I recently read “Branch Out Contest Winner: Alison Marcoff” on the Ancestry Blog. It is basically a research report created by a professional genealogist. It provides great insight into how a very experienced genealogist works. Understanding its form and parts would be a good lesson for product designers at FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, or any other company wishing to help their customers solve difficult genealogical problems. For that matter, it’s a good lesson for all of us non-professional genealogists.
Why create a research report? Isn’t that overkill? Imagine you work a difficult problem for several months, then set it aside and work on something else. You come back to it in a couple of years later when more records are online or you can visit the Family History Library in Salt Lake, or you receive answers back from inquiries sent to record custodians
Begin your research—and your research report—with a question. Look at this article and find the research question.
Next, write down what you know. Look at the next paragraph of this article. The research question is followed by a paragraph of what you know at the start of the research project.
Reference or include information gathered from previous research. In the article, notice what records Alison provided.
Although it was too lengthy for Ancestry.com to include in a blog article, keep a log of the sources searched and what was learned from each. Don’t forget to make your citations complete enough that when you come back to this thorny problem in the future, you can pick up the source again, or at least see from the citation what the quality of the source was.
What is the purpose of the two bulleted items in the article? You should do the same at the conclusion of your research report.
There is another lesson we can learn from this article: cluster research. Elizabeth Shown Mills uses the acronym FAN club, meaning Family, Associates, and Neighbors.1 After hitting a brick wall in records about James himself, the researchers in this example branched out to records about other people.
Thank you, Ancestry.com, for this nice little tutorial on how to tackle a difficult genealogical problem.
1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 11: Identity Problems & the FAN Principle,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (http://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-11-identity-problems-fan-principle : accessed 7 March 2015).