The question that everyone has when researching family history, regardless of whether they are just starting or have been doing it for many years, is – where do I start? For new researchers, the question arises because they are unfamiliar with the process of family history research. For more experienced researchers it is because they have come to realise that there is so much research to do that it becomes overwhelming.
The standard advice given to people who are new to family history research is that you should always start with yourself. Sound advice, because if you start anywhere else you cannot be sure you are researching people who are actually related to you. However, that advice is not helpful past that point, so each time we sit down to do some research we are faced by the same question – where do I start?
The answer is research planning.
Research planning provides you with focus, in the form of research goals, questions or hypotheses; and direction, in the form of a list of tasks, sources and repositories. If you spend time on planning your research, then each time you sit down to do some research you have options for where you can start this time, and a process to keep track of what you have done and what you intend to do next. However, I am not just talking about producing a research plan based on a template, although such a plan is a very useful tool. The research planning process can be anything that helps to make your research more systematic.
A fundamental principle in research planning is that you must always start from the known and move into the unknown, or, as I like to describe it – start from a solid foundation. This means you can start your research from any person in your family history, provided you are sure that the information you have and the conclusions you have reached about that person are sound. This is the principle that underlies the instruction to start with yourself when you are just beginning.
The challenge then becomes identifying and documenting the solid foundation points in your family history so that you can use them as stepping stones for further research.
One method is to choose the person you want to start with (for any reason at all!) and verify that they are a solid foundation. To do this, you need to review all the information you already have and the sources you have already examined, and analyse whether the conclusions you have reached are sufficiently supported by the evidence. Be honest and critical – is the evidence strong, or are there doubts or inconsistencies? If the evidence is weak, then that becomes your first research task – to investigate further. Once you verify that this person is a solid foundation, then you can start moving outwards to research other people. Your first priority should be to move in the direction towards yourself, verifying that each person between your starting person and yourself is also a solid foundation. This confirms how your starting person is related to you.
Another method is to have a document or system that records where the solid foundations occur within your family tree. Each time you feel like researching, you just choose a point from that document or system. You could achieve this using family history software or research plans (and I will discuss these in later posts), but I like to use this simple tool which I call a Tree Health Assessment.
A Tree Health Assessment can be documented quite simply using a family tree chart. To use this method you must start with yourself, regardless of how long you have been researching your family history. As you assess the evidence for each person and their relationship to the previous generation you colour the line or box for that person based on your assessment. Green means the evidence is strong that you have identified the correct person and their relationship to the previous generation (e.g. father and daughter). Yellow means you have some evidence but it needs further research – for example, the evidence may be indirect or circumstantial. Red means that there are issues of concern, such as no sources, information from unreliable sources, inconsistencies or doubts about the conclusions. The solid foundations in your tree are any parts which are coloured green. Your research should always start at a point where the green person links to a yellow or red line or box (shown as a blue X in the example below). However, take care not to leap into researching a red coloured person if there are yellow ones between them and yourself, as the answers may lie in turning the yellow into a solid foundation first.