Advice, Methodology

Overwhelmed by your research?

Researching your family history is a large undertaking. It is not uncommon for researchers to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it from time to time. Here are four strategies to help get you back on track.

Take a break

Put your research aside for a while and give yourself time to recharge. You could take half an hour and go for a walk, take a day, or weeks or months. Whatever time you need. Do not let yourself feel guilty for doing so.

If the reason you are feeling overwhelmed is that you just returned from a break and are having trouble determining where to start, then try one of these other strategies.

Break it down

Any large object or project is easier to manage if you break it down into smaller pieces. Never try to tackle a difficult research problem when you are feeling overwhelmed. Go for small wins to build your confidence again.

  • Focus on just one person for a while, or one family group, or one time period.
  • Write down three tasks (yes, tasks, not research questions) and complete them. When they are done, write down three more.
  • Spend time on something in your family history that you really enjoy – even if it is just reading old newspapers.

Get organised

The feeling of being overwhelmed will lessen if you organise your research and have a plan for what you want to do next. However, getting organised can seem like a huge task in itself, so you should break it down into manageable chunks and plan to address it over a period of months.

  • Print out a copy of your family tree and review where you are up to. Are there any obvious gaps that you need to focus on?
  • Conduct a Tree Health Assessment (THA) of your family tree to determine which parts you have substantiated and which parts need more evidence. You can download instructions for a THA on my Free Stuff page.
  • Review your research goals and identify your objectives. Which aspects your research are the most important to you?
  • Prepare research plans for the families that you want to research next. The blog series that I wrote on research planning will give you some ideas for this process. Search ‘research planning’ in the search bar to the right of this post.
  • Organise your papers, your files and the research that you have already done. Aim to do a bit of maintenance each time you sit down, or set a regular day – weekly, fortnightly, monthly. I have written many blog posts about this topic. You can find them by clicking on the Maintenance category to the right of this post.

Get help

Learning how to do something better is a great way to feel more in control. There are a lot of great lectures, workshops and books out there that provide guidance on the research process. Look for ones that are relevant to your research and your skill levels, or ones that seem like fun.

You can also get help by visiting a family history library or archive, joining a family history Facebook group, or by employing a professional genealogist.


Asking the right research questions

You probably have hundreds of questions about your family history that you want answers for, but you cannot work on them all at once.

How do you decide which one to pursue first and are you asking the right questions?

Find the meaning of a question

If you already have questions, and I am sure you do, here are some questions about your questions. They will help you work out if you have the right questions and which ones need to be answered first.

  • Why do you need to answer this question? What information will it reveal?
  • How is it important is that information to your research?
  • Will it fill a gap in your family tree or your knowledge?
  • Will it provide vital information to allow you to move back another generation?
  • Will it resolve an inconsistency or clarify something important?
  • Will it solve a mystery?
  • Or is it just something that you find interesting?

If you cannot answer these questions, then perhaps you do not have right questions. Jump down to the Goals section below. Write or review your goals first, then write new questions.

Prioritise your questions

Knowing why questions need to be answered does not just help you ask the right questions, it also helps you determine which questions are more important and which need to be answered first.

In family history research you will often have a chain of questions. As one is answered, it opens up more. Or, it may be that you need to answer some questions first before you can find the answers to related questions.

Getting your questions into the right order will save you time and help you progress your research more accurately.

Prioritising questions is all about creating a systematic order which you then apply to your research.

Consider your goals

If the questions listed above are not enough to help you prioritise your questions, then you need to revisit your goals.

Notepad labelled Goals, with 1. 2. 3.

Goals are broad aims or areas of interest. They tend to take more than a year to achieve.

Goals provide context and meaning to our research questions.

Examples of goals

  • I’d like to get my family tree back as far as I can in time
  • I’d like to explore the families of my early convicts and settlers
  • My father was adopted – I’d like to trace his biological family

Group your questions under the relevant goal. A goal is relevant to your question if answering that question will help you achieve the goal. A question can be relevant to more than one goal.

Work out which goal is the most important to you at the moment and then focus on the questions listed below it.


No facts, no proof

In Dec 2020, Business Insider Australia published an article called ’13 discoveries in the last year have fundamentally altered our understanding of human history’.

The article refers to discoveries in Mexico which provide evidence that the first people arrived in North America during the last Ice Age by boat, not by land bridge as had been previously believed. It also refers to discoveries that suggest that the stone used to build Stonehenge came from Wales, not England.

It’s not the only time that someone has written such an article. They tend to pop up every year, and now and then people make television shows on the same theme.

The lesson here is that historical research does not produce a single, final version of what happened in the past.

Revisiting and revising earlier interpretations is an important part of the research process. This is partly because new evidence comes to light, but it also because we as historians and genealogists change over time. We accumulate new skills and new ways of thinking, and we gain access to new analytical tools.

When researching family history, it is important to keep this in mind. Family history is never complete and it does need to be re-examined from time to time.

This is why I like to say there are no ‘facts’ or ‘proof’ in family history. There are of course some facts – you are here, therefore it is a fact that you were born – but I am sure you get what I mean.

The problem I have with these terms is that they make us feel a level of comfort in our research that is undeserved. They imply a finality that is inconsistent with historical methodology.

I believe that, subliminally, these terms discourage us from seeking sufficient evidence to support our conclusions, conducting new research and revisiting our conclusions, and being open to the idea that someone else’s research may be more accurate than ours.

I prefer to stick with the more neutral terms – ‘information’ ‘evidence’ and ‘conclusions’. This keeps me open to the possibility that new information will provide new evidence which will require me to revise my conclusions.

