Scoping the Problem Statement in a Research Report

Dear Editor;

My question relates to your article, "QuickLesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success".

Correctly scoping the initial problem statement in a research report is, in my mind, absolutely crucial. If it is too specific, little is gained and likely much is missed. If it is too vague, it becomes a daunting task with less hope of reaching a clear and useful conclusion.

The examples used in the article are definitely useful in supporting the discussion of the generic process and document structure. They are, however, examples that appear to address an easily framed problem statement. But, how does one begin? Let us assume that one is just beginning their genealogical research and has not only anecdotal information from relatives, but also family certificates and other readily available family-sourced material.

In the case of anecdotal information, to me, the scope of the initial reports appears to be clear. Each piece of information first needs to to be verified and validated (V&V), which easily suggests a problem statement for that class of initial research reports.

In the case of material such as certificates, however, we may already be dealing with fairly high quality data. Yes, some V&VA is still required, but the true "problem" (of the problem statement) seems not so easily framed. Let us assume that the goal is not a scholarly article on an historical figure, but simply that of starting the family tree. What would be a typical problem statement for one of the initial research reports involving family sourced evidence (e.g. certificates)?

Submitted byEEon Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:58

Excellent question, History-Hunter.  As you probably suspected, the answer is going to be "It depends." 

First, you will notice that QuickLesson 20 does not use the descriptor “problem statement.” The reason is fundamental. A problem statement would have multiple components: (a) Background detail; and (b) the objective of this one segment of research. 

To put it another way: The goal (aka, objective, goal, task, etc.)  for any block of research also depends upon (a) the nature of the problem,  (b) the existing knowledge that lays the foundation for this particular segment of research; (c) the region, time frame, and resources available.

We do begin by defining a problem, but that problem may range from very specific to very general. At my website Historic Pathways, under the “Research” tab, you’ll find three dozen or so of the research reports I’ve prepared across the past dozen years. The “objective” for each segment of research runs a wide gamut. For example:


Report:   Samuel Witter, 17th U.S. Infantry, War of 1812, Enlistment Record: An Analysis 

TASK:      Analyze the document and prepare a work plan based upon the clues therein


Report:   Maternal Ancestry of Marie Hyacinthe Gagné, Wife of James (a.k.a. Jacques & Jacob) Wallace

TASK:       Confirm the identity of Marie Louise's parents and provide a fuller identity for each of them


Report:   Addisons of Elbert, Franklin & Gwinnett Counties, GA (c1780–1835): Preliminary Survey

TASK:       Glean all possible information on Addisons, Watts, and key associates within the two days available for this onsite work. To best utilize the limited time, work should begin with a literature survey, then move into original records as time permits.


Report:   Revolutionary War Capt. John Watts of Camden District, South Carolina: Was He John Watts of Fairfield’s Wateree Creek or John Watts of Kershaw’s Lynches Creek?

TASK:       Gather all identifiable records for Patriot or Loyalist service in Camden District. Include known associated families, particularly Duke, Hornsby, Perry, Pickett, and Rawls.


Report:   William Mills of Haile’s Tithe List, 1750, Lunenburg Co., Virginia: Identification Needed

TASK:      Study the 118 men on the Nicholas Haile list of 1750 to determine more precisely the location of Haile’s precinct. Use online land grant records and a literature survey of published deeds, probate records, and road orders to place these men into residential and associational clusters on specific waterways.


Report:   Watts: Initial Survey of Published Resources for Colonial and Revolutionary Anson County, NC, and Its Parent or Daughter Counties

TASK:      Determine whether any ties can be found between John Watts of Fairfield [SC] and the North Carolina Watts living in Anson, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, or Montgomery.


You ask for a "typical problem statement for one of the initial research reports involving family sourced evidence." For me, when I begin a project, my “initial research” is not going to be a statement of a point I want to prove. For me, the “initial research” is a evidence-gathering process. You’ll see that again and again in the work samples that I’ve posted. The statements most often resemble the Addison example above.



