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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Steps To Success

As in many other worthwhile endeavours, success in researching family history is achieved partly by inspiration but mostly by perspiration!

The most rewarding efforts are based on a thorough understanding of the principals involved and then following them through. This process can be divided into six steps:

  1. Defining your goals
  2. Learning the basics
  3. Deciding on strategies for research (research plans)
  4. Effective searching and recording
  5. Documentation
  6. Presenting and preserving your research

It is very tempting to skip the first three—please don’t! Not only will you expose yourself to (usually unexpressed) ridicule by more experienced researchers, but you will exasperate archivists and librarians, the very people whom you need to have on your side.

Without proper preparatory work you may believe you have found the right line to follow. When you get stuck (everyone does) and have to go back to the basics, you may find that you have spent several years and umpteen $$$ on someone else’s genealogy! Trust me, I see this every week in the course of my work.

You know the old adages!

  • Do it right the first time.
  • When in doubt, read the instructions.
  • RTFM (Read The Flippin’ Manual).

Step 1: Defining Your Goals


The first step is to make some decisions about the goals of your research. Firstly, this can limit the amount of data acquired and secondly, may suggest the best type of organization system for you. Your family history is entirely your concern. You make the decisions about who you are interested in and which lines you want to study. A few examples are:

Finding living relatives

  • To hold a family reunion
  • To reconnect with geographically dispersed living family

To gain knowledge to help others research

  • To learn enough to assist with genealogy enquiries at a genealogy society, archives or public library
  • To be more effective as a reference archivist or librarian

Your own curiosity and enjoyment

  • Enjoyment of the pastime—the search, problem solving and learning—i.e. the process rather than the end-product
  • To prove or disprove family legends
  • To find if families of the same surname are related
  • To travel to ancestral homelands
  • To prove First Nations ancestry for legal and economic reasons

To produce something to pass on

  • The paternal line (agnatic descent), usually those bearing the same surname as the researcher did at birth
  • Collecting as many ancestors as possible i.e. tracing all lines
  • Tracing descendants of a particular couple
  • Documenting a line of descent in order to join a patriotic or hereditary society
  • Writing biographies of a few select individuals on the family tree
  • Researching all relatives who served in the armed forces
  • Studying ancestors who lived in one interesting historical period
  • Researching ancestors and relatives who had a particular profession or trade
  • Identifying the original immigrants to North America, Australia etc.
  • Identifying ancestral homelands in Europe
  • To produce interesting gifts for family members
  • To produce a webpage
  • To interest a younger member of the family enough to take on the family research
  • To be able to deposit a copy of a family history with a major archive or library
  • For medical histories
  • To make a family history CD or video for descendants
  • To document a pioneer family for use in a local history project
  • To create a family newsletter or family association

There are all kinds of other worthwhile goals as well. All of them are OK—none are ‘wrong’, but probably only one kind is right for you to start out with.

Take time to think out your goals and write them down as soon as you can. As your research progresses, then you are perfectly at liberty to change your goals or add others as your time and resources permit, but every once in a while do go back to your original statement, decide how much has been achieved, and revise it if necessary.

Do take the time to do such a re-evaluation every six months or so, and you will then have an opportunity to write up each project. Completing even a small project gives much satisfaction, and also leaves something concrete to pass on to your family and others. As you do this you will get to know whether you wish to continue with this or to start down a different avenue of research.

Specific Objectives

Once an overall goal has been established it should then be analyzed and broken down into specific objectives. These can be further subdivided into bite-sized chunks—the individual tasks which you can then arrange in logical order and start working on. For example, if your goal is to write a biography of your mother’s father you would start with the objective of finding out who he was, and the first specific task to assign yourself would be to get your mother’s birth certificate. If this is not available from any source the next task would be to find another piece of documentation which could give her father’s name, such as her christening record. The list of tasks is continually modified depending upon the results of the previous task.

End Product

The definition of goals should be accompanied by ideas about how you want to present your results at the end of your research period. Some will be happy producing pedigree and other charts, others will want to write a biography or family history for private circulation or for publication in a magazine or as a book. Other people envisage an oral presentation, either on tape or live for a society meeting or family gathering, or a visual product such as a photo album or video. Those nifty with a needle could make an heirloom such as were produced for the Threads competition and exhibition (Bennett, Valentine).

Think about your desired end-product(s) as you define your goal(s). This will greatly assist you in collecting the right kind of evidence to make it happen as you go along.

If you flit from one goal to another without producing some kind of summary document, whether it is oral, visual or written, then you will never feel you have accomplished anything, and your relatives will be disappointed in your efforts as well.

Points to Ponder

First firmly establish the pedigree. As each linkage is confirmed then proceed with gathering the Family History details. You will find that luck plays a part in genealogy as it does in most kinds of research. It is also true that luck comes to the prepared mind. If you don’t know what you’re looking for then you won’t recognize it when you find it. Sir Anthony Wagner, in his classic book English Genealogy (Oxford University Press 1960) says, One must have a general idea what it is sensible to look for and reasonable to hope for. Several factors concerning the records will influence your success or failure:

  • Ancestors who were wealthy, extremely poor, or criminals are likely to have left more records.
  • A family with a rare name is easier to trace than one having a common one.
  • Families who stayed in one place and pursued similar occupations every generation are easier to find.
  • Some records are excellent and available, whilst others are in poor condition or simply unavailable.

In pursuing your family history you will be challenged to achieve all of the levels of thinking skills classified as Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom 1956). The first stage is acquiring knowledge, secondly comprehension of this knowledge, and next application of the knowledge to your problem and analysis of it. The highest levels are synthesis and evaluation of material and this will enable you to plan further research on any problem in your research. The research process is a continuing cycle of these thinking levels. This brief outline of taxonomy principles is consistent with the development of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.