I remember the day I realised the records I had been finding, downloading and attaching to my online tree did not ‘belong’ to Ancestry. Rather they had been photographed and indexed by/for Ancestry who, with permission from the relevant archives, made them available via their website.
The progression from Beginner to Intermediate skills for the genealogist is peppered with such realisations. Broadly, as we become more proactive in searching for specific records to close specific gaps we must develop our knowledge of the types of records that exist and which ones might hold the information we require. Alongside this we must develop the skills to find them (since these additional types of record are less likely to have been made available online), analyse them and support each one with effective citation, keeping records of our progress and findings. Helen Osborn’s work Genealogy: Essential Research Methods leaves aside the records themselves, focusing here on these essential skills of finding and using them. It’s definitely not a book for Beginners; rather it’s a serious, diligent and methodical approach to genealogy. You’ll get the most from it if you’re already working at a sound Intermediate level or higher, and looking to improve further. For pretty much anyone who falls into these categories, I think there will be something to learn from this excellent work.
The book focuses on researching within England and Wales. All references to archives and the records framework, and all examples from the author’s own work are from these two parts of the UK. The principles of good research practice, however, are applicable everywhere, and from that perspective the book will be of use to anyone serious about developing as a genealogist and family historian.
The book was first published in 2012, although my copy was printed in 2020. It goes without saying that there have been changes in genealogy since then, in terms of wider online availability or records, website links, and even in the organisation of some of the archives themselves. This issue is mostly limited to chapter 4 but for me is the only drawback, and is generally easily remedied with a Google search rather than simply typing in the sometimes defunct link.
It starts with a chapter setting out common genealogical and research challenges. In the remaining chapters, techniques and ideas for working with and around these challenges are presented. Yet it is not prescriptive; rather it reads as an ongoing personal exploration by a highly experienced professional genealogist, historian and qualified archivist inviting us to join in this exploration. It is very readable.
Within those chapters you’ll find the following:
- How to seach online, using effective search terms
- The importance of reading the particular website’s instructions
- An understanding of the records framework for England and Wales, including the various jurisdictional levels and the legal, historical and geographic framework that underpins it
- Different types of archives, the types of records they keep and how they are organised
- Guidance on drawing upon work already done by others, including online trees and transcriptions
- Analysis of each document in terms of value, bias and to get every last shred of evidence from it
- Developing a thorough action plan and other ideas for when you get stuck
- The importance of documenting sources, and different levels of citation
- Why we should record our research process
- Different ways of storing the info, including paper and digital; organising it in a way it can be passed on, perhaps to family or perhaps published in family history magazines or as a family history
- Evidence and proof
Two meaty issues that have been a constant topic of interest for me – simply because there are no British genealogy ‘standards’ for them – are citation of sources (which has requirements for genealogy that differ from general academic fields in some respects) and advanced-level proof. The former is dealt with in Chapter 8, with guidance on what needs to be in a citation and also what to record in a research log. The emphasis is on understanding ‘why’ rather than simply ‘what’. If we understand why such information should be noted we will develop the ability to create our own citations rather than simply adopt a formulaic approach. Proof is dealt with in Chapter 10. The two are of course linked, since it is through rigorous citation that we will record the evidence we are presenting as proof, thereby enabling not only ourselves but also others to follow our trail and decide for themselves if they are in agreement with our conclusions.
There is one more chapter that I know I will return to from time to time: Chapter 7 on Planning and Problem-solving. This entire chapter is about approaching brick walls in a systematic way, rather like having ‘a second pair of eyes’ to look for something you might have missed. There is advice about how to approach the problem solving in a systematic way, and also a checklist for record sources, some of which you might just have missed.
When I read this book I already considered my research and analysis skills to be well-developed but was looking for ideas to be more rigorous, particularly in documenting work done and developing action plans. I found I could mentally tick off much of the advice – yes, I’m already doing that – but there were also gems here and there where I knew I could do better, and which I’ve used to develop a personal action plan for improvement. If you’re serious about developing as a genealogist I recommend this book.