Submitted byHistory-Hunteron Fri, 01/11/2019 - 14:38

Dear Editor;

Thank you for the explanation and specifying the Addison example as typical of an "initial research" report. While I did look at many of the Historic Pathways examples, I must have missed that one.

I note that the task of the Addison report is "fuzzy" and you appear to have limited the tendency to lose focus by adding a time limit. I think that is an excellent practice and critical to do in one's initial research. I believe you have made the point in one of your lectures that a research report can be "updated". So; should one find something worthy of in-depth investigation, the initial pass should likely only clearly document that observation. It may be that the issue may merit more than an update. It may even require a report of its own.

I should likely explain that I am in the process of re-evaluating my accumulated material. That is a huge task. I want to make sure I strictly follow an accepted process, so that the time I'm investing in this is well spent. This is why I've been asking this type of fundamental question. Hopefully, it will also help others to "start off on the right foot".

Articles such as, "QuickLesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success", are crucial to developing "good habits". I hope you will author other lessons of a similar nature on the reports and logs that are products of the accepted process for genealogical research. From my perspective, a bit of a flowchart to tie them all together would also help.

Submitted byEEon Fri, 01/11/2019 - 15:15

Yes, History-Hunter, there are situations in which it is absolutely logical to update a report from an earlier time frame. And times when it is not advisable.

An example of a situation in which I would choose the update option would be "Samuel Witter’s Fellow Soldiers, Lt. Benjamin W. Sanders’s Co., 17th U.S. Infantry, War of 1812" (  

The objective of that report was to study Samuel's comrades in search of clues that might point to his own identity and help to distinguish him from other same-name men. I originally did the report in February 2012. At that time, the War of 1812 pension files at Fold3 only covered the first few letters of the alphabet. Since then, it has undergone two updates as other materials became available. If I had created separate reports on those two occasions, my data on that subject would have been fragmented. Revising the report to incorporate the new material was the most-logical approach.

In other situations, I would choose to create an additional report, rather than revising or updating an existing report.  For example, in my Watts section under the previously cited “Research” tab, you'll see two reports:

  • Watts: Initial Survey of Published South Carolina Resources for Old Craven County, Camden District, and the Counties Cut from Them. (2014)
  • Watts: Legal Records of Fairfield and Kershaw Counties, South Carolina (Previously Camden District and Craven County), Pre-1830. (2014)

Both of these cover the same region, but the first report was an initial survey of published resources, while the second report focused upon the unpublished  legal records.

Similarly, in the Mills section, you’ll see another pair:

  • Southside Virginia: Initial Survey of Published Resources
  • Bedford County, Virginia: Extended Survey of Resources

The “Southside Virginia” report included Bedford. The second report includes many published resources for Bedford that were not in the first report. The first report was 109 pages. The second report was 40 pages. If the first report had been reasonably small and, subsequently, I found another source or two that had not been included, I would likely have added the new tidbits into the earlier report.  In this case, the length of the earlier report and the amount of new material clearly called for a separate report.


Submitted byEEon Fri, 01/11/2019 - 15:20

History-Hunter, you also wrote: "I am in the process of re-evaluating my accumulated material." 

This is the situation I was in with "Mills & Associates: Franklin & Floyd Counties, Virginia: Initial Survey."  You'll note there my "Background Data" includes this:


This report includes some extracts from tax rolls, court orders, and deeds that I made as a beginning genealogist, along with random material gathered across several decades when a concerted research effort was not possible. Now, as a starting point toward resolving the identity and parentage issues that have not been resolved in the intervening decades, I am incorporating those early notes into this report. Future project segments will redo that early work to ensure thoroughness.


Submitted byHistory-Hunteron Fri, 01/11/2019 - 16:57

Dear Editor;

I read through the suggested example (Addison research report). I do have a few questions.

