Researching Your Genealogy: Evaluating, Clarifying and Redirecting Findings

All serious genealogists will come to a point in their research when they feel lost. This may be at a point after they have done so much research that the long list of notes and questions they have compiled becomes deep enough to wade through. Or it may be after a great amount of research yields few results. Whatever the reason, at some point in a genealogical research project, the researcher needs to sit back and look with a critical eye on all that has been done and all that needs to be done.

The first step to evaluate your research is to be organized. While this article will not focus on organization, check out this article or research other organizing methods that work for you. Once you're organized, you'll be able to effectively evaluate your research. Following are three techniques to help you evaluate, clarify, and redirect your genealogical research.

Write a summary for your ancestor. A detailed research summary for the ancestor you're researching can really help you see how much you have learned. Write the summary in order of your ancestor's life events, and for each event, document the source(s) where you found that information (use footnotes or parenthetical citations to detail the source). As you come to parts of your ancestor's life that still need some verifying, write questions or reminders to yourself in bold print. Here's a short example:

"Clarence Jones was born on 12 May 1876 in Putnam County, Ohio (family bible of Clarence Jones, 1896) to James and Mary Jones (death certificate of Clarence Jones, Ohio Department of Health, 1950). In 1900, he married Julie Spears (marriage certificate of Clarence Jones and Julie Spears, Putnam County Courthouse, 1900). In 1910, Bobby and Julie were living in Scioto County, Ohio, with three children (1900 US Census)."

The summary will give you a clear view of what you know about your ancestor's life and what gaps are left to be filled. It will also show you each document you have gathered for your ancestor. It will also be very easy to turn the summary into a description for a family history book if you choose to compile one.

Create a timeline. Basically a timeline is just a visual conception of the above summary. Although a summary might give you a greater amount of detail, a timeline can help you quickly visualize what your research has taught you, and what time spans of your ancestor's life need some more research. Be sure to document each entry in the timeline.

Compile a list of documents that you have found. A simple list of titles of documents that you have found which pertain to your ancestor is a great way of evaluating your research. Perhaps you've obtained a birth certificate, death certificate, and a marriage certificate. Use a source checklist and compare your list with all the possible genealogical sources you could find. (Find a source checklist and other great forms at You'll not only evaluate what you've done, you'll get ideas for where to look next.

Write a detailed list of questions. Write out all of the questions you have about your ancestor, and be as detailed as you can be. "When did Clarence move to Scioto County?" "Why did he not include his oldest son in his will?" "Where did he die?" Detailing what you don't yet know and what you want to know will help you redirect your research. Next to the questions, write ideas for sources to check for the answers.

Recheck your documents. As a last step in evaluating your research, read through all the documents you have found for your ancestor with a fresh eye. You may find something that you didn't notice before. As I was looking at a death certificate for an ancestor of mine for the twentieth time, I finally realized that I didn't know who the informant was; a little bit of research revealed that it was a daughter from a first marriage, information which helped lead me to some other facts about my ancestor. Sometimes we skip over important details when we first discover a document.

As you use these techniques to evaluate, clarify, and redirect your genealogical research, hopefully you'll break through some roadblocks and understand your ancestor's life a little better.

Published by Tanya B.

Tanya Bomsta is a freelance indexer and likes to write in her spare time. She enjoys genealogy, biking, reading, and researching.  View profile