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Genealogy : Getting Started at The New York Public Library: Research strategies

A guide to getting started with genealogical research at The New York Public Library

Becoming information literate

African American researcher analyzing the results of survey with NYA youth 1935-1943When 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.

Developing questions

"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

    • marriage record?

    • baptismal record?

    • naturalization record?

    • obituary?

  • What records will show where my ancestor lived?

  • How do I locate the name of the house of worship my ancestor attended?

Evaluating evidence

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.

Research formula

FamilySearch has a diagram that describes the typical genealogy research formula.



  1. Formulate a question
  2. Determine what type of record(s) might have the answer
  3. Determine whether such records exist*
  4. Find the record
  5. Examine the record
  6. Formulate a new question


  1. When did my ancestor come to the United States?
  2. Ship passenger list 
  3. Yes, from 1820
  4. Genealogy database / National Archives
  5. According to the ship passenger list, my ancestor came to the United States in 1919
  6. Where did they go next?

Image courtesy FamilySearch.

Research rules

Work from what you know

Work backward

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!

Further reading

Further reading