When is a search complete?

When researching your family history, at some point you decide that the conclusions that you have reached are good enough and stop searching for more sources or information. How do you decide when it is right to do so?

I like to argue that there are very few facts in family history. That you exist and therefore you were born is the main one. But nearly everything else are just conclusions that you have reached based on the information that you had gathered. The accuracy and validity of the conclusions you reach depend on the quality of the searches you conducted – and when you decided to stop searching. If you stop too soon, or do not search properly, then your conclusions will be based on inadequate evidence and may be faulty.

The term that I like to use is a ‘reasonable and defensible conclusion’. I did not invent this term, but I find it extremely useful. A conclusion must be reasonable – it must follow from the evidence and not be associated with unresolved inconsistencies. And, it must be defensible – other genealogists must not be able to refute it using other evidence or tests of logic. If you conduct a reasonably exhaustive search – again, a useful term I did not invent – and analyse the information and evidence well, then your conclusions are more likely to be considered reasonable and defensible.

Can a reasonably exhaustive search be defined in terms of the number of sources?

In a previous post, I discussed the question of how many sources you need to reach a reasonable and defensible conclusion. It would be nice if you could stop searching after obtaining a calculable number of sources, but unfortunately that is not the case. One source is definitely not enough. Two independent sources may be enough in most cases, but often you need more. In my previous post I gave some examples of when you might need more than two sources, such as when there are inconsistencies in the information.

So, it’s not about how many sources you use, but whether you keep gathering sources when the circumstances require it.

What about the types of sources you use?

Reaching reasonable and defensible conclusions requires you to use ‘the best sources’ available. How does that help you decide when you can stop searching?

There are two aspects to this term, ‘best sources’.

The first is that some types of sources are generally considered to be better than others in terms of the quality of the information that they provide and their reliability. For example, original sources are preferred over derivative sources; and contemporary sources are preferred over sources generated later. So, if you have not yet obtained original sources, or the closest version to the original that you can access, and likewise with contemporary sources, then you have to continue your search.

The second is that you need to choose the sources that are the most appropriate for your research question or hypothesis. For example, if your question relates to the death or burial of a person and you have yet to examine death and burial records then your search is not yet complete. That example is a very simple one – identifying the best sources will not always be that easy.

Searching for sources in the right locality is another aspect of choosing the best sources. If you have not searched for sources in the locations that would be considered reasonable in the circumstances, then you have not used the best sources. For example, if the family lived in more than one county, you would be expected to examine sources from both counties. Again, a simple example but it is sufficient to demonstrate my point.

Working out which sources are the best in each circumstance requires knowledge of the family, the localities relevant to the family, historical events and social circumstances, and the particular events around which your questions revolve. Researching this context will help you determine when it is reasonable to stop searching.

Who do you research?

Limiting your research to your direct line or to the immediate family of a person would not be a reasonably exhaustive search. This is because sources about people associated with your research subject can provide useful information to corroborate or refute conclusions, identify inconsistencies, or fill information gaps. I discussed this in series of posts in May and June: How do you research beyond your direct line; Finding answers in a broader search; and How do you document a broader search.

Clearly you do need to place a limit on how far you extend your search – the key is to identify which family, friends, associates or neighbours are relevant to the research question and how information from their sources might contribute to your research.

Consider alternatives

A conclusion cannot be reasonable or defensible unless you consider alternatives. If you base your search on just one hypothesis then you risk confirmation bias – i.e. you might gather only the information and evidence that support your conclusion and ignore contradictory evidence. A complete search needs to investigate alternative conclusions.

So, consider all of these factors and then decide when you can stop searching. But when you do stop, remember that a good genealogist is always ready to re-open their search if new evidence comes along.


What is a ‘Good Genealogist’?

My new book, The Good Genealogist, was launched at the Society of Australian Genealogist last Thursday. It was really great to see so many of my colleagues there – most of whom I hadn’t seen since before COVID and others that I had only ever seen through zoom. I am humbled by the enthusiasm that I have received for my book. I love to teach and I spend as much time figuring out how to deliver the information as I do figuring out which information to provide. So, it is always great to hear that people find it useful and that I have conveyed the techniques comprehensibly.

I think that most people will understand what the title of my book means, but nevertheless, a blog post about it will not hurt.

We all know that there is a lot of ‘bad’ family history out there, primarily online but it also appears in archives and sometimes in published format. ‘Bad’ family history is poorly researched, poorly documented and contains conclusions that have little to no evidence to support them. ‘Bad’ family history means that people are claiming the wrong people as family and it leads other researchers astray.

Why is there so much ‘bad’ family history around?

One of the greatest aspects of family history is that anyone can participate. You do not have to attend university and get a degree, and you do not have to be accredited. Most genealogists do not have a background in historical research, which means that they can find it difficult to locate relevant historical information and interpret the information when they do find it.

