Family History discovery analysis made easy with this powerful 3 step process
How do you extract all the relevant information from your latest family history discovery?
This popular question pops up in my inbox at least once a week after a research roadblock brings progress to a grinding halt.
The truth is, it’s easy to miss clues when you’re on a research roll and don’t stop to analyse what you’ve already found. Of course, you fully intend to come back to it later. Still, another research rabbit hole beckons, and you’re off on the family history discovery path again.
You’re racking up the discoveries, but eventually, you’ll run out of clues and hit that inevitable roadblock. We’ve all been there.
I believe that the genealogy process has three stages—research, analyse and document.
- research to find your ancestor
- analyse to interpret your discoveries
- document to capture what you’ve found out
It’s easy to do 1 and 3 (research and document), but 2 (analyse) is often overlooked. Sure, you grab the big stuff from each record, but the clues are usually in the little details.
After you’ve made that exciting family history discovery, the next step is to analyse what you found. This analysis involves separating, then connecting bits of information as they fit into your ancestor’s life.
Finally, you document your discoveries, capture the clues and then it’s back to research again.
Sounds great. So how do you analyse historical records to know what’s essential and what isn’t?
Schedule Family History discovery review sessions
While it’s possible to research and document in the same session, you’ll lose momentum if you are continually stop-start with research and analysis. So the best way to get the most value from your genealogy research is to schedule one day a week for review sessions.
It doesn’t need to be an all-day commitment. Start with 30 to 60 minutes. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in that time.
We all process information differently, so you’ll want to develop a system that works for you. If you aren’t sure where to start, try these steps and adapt them later to suit yourself.
- Read the discovery out loud.
- Transcribe the discovery word for word.
- Write a summary of your interpretation of the discovery.
That’s all there is to it. It’s a simple process. It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming one unless you let it. You don’t need to complete all the steps in one day, as long as you keep notes on what you are uncovering.
Let’s dive into each of those steps in a little more detail.
1. Read the family history discovery out loud.
It can be tempting to skip this step or to read it silently instead. When you read silently, it’s easy to skim the words, and often you’ll see what you expect instead of what is on the page. Whereas reading out loud forces you to say every word as it is written.
If you are sceptical about the value of reading aloud, please try it a couple of times. It’s okay if you can’t pronounce every word; some names are tricky. The point isn’t to be pronunciation perfect. Instead, ensure that you aren’t skipping anything, especially articles, wills, and other long documents.
I spent months believing my uncle was “lost in the record” books even though the clue I needed to find him was right in front of me. He’d changed his name. However, I kept skimming over that and saw what I expected instead of the page.
Keep a notepad handy, so you can jot down notes as you read through the document. Include any:
- questions you have
- theories you’re forming
- words you don’t know the meaning of
- details you want to double-check.
2. Transcribe the discovery word for word.
The next step is to transcribe the document, word for word.
Yes, even if it’s already typed or transcribed. The purpose of the exercise isn’t to create an editable text version (though that’s handy to have) but to let you focus on one word at a time. It means you have a better chance of picking up any intriguing data that you might skip over otherwise.
Such as the spelling of a person, place or thing. At first glance, you might think it’s a typo or misinterpretation, but that’s not always the case. When in doubt, investigate anything that jumps out at you.
Add to the notes you started in Step 1 and capture the same type of information—questions, theories, words to investigate further and details to double-check.
Bonus — you’ll have an editable text version at the end to use in infographics or your family history keepsakes.
Pro tip — Do you hate typing? Transcribe the document as you read it out loud by using voice to text software. It won’t be perfect, so you’ll get the opportunity to go through it again as you go through to fix any errors. So you’ll still do both steps!
3. Write a summary of your interpretation of the discovery.
Finally, write (or type) a summary of what you’ve uncovered. The length doesn’t matter as long as it captures your impressions and what you learned from the discovery.
Getting started is often the tricky part when writing these summaries. Responding to prompts will make it easier, and they absolutely make it faster. Try this list to begin with, and then adapt it to suit your research and learning style.
- When did this event happen?
- Where did it take place?
- What happened?
- Which other ancestors were involved in the event?
- How does this discovery answer any of the questions you have about this ancestor?
- How does it connect to what you already know about them?
- What was your key learning?
- What new questions do you have after reading this discovery?
- Does this confirm any existing theories or inspire new ones?
- What new clues do you have to research?
The next step is to document what you’ve discovered by adding the relevant details to your ancestor’s timeline and your family tree software. Also, add it to the timelines of any other ancestors who were a part of the event.
Then add the clues to your research log or register where you track the information that you want to search for in the future.
Lastly, file the notes with your ancestor’s other records because they may come in handy when you tackle writing your family history.
Want to extract a little more information from your family history discovery?
If you’re a fan of making lists to track everything you discover, then you’ll want to create these three for each ancestor.
Create a spreadsheet to capture everyone who was involved in each event. Create columns for their name, the event, their role (e.g. neighbour, midwife, census taker, lawyer, etc.), and the year of the interaction. It’s interesting to see if they pop up again either for this ancestor or another. The information will also be helpful when you write your ancestors’ stories.
Create a list of all the places where your ancestor lived, worked or travelled. Capture as much information as you can and plot these locations on a google map. Maps are visual and make it easier to see all the places your forebear may have visited. It’s a great way to get a list of locations to search in for mention of your ancestor.
You’ll add your ancestors’ occupations to their files. Still, it’s also interesting to keep a list of all the different jobs you come across. If it’s something you’ve never heard of, find out what type of work was involved. It might be an intriguing clue or solve a mystery for one of your ancestors.
Dive deep into each family history discovery
A little extra time spent analysing your data can save you a lot of time in the long run.
By segmenting your genealogy sessions into three stages—research, analyse and document—you allow yourself to unlock the information from each family history discovery.
Not only does this have the potential of providing new clues for you to follow, but it also builds up the details to share in story format. And you aren’t just making discoveries about your ancestor but increasing your historical terminology and knowledge as well.
We all process information differently, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” system for extracting the data during the analysis phase. Instead, start with a simple process, then review and adapt it to suit the way you work.
After all, the purpose is to increase your knowledge about your ancestor and extract all potential clues for further research. A successful system does both for you, even if it’s not similar to the one I’ve described above.
Share your thoughts
Do you have a tip for reviewing the interpreting historical records? Leave a comment below and let me know.