It can be fun to jump in the car for a road trip with no destination in mind. But what if you have someplace you need to go? Heading out with no plan can get you there, but probably not in the most effective way. It’s the same with our research. We can find all sorts of things without a destination, but if we have something we really want to find, we need to have a plan. We need to focus.
Anne Gillespie Mitchell and I recently talked about the importance of focusing our research. Here are the steps we came up with.
Step 1: Define Your Question
What is it you’re trying to find? “Identify Susan’s parents” is a much different question than “Find everything about Susan.”
Step 2: Review What You Already Have
Pulling out your old files and re-reading them might seem like backtracking, but it’s a crucial step. What nugget of information is hiding in there? What “meaningless” fact that you found three years ago makes sense now? Sometimes the answer to your question from step 1 is sitting there, waiting in your files.
Step 3: Identify Holes in Your Research
Take the information from your review and identify what isn’t there. Timelines are great tools for this. Do you have all of the censuses for this person? Do you have the death certificate or just an index entry?
Step 4: Find Out How to Fill Those Holes
What records are out there that you haven’t looked at? Check out the Ancestry Card Catalog and see what collections you might have missed for the location you’re interested in. Also take a look at the Ancestry Wiki to get ideas for what other records should exist for that location.
Step 5: Research, Review and Repeat as Necessary
Now you have specific things you want to look for. Go research those! Then take that new information and compare it to what you already have. Repeat this process as necessary.