Methodology, Sources and resources

How many sources do you need?

Sources provide us with information about our families, events they participated in or which impacted on their lives, and the places that they lived or visited. The big question is, how many sources do we need to compile an accurate family history?

There are actually two parts to this question:

  • how many sources should you use, and
  • how many sources should you cite.

I am not sure what other researchers do, but I cite all or close to all of the sources that I use on the master version of my family tree which I keep on my computer. My online trees tend to have fewer citations.

One source is better than none

If you have done any reading about the methodology of family history research or attended any lectures on the topic you will already know that a family history without any source citations is considered to be virtually worthless.

It may be accurate and the creator may have used hundreds of sources, but without citations only the creator of the family history will know that. Others will be reluctant to accept it or to use it, because each piece of information would have to be verified through further research. And, without citations the creator of the family history will find it more difficult to progress their research.

Extract of birth certificate of my great grandfather James Hen(d)

So, one source citation for each piece of information is better than none. It shows you and others where you got the information.

However, all sources can contain errors, gaps in information or deliberate alterations. So, relying on one source for each piece of information is unlikely to generate an accurate family history.

Two sources are better

If you use two sources for each piece of information, you can compare the information. If the information between the sources is consistent, then you and others can feel more confident that the information is correct and that your family history is accurate in that respect.

Two sources for my great grandfather Thomas Flanagan

Confidence in the information from two sources will increase if:

  • the sources were created independently of each other
  • the sources are considered to be reliable
  • there are no inconsistencies in other sources relevant to that individual.

Some would add to this list that at least one of the sources needs to be an original source. I do not disagree with the value of original sources, but I would include that under the dot point about using reliable sources.

More is best

Even two independent, consistent and reliable sources may not be sufficient.

The more sources that you have, the more likely you are to detect errors or inconsistencies. Having more sources increases confidence that your family history is accurate.

Three sources for my 6x great grandfather John Townson

You need to use your own judgement, but I would suggest that you need more than two sources:

  • if there are any errors, gaps or inconsistencies in the two sources even if they are not related to the information you extracted, because this suggests that the sources may not be as reliable as you would like
  • if either or both of the sources were not contemporary with the event
  • if the information was secondary information – that is, it was provided by an informant who did not have first-hand knowledge or first-hand experience of the event
  • if the information provides indirect evidence, which requires inference to reach a conclusion
  • if the identity of the people involved is in question – i.e. if you are unclear whether the person in the source(s) is the right person
  • if getting that piece of your family history accurate is particularly important – for example, the name of a parent or where a name change is involved
  • if other researchers disagree with your conclusions or have different information and their family history appears to be well researched.
Methodology, Sources and resources

Five tips to make citing sources easier

Every good genealogist knows that they need to cite their sources but many still find it a challenge. Here are five tips to make the process easier.

Keep the purpose of a source citation in mind

Thinking about the purpose of a source citation helps you focus on the information that needs to be included in it so that it achieves that purpose.

You might like to read the blog posts I wrote last year on this topic – Four Good Reasons to Cite your Sources Part 1 and Part 2.

After writing your citation, examine it closely and ask yourself:

  • Does the citation contain all the information that you or someone else would need to find the source again? Is the information complete and unambiguous?
  • Does it appropriately acknowledge who created the source?
  • Does it provide information to help you and others evaluate the reliability of the information within the source?

Compile a sample set of citations

Sources can be grouped into three categories:

  • sources that we use all the time – such as birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial records
  • sources that we use often – such as wills, probate records, land records, census, electoral rolls, newspapers, books, journals and website pages, and
  • sources that we use less frequently – such as DNA, unpublished archival records, maps, oral history, personal communication, personal reminiscences and social media.

Gather 1-2 sample source citations for each type and store them in a file that you can refer to when you need to create a new citation. Start with group 1, then move onto those types in group 2 that you use in your research. Samples for group 3 are optional and can be added whenever you create them.

Extract of transcription of death certificate for Thomas Flanagan, died 14 January 1928, Lidcombe, New South Wales, Australia

If you research in different geographic areas, you may find it useful to have sample citations from each area as there may be differences between the sources. A source citation for a UK census, for example, is different to one for an Australian census.

You can find sample citations in guides, on the web and from lectures.

Master list of citations

Keeping a master list of all the citations you create has a number of benefits.

A master citation list:

  • saves you having to reinvent the wheel when you use a source that you have used before
  • gives you more samples to copy from
  • helps you be more consistent with your citations
  • documents all the sources that you have used, which may help you identify new sources to examine.

Family history software generates a master list of citations as you create source citations.

You can also compile a master list yourself, in a spreadsheet or other program.

My blog post series about using Excel does not specifically illustrate a master list of citations, but reading those posts will give you general instructions that you can follow. I would start with columns for Who: author/creator, What: title/description, Where: publication details, When: date, and Other details. You can then add extra columns, if needed.

Use a guide

There are many guides about creating source citations. My advice would be to find a fairly simple one, written by either a genealogist or a historian. I have nothing against librarians, but their specialty is published materials whereas we use mostly unpublished materials. Also check for guides from the repository where you find a source, as they often suggest how to cite their sources.

Cover of book called Citing Historical Sources, A Manual for Family Historians, by Noeline Kyle

Source citation tools

If you use family history software, invest some time learning to use the source citation tools within the software.

If you use Legacy family history software, you might be interested in attending the March meeting of the Society of Australian Genealogists’ Legacy Software Users Group, where I will be running a session on this topic.