The purpose of my book, my blog, and the lectures and courses that I give, is to teach those who do not have a background in historical research how to research their family history. It is also aimed at those who may have a background in historical research but need to know more about family history, or those who have been researching their family history for some time but want to improve their skills.

It is my belief that with guidance and practice, anyone can be a good genealogist and create good family history. The expression, ‘good genealogist’, is aspirational for all of us.

The qualities of a good genealogist can of course be debated, but the key features that I have focused on are listed in this image.

From ‘The Good Genealogist. How to Improve the Quality of Your Family History’ (Danielle Lautrec, 2022)

Note: Accreditation is required in some locations if you want to work as a professional genealogist.

Methodology, Sources and resources

Analysing derivative sources

One of the key principles in family history is that we should aim to use original sources wherever possible. However, derivative sources have an important place in our research too, so we need to learn how to use them effectively.

An original source is the first version of a source. It is usually created close to the time of the events depicted in the source, but not always. A derivative source is a source created from an original source or from other derivative sources. It is usually created some time after the events depicted in the source, but again, not always. A national or state newspaper reporting on an event which had already been reported upon in the local paper, is an example of a derivative but contemporary source.

I like to categorise derivative sources as copies, transcriptions or compilations.

A copy may be a photocopy, photo or microfilm. It involves minimal changes to the source. A transcription is a written or printed copy, and changes are more likely to occur. A compilation is a derivative source that is based on more than one source, so it is least like the sources on which it was based. A family history book is an example of a compilation.

Of course, it is more complex than these three categories. Copies can be made from copies; transcriptions from copies; copies from transcriptions; extracts from compilations, and so on.

This extract of a birth certificate contains an image from the original register as well as added text (NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, birth certificate, James Hen, 1878/024215)

Derivative sources are often regarded as less desirable than original sources. This is because the process of derivation increases the chance of changes and errors in the information, and because the creator of a derivative source is less likely to have first-hand knowledge of the event or context of the event.

However, there are benefits in using derivative sources.

  • They are generally more accessible than original sources.
  • Technology, such as optical character recognition (OCR) and image enhancement, creates derivative sources that are more legible than the original sources.
  • The creator of a derivative source may have access to new information or provide new perspectives on the information.

Analysing a derivative source

The approach to using derivative sources is similar to any other source. First you need to evaluate the source, then evaluate the information and then evaluate the evidence.

The two key differences when analysing derivative sources are:

  • It is critical that you understand the nature of the source. Is it a copy, transcription or compilation? And, how far is it removed from the original – is it a copy of a copy of a copy? This information affects your analysis of the reliability of the source and the information it contains.
  • It is also important to examine where each piece of information within the source came from. Derivative sources often contain information from a variety of informants or sources, which means that the quality and reliability of each piece of information will vary. Do not make the mistake of only evaluating the reliability of a derivative source as a whole.

For more guidance on analysing sources, click on the category ‘sources’ on the right side of this screen, or jump straight to these articles:


Analysing name variations

Name variations are common, even within families, and it is not unusual to find a name spelled differently in different sources. However, dismissing these variations too quickly may result in your family history becoming inaccurate. It is important to analyse name variations carefully and gather sufficient evidence for each conclusion.

Four main reasons for name variations

Lack of standardised spelling

The spelling of names has never really been standardised, by which I mean a common agreement to spell a name a certain way. Instead, we have common spellings, which may or may not be passed onto subsequent generations.

The spelling of names may vary between related family groups, between locations, change over time or even vary within a single family group.

For example, my maternal grandmother’s surname was Rusten, but the first arrival in Australia on that line spelled it as Rushton and different families have spelled it as Ruston and Rustin.

Nicknames, middle names and abbreviations

People may be known by names other than those given to them at birth. They may use this name all of the time, or just some of the time, or assume it at a certain point in their life. Or, they may be called different names by different people. Sources might record them by their given name or by their nickname, or by an abbreviation. If you are lucky, they will use abbreviations that are in common usage, but not always.

Accidental variations during source creation

Name variations commonly occur during the process of creating a source document. Errors can occur in all sources, including original sources. However, the likelihood of errors increases with derivative sources. Errors may involve minor spelling substitutions or more substantial alterations.

For example, my father’s 4x great grandfather, Patrick Dwyer, is often recorded in sources as Patrick Dyer and in an index to immigration records on Ancestry he is listed as Patrick Ayer.

These types of errors are particularly common when names of non-English origin are recorded by English speakers. (See Kate Bagnall’s article about Chinese names in Australia)

Deliberate changes

Deliberate changes are not as uncommon as you might expect. A person may change the spelling of a name, translate it or transform it, or adopt an entirely different name. Some cultures use different names in different circumstances, while others change the surname with each generation.

Some examples:

My maternal 4x great grandmother, Mary Ann Leonard, took on the surname of her stepfather Thomas Foran and became Mary Ann Foran.

My paternal great grandmother, Bertha Hawkins, took on the surname of her biological father and became Bertha Dixon.

My father’s name was changed from Barry Flanagan to Barry Hawkins when he was adopted.

