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Focusing on Research Goals for the New Year

by Karen Clifford, AG
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How to Set Research Goals and Employ Good Research Techniques
Let a professional take you step-by-step through the process of determining your research goals and figuring out how to achieve them.
Doing meaningful genealogy requires forethought and planning. Without a plan, the purposes you have set out to accomplish may not be achieved. What is it you specifically hope to find? In genealogy research, the majority of goals focus upon:
  • Finding the parent's names
  • Finding an individual's birth date or place
  • Finding a marriage date or place
  • Finding a death date or place
  • Finding a spouse's name, or maiden name
  • Finding the names of siblings
  • Finding background information on the family

Analyze What You Already Know

One of the easiest ways to determine which goals to pursue is to look at your existing family pedigree or ancestral chart, family group records, or individual data fields on your computer program. Is anything missing or questionable? Could those missing items fall under one of the goal categories mentioned above?


Techniques to Keep in Mind

Now a word of caution! As you begin to select a goal, the following research techniques should be adhered to in order to prevent researching the wrong family line:
  1. Go from known information to unknown information. You cannot set a goal if you have not separated fact from tradition, hypothesis from actuality. If someone on the Internet or in a published genealogy has extended your family line three generations, don't just accept it as fact and start going backward at the end of the proposed new third generation. First, verify the relationships between your known ancestors and the additional information, then move into the "unknown" once again.

    You cannot comprehend what you know about an individual until you have somehow, systematically, organized your facts, as well. For example, ask yourself certain questions.

    "What do you really know about this person?"

    "I was told he was born in Virginia."
    "But how did I come to know that information?"
    "Oh, I remember, I found that on the 1880 census record."
    "Since records are kept on a county level in Virginia, what county was the person living in?"
    "I don't know! Wait! Yes, it was written on that 1880 census. It was Franklin county. But this only tells me where he was living in 1880 and that he was born in Virginia. I will need to go back in time starting with 1880 and see if he remains in this same county."
    "Correct! So what will your goal be?"
    "My goal is to find the birth place of this person."
    "You've got the idea."
    "But I really want to find out who this person's parent are too."
    "That is another goal. There are now two goals for this person."

  2. Don't skip generations or sources. In the above example, it is very tempting to skip the present generation where you know a person's name, year of birth and state, and just jump back to the person's parent's names. Resist that temptation. Don't skip generations or sources. By finding the birth place of the individual, you may also find his parent's names.

    In the above example, you might already have the individual's marriage date and place, as well. You may be tempted not to look it up because you think you already "know" it. You do not, however, have a primary source for the information. You only have "hearsay" evidence from a published family history. So you select as another goal to find the marriage record or marriage application for the person. (For more information on finding vital records, go to the free online beginning genealogy lessons.)

    As you find the original marriage place, you may find in the marriage application the names of the parents. Had you not sought the sources, the information would have been lost to you. Therefore your third goal would be to find documentation for the marriage date for an individual because it might contain information on the person's parents.

  3. WITHIN REASON, get them all. You need to record all individuals of the same surname in the same locality (even the common surnames such as Smith, if in a small town or township), neighbors who may travel with them for several generations, and relatives who appear on one record or another. You obviously wouldn't want to get all the Smiths in New York City, however, but would want to get all Smith individuals in the same block or building. You are doing this because even though your 3rd great grandfather may not have stated on his marriage record the name of his parents, his sister, who lived in the same county, may have stated the name of her parents, which was just what you were looking for.

  4. Find the county jurisdiction today. Look at a current atlas or map and determine where the location would be today. Make a copy of that area in case you will want to contact genealogy societies, historical societies, or local libraries in the present location to see if they have recorded information on the individual for whom you are searching.

  5. Locality analysis. Now you must determine the name of the location at the time of the event. The reason for this is that records are catalogued and retained in their original jurisdiction. Use gazetteers of the time period, geographical dictionaries, maps, and books to guide you to the name of the county in which a town might have existed during the years your relatives lived there. Counties were constantly changing in the United States.

  6. List all sources searched, both negative and positive. Because we must list our negative searches (so we don't repeat them), as well as our positive searches, it is a good idea to put all of this information onto a research planner (see #8 below). That way we can just indicate whether we found something or not.

  7. Determine what others have already discovered. Avoid duplication of effort by a preliminary survey. This involves searching major biographical databases, the Ancestral File, the International Genealogical Index, the Library of Congress database, Internet sources, etc. Often this information is secondary, but it can help you find locations for primary sources. (The beginning genealogy lessons guide you through the Preliminary Survey.)

  8. Plan your research process with the help of a Research Planner. Do not confuse a Research Planner with a Log. The latter only records what was found. The former records not only what was found, but also what was not found; when an item was searched, and what records SHOULD eventually be searched. Using a Research Planner is a very important step to set goals. A Research Planner helps to focus you on what you are doing and reminds you to apply the other 7 basic rules stated above.

How To Effectively Use a Research Planner

Use a Separate Research Planner for Each Goal
To summarize, goals are arrived at through an analysis of existing family records. While it is the task of your computer genealogy program to organize the family records and allow the initial analysis to take place, it is the task of a Research Planner to focus the researcher.

Certain information will be found lacking in family records which become a "goal." List each one of these goals on a separate Research Planner.

Goals Often Involve Smaller Objectives
Separate planners are used because most goals need to be broken down into smaller objectives. For example, your goal may be to locate the father of Johan Hains, born 1847. Write the goal at the top of your research calendar. Smaller objectives can be written in the space labeled "object of search," in the example which follows.

