The Desert Shamrock

Arizona’s Original Irish Newspaper

Volume 10, Number 6, November/December 1999, page 20


Genealogical Research Principles


by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.

Professional Genealogist & Historian



        In previous articles I have primarily discussed various research sources, such as searching family records, various government and private records, the use of special libraries, the internet and databases, genealogical societies and historical organizations, and networking nationally and internationally.  In a few articles I have also touched on research principles, such as basic concepts regarding genealogical research in Ireland, and the importance of geography and history in relation to genealogy. 

At this time, I would like to explain in more detail the basic overall principles of genealogical research.  Although these specific steps in research might vary according to individual circumstances or availability of sources, each step of the research process should be taken.  They don’t have to be followed in any sequence, but they will definitely make your work more effective.

        1. Go from the known to the unknown.  Begin with known facts or clues about names, dates, places and relationships.  This is easiest because more is known about present and recent generations than about earlier ones.  Create a chronology to put names, places, events, and sources into perspective.  Then use the known information as clues to determine where and what records to search for more information.

        2. Search recent records first.  Investigating recent records helps you achieve the first principle mentioned.  In addition, they usually include more detailed information than older records, and they may provide helpful clues for additional research.  Also, recent records are usually more readily available.

        3. Trace one surname in one locality at a time.  Make your task practical by limiting it arbitrarily.  Exhaust all the sources for one locality or one time period before hurrying on to the next generation.  This requires discipline, especially when there are other “easy” sources or indexes which probably relate to that “further back” generation.

        4. Stay on the direct line as long as possible.  Avoid the danger of searching any branch or collateral lines; there are just too many branches and twigs in the family tree of mankind.  However, when you are stumped on your line, you may have to follow collateral or even non-related families who may appear more prominent or frequently in the records in order to uncover clues about your direct line.  Use maps to trace the migration patterns of the various lines.

        5. Don’t hesitate repeating searches.  As new families and individuals are identified, research often must be repeated in sources already investigated.  Often certain facts are unknown when a particular record was searched, so it must be searched again in light of the new information.  For instance, after learning the maiden name of an ancestor, you should re-check a census record for the new name to discover previously unidentified relatives.

        6. Remember that every source is important.  Every record is important, no matter where you find it.  The ordinary man who was your ancestor may be an elusive person.  His name may only be found in a tax record, business directory or local history.  Also, it is always “that one” particularly record turning up which can make the difference in your findings.  On your “To Search” checklist be sure to include materials with no apparent direct connection to the science of genealogy.  There is no limit to the bibliography of genealogy.

        7. Conduct circular searches when necessary.  When you have exhausted all other means and methods of research, and you do not know where to turn next, do a “circular or spiral search”.  Get a map of the pertinent territory, plot the earliest known residence of your ancestor, and draw a circle or spiral which reasonably extends your search into neighboring localities and thus new records and archives.  Increase the area of your search until you find the needed records or information.

        8. Conduct searches in all relevant jurisdictions.  Review the history, geography, and social customs for your area of interest.  Concentrate on the laws and record-keeping practices.  After studying all pertinent archive inventories and textbooks, use the records of the available institutions such as churches, civil offices and historical societies.

        9. Don’t get overly discouraged.  When you are ready to quit, have your work reviewed by another researcher.  Advertise in appropriate periodicals or publish your partial results.  Sometimes you must simply put your work aside and wait.  Move on to another branch of the family.  It is while researching other lines that you may get ideas to further your research on your stumped ancestor.

        Genealogy is ever growing and ever changing.  The science of genealogy changes over time with new record sources and technology.  Also, with each new generation you discover, your research tactics, records and resources may change.  It is important to keep your genealogy knowledge and skills up-to-date with your ever changing and growing family history.  But regardless of these changes, the above basic principles of genealogical research remains constant.

        For previous articles on the basics of searching for your family history, visit my web site at  First, click on Professional Services, then Genealogical Writings.

DISCLAIMER: This is an important reminder that the above article is provided here exactly as originally written and published several years ago. Therefore, while most of the primary context of the article may still be relevant, please be aware that possibly certain of the information and references may now be outdated, such as individuals and organizations, links, contacts, facilities, etc. Please follow-up accordingly for more updated information.

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©2013, Robert M. Wilbanks IV, Scottsdale, Arizona
created Nov 15, 2013; last updated Nov 15, 2013