So you want to research your family history but you don’t know where to start? A key first step is to identify what you’re looking for.
Many people barrel into family research without thinking about what they want to learn. If they manage to avoid becoming overwhelmed initially, an informal research question eventually forms. However, think of all the confusion and frustration that could be avoided by having a clear idea of what you’re looking for from the start!
I find that a lot of people do family history research to find out where their ancestors came from. Ancestry DNA wouldn’t be so popular if this wasn’t the case. If that is you, your research question is simple. Where did my ancestors come from? That’s it, you’re all set.
Or are you?
“Where did my ancestors come from?” is a simple, close-ended question. In my case, I can answer it with a list of countries. But does that tell me anything about who my ancestors were? For example, you could do some cursory research and find that your great-great-great grandfather immigrated from Ireland. There, you’ve answered your question.
But what you really wanted to learn wasn’t where he came from, but rather what his ethnicity was. Two very different concepts, both in scale and complexity. For most people, we assume that if he came from Ireland, he’s Irish. You begin crafting a story in your mind about the potato famine and how he escaped starvation for a better life. You begin drinking Guinness on the regular and crow about your Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s day. You consider taking Irish step-dancing classes. But these presumptions could actually be misleading because what you don’t know is that his family was actually Scottish, not Irish, and that his father had been sent to settle in Ireland as part of an effort by the English crown to colonize the island. Because you didn’t dig deeper and your research question was basic, you ended up missing key information about your ancestor’s ethnicity, which was what you wanted to learn about in the first place.
Perhaps all you really want to know is where they came from. Perhaps you just want to know their names and their birth dates. But there is so much more to discover!
In this series of articles, I’m going to share what I’ve learned about historical and family research and give some tips and tricks on how to get the most out of your research.
When you begin a research endeavor, it is most efficient to determine the question you want to ask before you start. I ask students to do this all the time. Whether it’s finding an excellent source to illustrate first contact or determining the cause of the Civil War, knowing what you’re looking for helps you stay on track and not get distracted/overwhelmed by the sheer volume of STUFF out there.
Selecting a research question need not be a formalized process but if you are not practiced in the art of questioning, you might find that you’re struggling to find what you’re looking for because you’re not quite sure what that is.
The Right Question Institute has created an awesome framework to create excellent questions from a simple prompt. For personal research, it is rather difficult to complete the framework as intended individually. However, the steps of the process do help you think deeply and get to the bottom of what you really want to know.
- Start with what you already know. A picture that inspired you, a story your grandma told that got you thinking, an item that holds a mystery that you want to solve.
- Write a list of questions about it. I know, it seems obvious. But taking the time to actually write down all the questions you can think of will engage your brain in a process that will lead you down threads you might otherwise never follow.
- Keep writing questions. Let your questions inspire other clarifying questions. Fill your page with questions.
- Survey your list of questions and classify each one as open-ended or close-ended.
- Rewrite closed-ended questions into open-ended ones and open-ended questions into close-ended ones. At this point, you’re forcing yourself to think about the facts you need (from the close-ended questions) and the analysis necessary (open-ended questions). If I were doing this process, I probably wouldn’t rewrite all my questions because I’d naturally start to gravitate towards those that interested me most.
- Prioritize your questions. Those you select will guide your research. If you want to join questions together or rewrite them, now is the time.
This is a rather fly-by-night, bastardized version of the protocol but any tool is only as useful as its user makes it and I can’t imagine many family researchers are going to want to spend hours crafting their research question when there is actual research to be done (and their free trial subscription of Ancestry.com is ticking away)!
When I started my family research, I wanted to know how to live like my great grandma. This is a simple question with many complicated answers. This meant digging deep on just a few people in my family tree and cultivating outside sources to help me set a context of their lives in larger American society. I knew which people in my family would have information that I could use and which would not. If I had been interested in where my ancestors are from and what ethnicities they were, I’d have conducted my research and dedicated my resources totally differently.
Your research question determines what sources of information will be most useful. Without one, it’s easy to get lost in sources and data – a source of frustration for many.
Coming next time in the Research 101 series, getting started with sources. I’ll talk a little about different kinds of sources and places, both physical and online, to get started.