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The Research Cycle

by Karen Clifford, AG
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Where We Stop, Nobody Knows
Finding new facts about our ancestors can seem like an end in itself, and often is. Karen Clifford offers a more expansive view of genealogy as an ongoing process, where each new fact feeds into and enhances those found before.

Certain principles of success operate in the field of family history research. These principles involve customs, geography, and governmental jurisdictions, to name but a few. One of these principles is the process which will be used over and over in your research: we call it the Research Cycle. It naturally produces success again and again. Successful genealogists use this cycle because it stresses:

  1. The critical step of reorganization of data in light of new findings; and

  2. Evaluation of the new information in context with all of the information you have available.

The 8-step Research Cycle

Successful genealogists use this cycle, and you will find similar models in other books. However, the advantage of this formulation of the process is that it makes explicit the critical step of the reorganization of data in light of new findings and the evaluation of the new information in context with all the information you have available. Now that you have the general concept of the cycle, here are some specifics.

Fact vs. Tradition

You cannot set a goal if you have not separated fact from tradition, hypothesis from actuality. You cannot comprehend what you know about an individual until you have organized your facts in a systematic manner.

What is a tradition? Simply stated, genealogists consider anything not proven by facts to be traditions. If the information is eventually proven, it is moved to the fact category.

It is in this preliminary separation of information that a computer serves the genealogist in a superior way. It records the facts and presents the facts.

Wrong Way: If you record traditions in the same manner as facts, your computer program will not only repeat, but in the minds of readers, transform traditions into facts. This could launch your research into a totally erroneous direction. There is a proper way to record both facts and traditions, actuality and hypothesis. These methods will be explained in depth later, but basically:

  • If information based on primary documentation is fact, then documentation must be listed.

  • If information based on hearsay is tradition, it must be kept separated with a note to that effect, such as "TRADITION" in capital letters.

  • There must also be a place for the researcher's evaluation of the documentation gathered, because all evidence is not equal.

The first step in setting a goal is to separate all facts from traditions. This will necessitate documenting all of the dates, localities, and relationships you have located.

Step 1: Set a Goal

Once you have separated facts from traditions, you can select a goal. Limit your goal to a single, clearly-defined objective. Include in that goal the full name, a time period, a location, and what you hope to find.

Step 2: Decide Which Source to Use

Once a goal has been selected, you must learn what sources are available to reach that goal. Each goal you select requires specialized sources to prove a fact, but you will have a difficult time determining which to select if you are unaware of the many sources available to solve problems within each locality and time period. In addition, sources are being discovered constantly to aid the family historian. Although you may never learn about all of the sources available to genealogists, you should know those which are most successful and which pertain to your problem. Get the latest edition of Val Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy for supplemental reading.

The most basic genealogical sources include vital records such as the civil registration of birth, marriage, and death records; federal and state census records; and obituaries.

Step 3: Locate the Source (Repositories)

Next, you must know what repositories contain which records, the addresses of the repositories, their availability, and how to use them. Step-by-step guides are often available from the repositories themselves to aid you in the selection of the repositories that fit your needs. Examples of typical repositories containing genealogical information include:

  • Public Libraries
  • Courthouses
  • Family History Centers
  • State and Federal Archives
  • State Libraries

Step 4: Search the Source

There are numerous ways to search a source, and there are shortcuts you can learn to use. For example, even in an unindexed source, it is not necessary to read from cover to cover. There are methods to shorten the process, thus helping you to use your time more wisely.

Step 5: Copy the Information

It's common for beginning researchers to neglect to make an accurate copy of a source the first time they find it. Even though copying information appears to be an easy thing to do, it is very wise for the beginning genealogist to make a photocopy of the entire document until they learn what is important to transcribe, abstract or extract from it.

Step 6: Evaluate the Information

The next step is often the most neglected in the process: evaluating the information. When we locate a record, our excitement over the obvious might prevent a meticulous evaluation of the less obvious clues. Questions we should always ask ourselves are:

  • What else is this record telling me?

  • Can more information be obtained if I search this same source using collateral lines?

  • Am I reading the old handwriting correctly?

  • Should I ask someone for help?

  • Have I looked at the front of the book for clues the author discovered when he or she compiled the source?

Take as much time as is necessary to ask yourself many questions about each source that you locate. As you answer your own questions, you will be guided to more clues for solving your ultimate problem.

Step 7: Use the Results

Once you have searched a source and found your ancestor, you usually discover more clues. For example, finding John Wilkinson in the Arkansas 1880 federal census as an 80-year-old, born in Georgia, with his parents born in North Carolina and a younger brother living with him, age 59, born in South Carolina provides these new clues:

  • Birth year of John Wilkinson is 1800.

  • Birthplace of John Wilkinson is Georgia.

  • Birthplace of John Wilkinson's father is North Carolina.

  • Birthplace of John Wilkinson's mother is North Carolina.

  • Birthplace of John Wilkinson's brother is South Carolina.

  • The family will probably be found in the 1820 federal census of South Carolina, since the brother was born there. This could lead to new county records to search.

  • The published surname collections for Arkansas, South Carolina, and North Carolina should be searched for the surname "Wilkinson."

Using the results of one search will guide you to more searches. Once you have determined just what new information you have, you can set about considering new sources for extending your family lines further.

Step 8: Organize and Reorganize

Finally, to benefit from this new information, you must place it in context with all the other facts. This is most simply accomplished by using a computer, because you can insert new information at the appropriate point in the chronology without retyping documentation and research notes. Then you can "reorganize the information" based on new information.

For example, data fields can also be quickly updated to allow for such things as corrected dates, places and family connections from your family letters or census findings. A good genealogy computer program also aids in your analysis because it can search all notes for elusive clues such as, "Was the man listed as a witness also listed as a neighbor in a previous state, or later as a spouse of a direct, or collateral line person?"


Setting a new goal will require another cycle of knowing what sources are available to obtain a goal, which sources to use due to availability and usability, and how to go about obtaining the sources.

About the Author
Karen Clifford is an Accredited Genealogist, an instructor in an Associates Degree program in Library Science-Genealogy and Computers at Hartnell College (Salinas, California) and Monterey Peninsula College (Monterey, California), and the Founder and President of Genealogy Research Associates, Inc. She has authored several family histories and textbooks including Genealogy & Computers for the Complete Beginner; Genealogy & Computers for the Determined Researcher; Genealogy & Computers for the Advanced Researcher; and Becoming an Accredited Genealogist.

Karen currently serves as Vice-President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and Vice-President of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). She is a member of the California State Genealogy Alliance, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the National Genealogical Society, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In 1998 and 1999, Karen served as Director of UGA's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She has received several awards for her volunteer work in the genealogy community including the FGS Award of Merit and the FGS Outstanding Delegate Award.

This article is an excerpt from her book Genealogy, the Internet, and Your Genealogy Computer Program, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company.

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