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Becoming information literate
When a researcher can
- develop a research question
- locate the record that answers that question
- evaluate the evidence presented in the record
- account for contradictions with other records
- write down the information they have learned
- cite the source of that information
- locate other records that confirm that information
- make a conclusion about that information
they are becoming information literate. Developing these skills will help you be a better family historian.
Information literacy in action: Gleaning information from a census
A census shows where a person, or a family lived in a time and place. It may record their names, addresses, relationships, ages, occupations, place of birth, date of immigration, and other biographical data. This information can be used to locate other records, that help build up a picture of your family history. The census shown right is full of clues about the location of other records that might be used by a family historian. But... a researcher must also evaluate the information in the census: see below for more details.
"I need information." This is not a research question. To help yourself find the information you need, or to ask a librarian or archivist for assistance, try to develop research questions that have an easily identifiable end goal. Your questions may be broad to begin with, but will, over time, become more specific. For instance:
How do I research my family history?
How can I trace my lineage?
When did my ancestors immigrate to the U.S.?
Where was my maternal great-grandfather born?
Did my maternal great-grandfather own property?
Did my ancestor fight in the Civil War?
Are we related to royalty?
Is it true that my great-grandfather was a stowaway?
How can DNA help me with my research?
Where can I find my ancestor's
What records will show where my ancestor lived?
How do I locate the name of the house of worship my ancestor attended?
Never take a record on face value. Study it.
When evaluating a record, ask yourself:
- Have I examined the document fully?
- When and where was the record created?
- Is the record trustworthy?
- Who provided the information?
- How was the information recorded?
- Is the resource an index, transcription, or an original document?
- Is the record a duplicate?
- Does information in one record contradict information in another?
- How do I resolve contradictory information?
- What information is missing? Or inferred?
- What clues does a record contain to the existence of other records?
- Have I studied the document very closely, extracting all of its information?
For instance, when evaluating information in a census population schedule, we must consider
- Who was speaking to the enumerator?
- Is the information they gave accurate?
- Did the enumerator record the information in the census correctly?
- Has the record been indexed properly?
Common anomalies or errors in a census might include
- Incorrect spellings of names
- Incorrect ages
- Incorrect place of birth
- Incorrect dates of immigration
- The same person recorded twice in the census, at different addresses
It is always a good idea to find supporting evidence for information in a record. Two records are always better than one.
FamilySearch has a diagram that describes the typical genealogy research formula.
- Formulate a question
- Determine what type of record(s) might have the answer
- Determine whether such records exist*
- Find the record
- Examine the record
- Formulate a new question
- When did my ancestor come to the United States?
- Ship passenger list
- Yes, from 1820
- Genealogy database / National Archives
- According to the ship passenger list, my ancestor came to the United States in 1919
- Where did they go next?
Image courtesy FamilySearch.
Work from what you know
Work from easiest to hardest
Write it down
Two records are better than one
Cite your sources!
99.9% of the time you will start your genealogical research with the census!
Genealogy Standards by
Call Number: *R-USLHG CS8.5 .B38 2014
Publication Date: 2014-01-21
REVISED AND UPDATED FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY EDITION Family historians depend upon thousands of people unknown to them. They exchange research with others; copy information from books and databases; and write libraries, societies, and government offices. At times they even hire professionals to do legwork in distant areas and trust strangers to solve important problems. But how can a researcher be assured that he or she is producing or receiving reliable results? This new edition of the official manual from the Board of Certification for Genealogists provides a standard by which all genealogists can pattern their work.