Steps to Success in Genealogical Research Step Two (National Institute)

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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[edit | edit source]

Step 2: Learning the Basics[edit | edit source]

Types of Information and Tips on Gathering It[edit | edit source]

The major types of information are oral, written, and visual. Visual may include paintings, sketches, photographs, carvings, embroidery, and quilts.

Gathering Oral Information[edit | edit source]

This is the spoken word. Talking to your relatives, and their friends and neighbours as well, can provide valuable information. Making notes at, or preferably tape-recording, oral interviews should be one of your first priorities since living people will not last forever whereas archives will. Use our handy Interview Sheet and Life History form to help you gather the information.

Gather oral information from all your living relatives about all of the family lines while you can, even though at this time you may not be terribly interested in those lines. This is not an endeavour that you can postpone until you retire!

In some families the eldest daughter got the photo album and the eldest son the family bible, but in others the ones who showed the most interest, or who cleared up their parents’ estate may have them. You may find that the youngest daughter, who typically was left to look after her ageing parents, is the one who knows most about the family’s origins, because she was around to hear her parents talk about it. So look for the descendants of youngest daughters!

More details about questions to ask can be found in the Heritage Series book entitled, Ask Lots of Questions, Get Lots of Answers (Louise St Denis), in the book and software Once Upon a Lifetime by Williams, and in Herber’s Ancestral Trails. A thoughtful and comprehensive article on types of oral traditions and folklore has been contributed by Morris.

Successful Taping of Oral Histories[edit | edit source]

The tape recorder, and now the digital recorder, are boons to the family historian as it allowing her to concentrate on the questions and the conversation without having to take notes. The result is a far more detailed and accurate end-product, with the added bonus of ‘capturing the person alive’ and preserving them for posterity.

The interview can contain factual information such as dates, names and places, as well as details about family life, traditions, individual characteristics and personalities. If one prepares well then they are a lot of fun to do. In order that the maximum amount of information be obtained, it is recommended that a formal, controlled interview be done first; this may be followed at a later time by a less-directed taping of reminiscences.

The Formal Interview[edit | edit source]

Any reasonably good cassette or digital recorder will do; a separate microphone may provide better sound pickup but may intimidate the interviewee. Buy the best quality tape you can afford and take plenty, plus new batteries or a long extension cord so that the recorder may be set in the best place. A digital recorder records permanently in higher quality and is smaller than a cell phone, so easier to transport.

If you don’t know your informant well, write first to prepare them for your request to interview and begin with an unrecorded “pre-interview” session to acquaint you with the information s/he may have. Make notes from this and arrange to come back, perhaps a week later, for the recording. Use this time to organize all your questions in a sensible order. Take along a pedigree chart and some family group sheets to show the interviewee. Family photographs are also helpful in promoting conversation.

The list may include factual questions and it is important how you phrase these. Don’t ‘lead your witness’, as they say in the TV crime programmes, with this kind of wording, “Was Uncle Albert Dartnell born on 3 Nov 1907?” It is too easy to give a facile ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. You need their knowledge, so phrase the questions as, “When was Uncle Albert Dartnell born?” Then don’t comment or argue with their reply, even if you know differently, just smile and accept it and go on to the next question. You don’t want the interviewee clamming up on you now!

There should also be plenty of open-ended questions such as, “How did you celebrate Christmas?” “What kind of house did you have?” or “Was your family involved in politics?” These encourage the speaker to reminisce and elaborate. Your informant may have photos or documents which could be of value to you. Ask in your letter ahead of time, as it may take an older person a little while to have someone retrieve them from an attic or basement. Ask to view them at the pre-interview and offer to have them copied, or take a portable scanner with you.

Select an interview location which is comfortable and away from distracting noises such as fridges and clocks, and unplug the telephone. Keep the microphone close to the informant but the recorder close to you, so that you can control it easily and unobtrusively. Begin your interview by identifying whom, when, where and by whom, for example “This interview with Grace Gardner is being conducted on 10 May 1984 at her home in Sidcup by her niece, Kitty Thom.” If more than one tape is used, identify each: “This is the second tape of an interview with...” The first question asked should be “What is your full name and where and when were you born?”

While interviewing try to avoid making comments such as “Oh, really,” which are a distraction to listeners; also avoid any personal or editorial comments. Only give corrections when absolutely necessary and be tactful; it is better to put corrections in yourself at the end of the tape. Ensure that any person mentioned during the interview is identified by name and relationship. Don’t let references to “My uncle” slip by without identifying him specifically.

Don’t be afraid to depart from your script to follow up on unforeseen, interesting items as they appear, but return to your set of questions at a convenient break in the conversation. Be prepared to turn off the recorder for unexpected interruptions like the doorbell, or your informant breaking into tears. The old photo album can be a wonderful inspiration for further reminiscences.

After the Interview[edit | edit source]

Thank your informant by letter as well as at the end of the interview. Return any documents promptly. Do not believe everything you have been told. All dates and place names should be authenticated through civil or church records; other information should be identified as your informant’s impressions only.

Gathering Written Information[edit | edit source]

One should collect original or photocopied documents from everyone in the family, as well as from archival sources. The list of possibilities is endless and includes birth, marriage and death certificates, census records, family bible entries, diaries, immigration papers, church records, gravestone inscriptions, and wills. See what the family has before purchasing new copies from elsewhere to ensure authenticity and economy.

You cannot expect all family members and relatives to be co-operative. Some will not want to share their personal or inherited papers and may regard a family historian as a snoop. In such cases you can only be as diplomatic as possible. By sharing some of your progress on ancestral lines you may yet win them over.

The responsibilities for generating and storing various records are different in each country and state/province/county. With some luck and perseverance you may uncover a local history written about the ancestors’ neighbourhood by a skilled historian who has carefully explored the social structure and economic history of the area over a great span of time. Even if you only find a production containing a lot of facts and photos this will be of great benefit, even if historical questions have not been asked of the material.

Your general historical reading will provide you with a national perspective but only local histories can give those fascinating insights into local events through which your ancestors lived. The detective in you will start asking questions as to the effect of these on your ancestors’ lives. These ponderings, if written down, can give flavour to your eventual family history book. A good family historian will constantly keep in mind the social and economic history of the area, relating it to the evidence he has acquired on his own family history.

Do search local newspapers, religious magazines and relevant trade publications for obituaries for each ancestor and their relatives. Your pioneer ancestor may not have a write-up but his elder brother may have a splendid obituary which gives the history of the whole family after emigration and refers to their place of origin in Europe. References to flowers from clubs and other organizations at the funeral will give you some ideas about a person’s interests in life, and suggest further avenues of research. If the person’s place of employment is mentioned try contacting them, or their successor, for further information; many firms have a presence on the Web.

Spelling[edit | edit source]

A cautionary note on spelling is appropriate here. Before 1900 language was oral; most people either did not know how to spell their names or did not care. Spelling was not important as long as personal and place names were pronounced roughly the same as they expected them to be. Add to this the much wider usage of regional accents and dialect, hearing failure and perhaps sloppy work habits and one can explain why genealogists ignore spelling variations at their peril!

The author is frequently encountered muttering to herself whilst reading old records. Contrary to her offspring’s misgivings on the subject she is not yet off her proverbial rocker. She is merely sounding out the words she sees; if they come out something like what she is searching for then she writes the entry down. It is wiser to spread the net widely than to ignore variations and have to come back later to repeat the work, after developing more humility about the family ‘always having spelled it this way!’

Surname Spelling Variations often Found in Genealogy

Surname Spelling Variations.jpg


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

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