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jigsaw with words problem and solution

How to analyse a research problem?

As we’ve said elsewhere, keep track of what you’ve found and what you haven’t found by taking notes or keeping a research log.

Make a timeline of events – this can help you discover if some of your dates (particularly continuity issues – someone being born after their mother’s death date, etc.) and/or ages of participants are unlikely.

Consider whether the information you’ve found fits in with previous findings – for example do occupations fit: does it seem likely that a concert pianist should suddenly appear as a gravedigger on a child’s baptism record?

Create a family tree with BMD information showing. These can help highlight missing information. For example, I discovered that my tree showed where my parents were married (First Congregational Church in Portland, Oregon) but I didn’t have the date at all! I was too close to the research to realize this was missing until it was in front of me in a visual format. We’ll cover how to create family trees later in the course but there are free to download templates easily accessible which can help put your findings in order.

Go back to sources you’ve already looked at with a fresh eye – you might see something you missed before or with the benefit of further research having been done, realize a link exists that you didn’t know about when you’d looked at the document originally. For example, an unrelated passenger on a list ends up becoming a fellow passenger’s brother-in-law 2 years later. Perhaps a friendship struck up on board was the catalyst for bringing together the prospective bride and groom?

Consider the quality and strength of your evidence:

  • Are some sources primary and others secondary or derived primary? Primary sources are typically based on direct knowledge of an event and are thus usually more reliable.
  • If you have a number of secondary sources saying the same thing, could they be based on the same (perhaps incorrect) primary source and thus be misleading you?

Take your time coming to a conclusion on a question or problem and don’t leap to decisions based on family stories or preconceived notions on what ‘fits’. Leave your research for a week or so and go back with fresh eyes.

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information on the topic.

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This article is from the free online course:

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

University of Strathclyde

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