My mother recently passed away and left me a very large collection of family documents. These span from the present day to my great grandparents time on all the family lines. They include everything from immigration landing cards to BMD certificates. The overall task is to review these documents, separate them into logical groupings, catalog and file them, then prepare a research report on each logical grouping. The key question is whether there is whether there is a generally accepted way to group the records.

Submitted byEEon Fri, 01/11/2019 - 21:06


The simplest and most accurate way to handle the collection is to simply name it after your mother--say, Mary Smith Jones Collection. Under that umbrella, you could then subdivide it into folders according to record types. Your citations to these materials, of course, would be to the Document < File < Collection, following the format for family artifacts, rather than citing them to specific government offices that should not be guessed at.

Dear Editor;

I really feel that I should specifically thank you for taking the extra time to consider my posts and anticipate what I needed to know with respect to filing of the information. As the discussion of specific filing systems is well beyond the context of this forum, I'll just post a few wrap-up notes.

My physical and electronic data archives are fairly large and my time is limited, so "getting it right the first time" is rather important to me. Your statement, "Your citations to these materials, of course, would be to the Document < File < Collection" started me thinking about incorporating the concept of fonds.

As I need to seamlessly incorporate this new collection into a coherent filing system that contains various types of electronic and physical media, I've been looking at one particular article on that topic (1) and the associated software (2). While the "full-up" approach may be overkill, I am hoping to find some gems of wisdom in the basic approach and to be able to tailor it to my needs.

I've included the following references only since others may also find them informative background for the archival of mixed media.

  1. Tony Proctor, “Hierarchical SourcesParallax View : A different view on things ( : 12 January 2019). This article has a easily understood discussion on the relative merits of a few approaches to archiving genealogical mixed media.
  2. marchif (username), “Stemma : Flexible genealogy software using a MySQL engine able to handle large databasesSourceforge ( : 12 January 2019). This is open-source software for Windows, but might be made to run on other platforms by using a virtual machine.

I should also note that your EE publication is specifically referenced in the article by Mr. Proctor. So, I feel there would likely be some synergy between his approach to filing and your citation methodology.

Submitted byEEon Sun, 01/13/2019 - 09:45

Thanks, History-Hunter for suggesting these two sources to our readers. I have not seen the marchif article and look forward to reading it. As for Mr. Proctor's Parallax View, he thinks deeply about many related issues.

Submitted byHistory-Hunteron Fri, 02/01/2019 - 15:06

Dear Editor;

To generate the source and reference statements for my parent's marriage certificate (image attached) as part of a collection; I've tried to follow the guidance of the 3rd edition of EE, "Privately held materials," section 3.25.

Some feedback on the following attempt would be appreciated:

(Note that [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] is included as a placeholder for the full address in my personal version.)

Source List Entry
Jessie Cousland (Murison) Gauthier Papers. Privately held by Gary David Gauthier, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Calgary Alberta, Canada 2018.

First Reference Note
Gauthier-Murison marriage certificate, citing the marriage of Joseph Albert Gauthier (birth place Ontario) and Jessie Cousland Murison (birth place Calgary) on 27 May 1948, in Ottawa[, Ontario, Canada]; Jessie Cousland (Murison) Gauthier Papers, privately held by Gary David Gauthier, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Calgary Alberta, Canada 2018. Issued by the Province of Ontario at Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on 10 October 1973; this certificate is a certified extract of the marriage registered on 25 May 1948 as No. 1848-05-012319. Upon the death of Jessie Cousland Gauthier on 5 April 2018, this certificate was passed to her son Gary David Gauthier.

Subsequent Note
Gauthier-Murison marriage certificate, Jessie Cousland (Murison) Gauthier Papers.


Submitted byHistory-Hunteron Fri, 02/01/2019 - 18:47

Dear Editor;

I just realized that my preceding post should have likely been put in the forum for citation issues as a new topic. I'm not sure that I can change it after posting. Can you move it to the other forum, please?


History Hunter