GPS Element #1: Thorough Search

exhaustionDr. Tom Jones, author of Mastering Genealogical Proof has often stated that a “reasonably exhaustive search” is not an “exhausting search.”  But, how much is enough?

It is true that there are an infinite number of sources that one could investigate but only a few of those would address the research question we are trying to answer.  So the important “take aways” for me from this chapter were the following:

  • Develop a tight research question.  This is a fundamental concept.
  • Pay special attention to the quality of your sources and the information within them.  Are you dealing with originals or derivatives or authored works?  Each of these generates a different level of confidence.  Is your information primary, secondary or indeterminable?  In a perfect world, we would obtain the record that is the closest to the date of the event, recorded by someone who was in attendance and who had no biased towards the outcome of the record.  The world is not perfect.
  • Obtain 2 independently created pieces of evidence that do not conflict.  If there is conflict or the evidence is indirect or negative then more sources may be necessary.  I think the toughest part is knowing how independent the sources really are.  The gravestone, the obituary and the death certificate could all have the same information and be independently generated.  They also could just as easily all have the same information and be generated from the same document.
  • Use Val Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, to identify the likely sources you will need to examine before you can satisfy the requirement.  This list includes vital records, land and probate records, census, newspapers etc. While this book is getting out of date, it is a good overview of the various source types.
  • If you are using derivatives or authored works, go to the source which generated the information.  Use the derivatives, such as indexes and authored works with citations, as Finding Aids, not the answer to your question.  However, you may use derivatives to document negative searches, e.g. if you don’t find any Rykena’s in the county, you might assume they have moved.  This conclusion may be documented with a citation for the index which revealed no Rykena’s in the county at the time in question.
  • Use the wiki as a finding aid for your place or topic.  I have become a believer!

“We do not over plan.”  This was an important concept for me as I struggle with Research Plans.  I feel at this point I have a good Research Plan template but I am starting to see the connection between the Research Plan and the final report to the client, the file or for certification.  If you are a believer in “write as you go” then the research plan is the outline for the written report and you fill it in while you are researching.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post worked on my assignment for MGP, element 4: Resolving Conflicts and Assembling Evidence. worked on the layout for the SGS Bulletin.  Still have some to do.  will attend the SGS Fall Seminar tomorrow, sent Kristen some obituaries of her gggrandfather who died in Ft. Myers, got all my reviews done of the class Research Reports (learned to not use Word Blank Canvass if you want comments as the comment button doesn’t light up for the “free form” activities allowed for the Blank Canvass. Finished a blog I have planned for January 2014 and sent link to the QA blog posting to Nikki, the webmaster for QA Historical Society.

[1] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2012). 23-32. This entire article is based on this chapter.

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