an assessment of the types of information you need and matching those needs with the records that may be available at the Family History Library. For example, it is disappointing and inefficient to choose to investigate military records only to find out that the records you need are in the National Archives and not in the Family History Library.

First Step: Examine your data to see what is needed

It is tempting to choose to investigate ancestors based on “holes” or missing ancestors in a pedigree chart or fan chart and automatically assuming that a lack of information identifying that ancestor is something you want and can research during your trip to the Family History Library. But, choosing to do this violates the very first rule of genealogical research: search from the known to the unknown and look at recent generations before earlier generations. I have found that nearly all efforts to find an unknown ancestor (missing ancestor in the pedigree) are unsuccessful unless there is adequate research about the generations of that ancestor’s descendants who are closer in time.

Always look for the families that would be the easiest to research first. You will eventually get to the more difficult questions, but since you time in the research facility is limited you will want to gather those sources that are likely and possibly found and not spend your entire time looking for records or sources that you do not find within the time you have to do your research. Don’t skip back to a remote ancestor, assuming that you know when and where the person was born or lived. By skipping a generation or more, you have no assurance that the person you are researching is the correct one and related to you.

Look at the amount of information and documentation with source references that you have for a family and then work from that point. You may wonder why you have to document your own parents, but there is always a possibility that you do not know the entire story.

Second Step: Work on one family at a time

Be sure to work on an entire family group at one time. Not only is this more efficient, but it also is more likely to produce valuable information. This is especially true when you have reached an ancestor with an extremely common name. In this case, you have to rely on other family members who have less common names or on the entire pattern of names in the family. Relationships in the family group can provide valuable clues to the identity of more remote family members. Looking at the family in context, as a family, helps to reveal inconsistencies in our data and to add correlative and corroborative information. Sometimes, you can only establish parentage by identifying all of the children in the family. It may also be useful to research clusters of families that lived near to each other before moving on to the next generation. If you are interested in identifying a more remote ancestor, then start with a family that already has adequate documentation and work backward, documenting every step of the way.

Third Step: Stay focused on one event at a time until you find at least one source

Once you have selected a family to research, you can more easily choose which of the individuals you will research. You can skip around among the family members or even very close relatives, but if you start to jump between families and especially between generations you may find yourself lost and forget your original research objectives. Documents that are more easily obtained will lead to clues for finding other more difficult documents.

As you accumulate information about a specific family, then compare all the events on all family group records. Notice which events have the most documentation and any that have little or no documentation. You may wish to check on your already cited sources to verify your own records and make sure they were recorded correctly. Of course, if you are relying on information you did not research, you may wish to be more particular about checking the sources. Then one event in a person’s life at a time, add additional sources to any poorly sourced event. You should be able to identify the particular person and the event in his or her life you want to research for additional sources.

Fourth Step: Set a goal to obtain complete genealogical information for the selected ancestral family and each family member

Having complete information fully identifies any individual and identifies him or her in the correct family. It is common for children to be out of order, identified with the wrong mother or father, especially when there has been more than one marriage, and listed with dates that do not fit in the family structure.

Fifth Step: Review your progress

As you go through this process, you may get fatigued looking for one single family. Depending on the time you plan to spend in the repository, it is a good idea to have a backup of two or more families to use for additional research goals.

Good luck with your next research trip!

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