An example In our above sample, a will which mentions a John Hains as the son of a Mr. Hains could be proof if the person was found in the correct location, at the same time. Also a census with a child of the correct age as Johan/John listed with his parents would provide evidence to solve the problem. So your research calendar would then look like the sample below. (The abbreviation "Ind" stands for "Is this item indexed?" and "Con" stands for "Condition of item.")

Goal: Find the parents of Johan/John Hains born 1847 in Virginia; living in Franklin Co, Virginia in 1880.
Repository Date Description of Source Ind Object of Search Time Period, Search Note Ext. #
Call # Con
    1850 Census Index of Virginia X Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847 Might be spelled Haynes  
   
    Franklin County, Virginia Will Index   Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846 ditto  
   

You do not have a repository (a place) where this might be found as yet. Neither do you know an exact book or film number or a full description. That can be filled in later once you see the card catalog for the repository. In essence, you are "planning" work to be done later.

Once you learn the whereabouts of a Federal Archives center near you which has census films, you will be able to proceed. You may also learn that a local Family History Center has the probate records you are searching available on microfilm. You are now able to fill in the other boxes labeled "Repository" and "Call #."

Goal: Find the parents of Johan/John Hains born 1847 in Virginia; living in Franklin Co, Virginia in 1880.
Repository Date Description of Source Ind Object of Search Time Period, Search Note Ext. #
Call # Con
San Bruno Archives   1850 Census Index of Virginia X Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847 Might be spelled Haynes  
T1245 Roll 125  
FHC   Franklin County, Virginia Will Index   Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846 ditto  
0854245  

When a visit is made to the FHC and the Archives, you will be able to actually look at a copy of the original documents on film. You can then locate your families and make photocopies of the film. At the top of the photocopy for the will, you write "H-1" indicating "Hains family extract item 1" and also record that number under "Ext #" (Extract Document Number). Your research planner then looks like the document below.

Goal: Find the parents of Johan/John Hains born 1847 in Virginia; living in Franklin Co, Virginia in 1880.
Repository Date Description of Source Ind Object of Search Time Period, Search Note Ext. #
Call # Con
San Bruno Archives   1850 Census Index of Virginia X Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847 Might be spelled Haynes  
T1245 Roll 125  
FHC   Franklin County, Virginia Will Index   Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846 ditto H-1 other Haines
0854245  

The census may indicate you were in the wrong county for the probate and sure enough, you find nothing in the census index for Franklin county but there was a Hains family in the neighboring county of Henry. You make changes to your research planner as shown below.

Goal: Find the parents of Johan/John Hains born 1847 in Virginia; living in Franklin Co, Virginia in 1880.
Repository Date Description of Source Ind Object of Search Time Period, Search Note Ext. #
Call # Con
San Bruno Archives   1850 Census Index of Virginia NOT in Franklin, in Henry Co., instead X Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847 Might be spelled Haynes

0 — Not there.

T1245 Roll 125  
FHC   Franklin County, Virginia Will Index   Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846 ditto

H-1 other Haines

0854245  

Knowing that you found nothing in Franklin county, but now need to look for information in Henry county, your calendar now looks like the example below. You have two lines already completely filled out, and then you add two more lines for the new census and will searches that you need to do in Henry county.

Goal: Find the parents of Johan/John Hains born 1847 in Virginia; living in Franklin Co, Virginia in 1880.
Repository Date Description of Source Ind Object of Search Time Period , Search Note Ext. #
Call # Con
San Bruno Archives   1850 Census Index of Virginia NOT in Franklin, in Henry Co., instead X Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847 Might be spelled Haynes 0 — Not there.
T1245 Roll 125  
FHC   Franklin County, Virginia Will Index   Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846 ditto 0 — Not there.
0854245  
San Bruno Archives 8 Aug 1997 1850 VA, Henry County census page 34   Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847   H-2
T1245 Roll 143  
    Will index, VA, Henry Co   Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846    
   

When you go to look up the census and will microfilm for Henry county, you can fill out more information in your research calendar, as shown below. When looking at a roll of film, a book, files, or any other, materials, indicate if there is a problem with the film or index so you don't have to spend valuable time on it again. As the * in the "Con" field below indicates, the Henry county will index had an error. The Hs were placed in the index after the "Is" thus causing a problem for the researchers. You can also turn the planner over and write your notations on the back if you need more space for making notes about errors.

Goal: Find the parents of Johan/John Hains born 1847 in Virginia; living in Franklin Co, Virginia in 1880.
Repository Date Description of Source Ind Object of Search Time Period , Search Note Ext. #
Call # Con
San Bruno Archives   1850 Census Index of Virginia NOT in Franklin, in Henry Co., instead X Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847 Might be spelled Haynes 0 — Not there.
T1245 Roll 125  
FHC   Franklin County, Virginia Will Index   Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846 ditto 0 — Not there.
0854245  
San Bruno Archives 8 Aug 1997 1850 VA, Henry County census page 34   Hains family with son John age abt 3 John born 1847   H-2
T1245 Roll 143  
   

Will index, VA, Henry Co

(*all H's in index after I)

  Hains w/ John d. Bef 1846    
  *

Conclusion

Basically, goal setting involves asking questions, recording questions, and listing sources. Greater success involves applying good research techniques. But the foundation of our success, depends upon focusing on appropriate goals from the very beginning.


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How-To Article: The Research Cycle
Expert Tips: Setting Research Goals
Online Lessons: Organization is the Key

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