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Research Procedures for Genealogists

Professional Genealogy: Preparation, Practice & Standards, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, contains innumerable lessons and guidelines leading to successful genealogy results. Chapter 14, written by Harold Henderson covers “Research Procedures.”  Mr. Henderson divides his discussion into three sections (before, during, and after research) that describe the steps we should take when implementing a research plan. One phase of the research process involves the analysis of sources. In the following excerpt from Chapter 14, Henderson differentiates between the different kinds of analyses we must subject our sources to (physical, contextual, and contentual), if we want to stay on the straight and narrow with our results.

Source & information analysis

Everything we use and every find we make must be analyzed. To do that accurately, we need to understand the differences between sources, information, and evidence–as well as the qualities by which each are judged. As chapter 12 points out, whether a source is an original record, a derivative record, or an authored narrative affects how we present and discuss the source in our research notes.

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Similarly, whether the information is primary or secondary–or  whether its informant is unknown–and whether the evidence we draw from that information is direct, indirect, or negative are also issues we must analyze and take note of as we record each find.

Three types of analyses should occur each time we use a resource: a physical analysis, a context analysis, and a content analysis.

Physical analysis

Every document needs to be treated, for the moment, as an artifact. With both original records and their images, physical analysis considers factors such as these:

  • condition of paper
  • condition of binding (Is it disintegrating or overtight?)
  • legibility of handwriting and its continuity or discontinuity (Different hands? Different pens?    Different ink?)
  • presence of blots, faded ink, ancient tape, or other obscuring factors
  • consistency with the supposed time of record creation
  • signs of alteration or misuse

This evaluation is then added to our working citation for that source .

Context analysis

Nothing is unusual in and of itself, only in relation to a context. Professionals need to know whether a source is unusual–not  necessarily from our own point of view, but from that of the time and place of its creation. Most records belong to some kind of group or series. Some belong to more than one. (For instance, obituaries buried in newspaper social notes from outlying towns might reasonably be compared with other notes from that town, or with other obituaries in the paper of that date.) Contextual analysis of a record group might prompt us to ask

  • What jurisdiction or institution created the record group?
  • Which possible group(s) are appropriate for analysis and comparison?
  • What is typical and atypical in the group and what standard formats were used, if any? ·
  • What gaps appear in the series?

We seek to learn–and record in our notes–any peculiarities of the group as a whole, as well as any peculiarities of our record within the group.

Content analysis

In order to understand what we have found, its use, and its reliability, we need to go beyond generic labels that apply to information and pose diagnostic value judgment questions about the source’s content. Those questions should address both the content as a whole and each individual information statement that we use. For example:

  • When, why, how, and by whom was the record created? Was it formally recorded at a different time?
  • Is it missing material normally included in this type of record?
  • Does it include material normally omitted?
  • Does it show name variants (or lack thereof)?
  • Does it refer to other people or places, generically or by name?
  • Does it corroborate or conflict with independently created records?
  • Is there reason to suspect bias or misreporting?
  • If an index is involved, was it created at the time, or long after the records themselves? Is the index comprehensive or–as in many court and marriage records–limited to only some individuals  or some types of records? To test the completeness of an index, we might seek entries for names randomly chosen from the text or look up common name variants to see how or whether they are dealt with.


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