Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How to redo research

Karen gave me permission to reprint a question she posted on The Organized Genealogist Facebook Group page.

Karen asks:
”I have to admit, my desire to organize all my research has come to a complete halt. The reason is that I can't decide where to start first. My earliest research was probably the most unorganized and has left me with less than perfect sources, duplicate scans of documents, and things I adopted from other trees before I realized so many of them were wrong. It was a bad foundation to build on and one that I completely regret right now. When I think of how much there is to do, I get so overwhelmed that I can't even decide on what is best to do first. My question to everyone is...where did you guys dig in and start at and what is the best foundation to lay for good researching in the future?”

Start a new file in whatever genealogy database program that you use (Legacy, RootsMagic, Family Tree Maker etc.).  Add your direct line, starting with yourself, one person at a time.  For now limit yourself to just your direct line and the siblings of your direct line.  You can add in the spouses of the siblings and their children later.   As you are doing this you will still have your old file to refer back to. 

As you add in each fact (event, date, place) add a source to go with it.  You can now format the source correctly using a style guide such as Evidence Explained or the templates in your database program which are based on Evidence Explained.  If you don’t have a source recorded in your old file then you need to stop right there and do the research you need to do to find it.  Don’t continue on to the next fact until you have that one taken care of.  If you copied down a birth date out of someone else’s online tree and there is no source for it, you need to remove the date and put in an estimation based on the evidence you do have.  You can put that exact date in your NOTES section, something like this, “I found John Doe’s birthdate of 01 Jan 1860 in an unknown online tree several years ago but there was no source attached.”  Why would I do that?  The person that posted the date may have gotten it from a legitimate source but failed to record that source.  I want to use that date as a possible clue.  I don’t want to record it in my database but I do want to put it in my notes. 

Sometimes you will need to estimate dates and you might not have an actual source for the fact.  For example, let’s say you have John and Mary Doe in the 1880 census. Their oldest known child is listed as being 5 years old.  You can put in a marriage date of abt. 1874 even though you don’t have a marriage record… yet.  You need to add this as a task on your to-do list or research calendar.  You can make some educated guesses on where they might have married and then search in those locales.  Hopefully you will be able to come back and put that John Doe and Mary Jones married on 30 Nov 1873 in Columbia County, Georgia because you now have a copy of their marriage license and certificate from Marriage Book B, page 215.   This is very different than having random facts that you copied from online trees with no sources. 

At the same time, make sure you are scanning the associated documents into the computer and filing the paper copies in your binders (if you keep paper).  If you have online images as sources, make sure you download them and save them to your hard drive as well.  There are many paper filing systems and computer filing systems out there.  Use whatever makes sense to you.  You are on The Organized Genealogist Facebook Group Page and we talk about filing systems all the time.   You are not going to do all of your documents all at once.  You are just going to pull out the ones you need for each person as you add them.  You will get those scanned and filed correctly and then move on to the next person.  It works much better if you do this systematically than if you were to try and scan and organize every document you have all at the same time. 

As you are scanning and organizing these documents you have the opportunity to reanalyze them and you will see things that you missed the first time around because you know so much more now. 

Once you have your direct line and siblings under control, you can then add in the spouses of siblings and their children. Once you get to that point you will have an impressive family tree.  Eventually you will be able to add in all of the collateral lines that you have collected.  It will take you a long time to do all of this but it is well worth the effort.  You can do more effective research when your data is organized.  You will be able to fix the mistakes you made and find new things that you overlooked.  Your work will be more professional and you will be proud to share it with others.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. I'm in exactly the same position. Back to the drawing board and start again. One person at a time. And eventually, I'll have "my" family tree properly organized. Sigh. Thanks for the reminder about the perfectly reasonable step of starting over again. :)

  2. It is so worth the effort. I honestly think that it makes you a better researcher if you have done not so good research in the past and then have to go back through and clean it up.

  3. Wonderful post and exactly what I needed. I've started reading your blog from the beginning and I love it! Don't stop!

    1. Thanks so much for your very kind comments :)