Tracing your family history and discovering interesting stories about your ancestors is an exciting way to maintain a rich connection to the past. But tracking down your relatives and finding the evidence you need is not always an easy task.
Searching the many records available on the internet has become so easy that it can be tempting to simply plug in a name and date, and then begin browsing through records. But this unfocused approach can cause you to feel overwhelmed, and is not the best approach to finding out accurate information about your family.
An unfocused search is less likely to find the information you need, and even worse, it can lead you down a wrong research path based on incorrect information.
Genealogy is a skill and requires a solid foundation. Similar to the Scientific Method, if you follow the appropriate genealogy research steps and best practices, you’ll be much more successful and your findings will be more likely to be your true ancestors.
Thinking carefully about your research question is the perfect place for a beginner to start before searching. If you just recently interviewed your relatives at a family gathering, the next step is to formulate your first research question.
Even intermediate and advanced genealogists can benefit from reflecting on the research questions they have been asking, to ensure no bad habits are being formed.
What is a research question and why is it important?
Research questions should be specific
Put simply, a research question forms the basis of your search. Simply ask yourself what information you want to know - research questions can be general or specific, though the more specific they are, the better.
For instance, a general research question could be something like “What was the life of my great-grandmother like?” This is an excellent starting question, but think about how it may guide your search - does this question give us a clear idea of a specific piece of information to seek? Not exactly.
We can focus our research even more by generating a more specific research question from the general one. For instance, “When and where was my great-grandmother born?” or “Where did my great-grandmother live in 1940?” A question like this will set you on the best path.
A good research question is achievable and motivating
The primary reason to develop a well-thought-out research question is that it focuses your research. Genealogy can feel overwhelming - we can all relate to the burning desire to know everything about our ancestors. But clearly, nobody is going to find out everything in a single research session.
When you break up your quest into achievable bits and pieces, it helps you recognize the progress you're making. Specific research questions are highly answerable - before you know it, you'll be crossing the question off your list and forming the next one! It's a great feeling.
Specific research questions like the examples above will focus your search into a much more manageable quest - for instance, if you know you’re seeking information on an ancestor’s birth, you can safely narrow down your search to only include records that would contain birth information. Or, using the other example, if you’re looking for a place of residence in 1940, you can confidently search the 1940 census first.
Research questions help us help you
A good research question can also help you communicate effectively with other researchers or experts who you would like guidance from.
If you’re preparing for a research consultation, or are looking for help at an expert’s conference booth, be ready with a specific research question! A good research question can help you get the most out of your professional consultation.
Experts and professionals will be far more helpful if they're presented with a specific research question. It's very common for our experts to hear a researcher ask a question like "Can you help me find my family who lived in New York State in the 1800s?" With such a broad question, it's very difficult for an expert to recommend a place to look or an approach to solving your problem.
When asked something more specific, like "I'm trying to find the birth record of my great-grandmother, who lived in Erie County in the 1800s" an expert is far more likely to provide useful information.
Even if you don't know the location or time period, asking "I'm looking for my great-grandmother's birth record" will be an excellent starting point if you're consulting with an expert.
Tips for forming a research question
What do I already know?
If you’re not even sure what research question you want to ask, the first thing you need to think about is “what do I already know?” and “what’s missing?”
This is also an excellent habit for intermediate and advanced genealogists as well - organize a beginning of the year audit to get yourself on the right course for 2019!
Begin by organizing all the family records you have proof of - if you’re just beginning and don’t yet have any proof, that’s okay too.
Create a one-sheet document for each specific family member, and detail everything you know about them.
If you already have some records related to them, this is where you want to indicate that. Citations will help you remember where information came from, and help you locate it again later. If you don’t yet have any records, write down anything you can gather from other family members or pieces of information you may have heard in the past.
It’s okay if they’re not backed up by documentary evidence yet - this information will help you form research questions or guide your research question-focused searches.
What do I want to know, or need to prove?
Now, identify the blank spaces. What would you like to know? What information do you have that needs to be backed up with documentary evidence?
A genealogy best-practice is to complete as much research as possible on a single family unit or generation before moving onto the next one.
Records from one generation will often contain clues to help you find other family members later on (such as the name of a witnesses, parents, or godparents).
Here is where you form your specific research question - it’s always a good idea to begin by seeking vital records - birth, marriage, and death records - for each individual. Remember, even if you have a general question such as “What was the life of my great-grandmother like,” this can be broken down into finite, achievable questions.
Go beyond names and dates
Seeking out records that prove the names, dates, and places associated with the key events in your ancestor's lifetime is a good place to start because this information forms the skeleton of your understanding.
But don't leave those bones bare!
Genealogy research is based on facts and evidence but is also rich and colorful. Don't be afraid to ask research questions about what life was like or what their interests were. These can be fun and rewarding questions to answer.
For example, an inventory in an ancestor's probate file may tell you that he or she loved to read and had an extensive library; a newspaper might mention a quarrel with a neighbor over runaway livestock; or religious records can offer a glimpse at our ancestors' personal beliefs and the communities they belonged to.
Learning more about your relative’s job, community, hobby, beliefs, or interests will make your research more rewarding and your connection to your family history richer.
It's always a good idea to look to professional genealogy researchers and writers for examples of research questions. Take some time to peruse a scholarly genealogical journal, such as The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record - these journals accept only the highest-quality genealogy writing and are excellent examples of the kind of thoroughness all genealogists should aspire to emulate.
Read the latest issue of The Record, or search the full archives of The Record in our eLibrary and pay close attention to the kind of research questions the authors of each article ask.
You'll see how a good, focused research question can help form a research plan, which is the next step in your own process. Once you have formed a research question, it's time to make a research plan.
A good research plan involves thinking about more questions - such as when and where the event your research question investigates may have occurred, and also what kind of record sets to look in.
Like a good research question, a good research plan will wind up saving you a lot of time and frustration and is crucial to successful research. Keep an eye out for a coming blog on this subject!
If you have already formed a great research question, and are now wondering about formulating your research plan, you may want to schedule a consultation with an NYG&B genealogist to receive personalized expertise on next steps for your own research.
About the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society
Since 1869, the NYG&B's mission has been to help our thousands of worldwide members discover their family's New York story, and there has never been a better time to join.
The cost of an Individual Annual Membership is less than six dollars a month, and includes the following benefits:
- Access to over 50 exclusive digital record sets covering the entire state of New York, including the fully searchable archives of The Record.
- A complimentary subscription to all of Findmypast's North American records, as well as U.K. and Irish Census records.
- Access to hundreds of expert-authored Knowledge Base articles and webinars to help you navigate the tricky New York research landscape.
- Exclusive discounts and advanced access to conferences, seminars, workshops and lectures to learn more about researching people and places across New York State.
To learn more or join us, please visit our member benefits page.