Genealogical Research

—Bruce Despain

In its broades outline research in genealogy does not differ from research in other disciplines. There is the search for new data, the establishment of its relevance, the creation of hypotheses, and a proper consideration for previous research and for the findings of related disciplines. Genealogical research has four facets: (1) heuristic, (2) knowledge of area, (3) research analysis, and (4) compilation. Usually the skilled genealogist does not give conscious consideration to these facets, but weaknesses in any one aspect can be critical.


Heuristic is a convenient term for the techniques and procedures used in the investigation that are acquired by practice and experience. In the case of the genealogist it includes such things as the effective use of the library. It requires a thorough knowledge of records, manuscript collections, and bibliography. Also included is an awareness of publications in his field and the activities of other researchers — all to avoid duplication and to make use of current knowledge. Heuristic also deals with the methods for taking notes, making extracts, and abstracting and referencing documents and other materials.

Knowledge of area.  

The genealogist must be thoroughly versed in his geographical area of expertise. Inquiry proceeds in family history from the known to the unknown, and so it does in the field of genealogy. The genealogist surveys the work of others on a particular problem in order to add to what has been done, but he mus also do so with respect to his field. He must accept the work of other genealogists as it may be qualified by his own heuristic. He is obligated to accept findings of scholars in anthropology, economics, geography, psychology, sociology, demographics, and history. Certainly he should be well versed in some of those related disciplines.

Research analysis.  

The work needed to establish events in the past is termed research analysis or the research process. It is important to realize that our knowledge of vital and biographical events is entirely dependent on how well those living at the time transmitted the information. This is the source material that needs to be viewed by the critical eye of the genealogist. The records of events generated by contemporaries are not the events themselves. It is from these records that the vital events and relationships must be deduced. The facts of biography are the records; the actual events, the deductions of the researcher are the concern of the genealogist. The genealogist must discover relevant records and make such deductions as will contribute to the search for further relevant records. To understand the research process better let us discuss the nature of the source records more fully.

Records are mainly of two general types: written and traditional. Evaluation of written records is based on whether they are literary, i.e., subjective in nature, or official, usually objective. Literary records are events interpreted by the writer and are often selective, as, for example, biographical sketches. Official records are the product of the transaction of business, whether civil or ecclesiastical. Here the writer often uses a fixed format in selecting and recording the information. Seldom in an official record are more than the most superficial suggestions of causation and motivation. Certainly there are records that fit both these categories — that contain elements of the literary and official. Closely related to the literary record in evaluative force is the traditional record. At first such records were oral, and only later committed to writing. Comparison with offical records and analysis with respect to internal consistency and consistency with the genealogist’s knowledge of historical, sociological, and other principles normally suffice to verify, partially substantiate, or refute the traditional record.

Correct interpretation of records usually depends highly on the genealogist’s knowledge of chronology, epigraphy, heraldry, paleography, and other special studies. It stands to reason that he has a reasonable competence in the language, jargon, and format of the records he uses. Many genealogists spend some of their time editing or indexing records for the use of other genealogists. But this is not genealogical research. The collection of data as an end in itself without attempts at record linkage is not genealogy.


The compilation of a family history is the essential end product of genealogical research. Genealogy includes the relating of the experiences of a family in the past to those of the society in which they had those experiences. To what extent the client or sponsor desires to make use of the past history of his family is not the concern of the genealogist, per se — only to make an accurate and factual compilation for future reference. (As a businessman it may be of prime concern.) An individual in reviewing his own life must recall the experiences that are significant and establish their causal and chronological relationships. So a genealogist does with family history. His main task is selecting and relating together the events he has established from the care and technical competence, but it is in the construction of hypotheses and relationships in the research and compilation where intellectual error can be most devastating. It is no solution to avoid this aspect, as it is the life blood of genealogy.