My maternal great grandfather changed his name from James Hen to James Hend in the 1890s, when anti-Chinese sentiment was high in Australia.

Search strategies

There are many articles online about search strategies that deal with name variations, so I will just list the key strategies:

  • A Soundex search or wildcard search may pick up variations that are not found using an exact spelling search.
  • Try a surname-only search to avoid variations in first names.
  • Consult lists of common nicknames and abbreviations.
  • Use different repositories (indexes) and sources.
  • Search alphabetical lists to pick up variations you may not have considered, e.g. all surnames starting with Rus.
  • Try common variations, such as single letter, double letter, different vowels and misread letters. Consult spelling substitution lists.


Substantiating conclusions where name variations are involved can be quite a challenge, as they tend to be unpredictable and you will rarely a formal change of name document. I was lucky in two of the four examples I provided above, as the name changes were formally documented in government records.

So, how do you analyse name variations and reach reasonable conclusions that the person is the same or that two people are related, despite the variation?

It helps if you treat name variations as inconsistencies. The Genealogical Proof Standard requires that inconsistencies be resolved. Resolution in this case means establishing that the person is the same in each source and that the name variation is not evidence of a different identity.

Be careful of assumptions. Gather your evidence, rule out other explanations and verify your conclusions.

Record all variations in the name of the person that you are researching and record the name as it was spelled in each source. Of course, you will need to choose one name to be the primary name for your family tree. There is no rule guiding this choice. Perhaps the most common options are to use the name recorded on their birth record, their death record or the name the person used most often.

Analyse name variations using similar strategies that you would use to determine if two people with the same name were same person:

  • gather more sources and more evidence
  • identify the informant and consider how likely it was that their information was reliable
  • consider how the information was recorded
  • correlate the information using reliable sources
  • consider whether the person was in the right place at the right time, if they had the same occupation, were the same religion and so on
  • learn everything you can about the person, look for patterns and investigate any doubts you may have.

Most importantly, put the information into context and broaden your search. Use timelines, sources that record family groups (such as census documents) and apply the FFANs technique (Family, Friends, Associates and Neighbours).

If a name change is linked to an event or identifiable timeframe, find evidence of that event or sources from that time period to see if they explain the name change.

Finally, remember that source citations merely document where you obtained the information, such as how a name was spelled. They do not explain a name variation or provide evidence of identity. You will need additional documentation that sets out the evidence that you relied upon in reaching your conclusion that the person using the different name variations was indeed the same person.

More information

NSW State Archives Change of Name Guide

AIATSIS guide to indigenous names

Baxter, Carol, Help! Why Can’t I Find My Ancestor’s Surname, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Article on the Anglicisation of names

Methodology, Sources and resources

Study the locations where your family lived

Researching the places where your families lived can add depth to their stories but there is a more important reason for doing location research. Sources about your families vary by location and you can use your knowledge of locations to find sources and help you identify which sources are likely to supply the best information.

Researching locations

Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are unsure about the location of a place. In addition to maps, it also provides helpful information the history and geography of an area. However, it rarely has much detail about historical jurisdictions and genealogical sources, so you will need to dig deeper.

The FamilySearch wiki is, in my view, the best place to start when researching locations for family history. It has a page for each country, with maps, research guidance and information about how jurisdictions have changed over time.

Cyndi’s List is another great resource. It contains lists of websites by location. See for example, the list for Poland.

Recording information about locations

Where do you store all the information you gather about a location?

My preference is to incorporate as much of my research as possible within my family history software, as that makes it easier for me to find and use. Fortunately, I use Legacy Family Tree and it allows you to attach notes and media to each location. You can access this feature by clicking on a location then selecting Edit, or by opening the Location Master List and editing the location from there. You can then print out the Location Master List with the notes, by ticking the box that says ‘include location notes’.

Extract from a Location Master List in Legacy Family Tree software, illustrating how notes can be added to a location

I also have a folder on my computer called Places, with subfolders for each of the countries or continents that my ancestors came from or lived in. I store copies of documents about those places in these folders, such as maps and research guides.

You could use a spreadsheet in Excel (or similar program) to summarise the key information about locations, such as the commencement of civil registration, languages spoken and addresses of repositories. If you are not keen on Excel, Word or PowerPoint could also be used.

Recording your location research online has the added benefit of making your research available to you wherever you go, provided you have an internet connection. Online family trees tend to be person-focused with little to no scope for adding location notes. However, you could create a free-space profile on Wikitree, create your own website, store your files in cloud storage, or just rely on the FamilySearch wiki place page.

Whichever method you use, it is a good idea to have a standard format, as that makes the information easier to locate and compare information. The FamilySearch wiki place pages provide a good model for the types of information you might like to gather when researching locations, such as maps, a list of states/regions/provinces, record types available, gazetteers, history, jurisdictions, languages, social life and customs, local research resources, societies, online resources such as websites and Facebook pages. You might also like to include lists of books, journals, journal articles.