Reasonably Exhaustive Research

By Elizabeth Shown Mills

Someone just challenged me to explain the difference between "a reasonably exhaustive search" and "reasonably exhaustive research"—and to do so in 150 words or less. For the record, for me, that word limit is a challenge.
Thorough research, I would argue, is not just "looking everywhere." It's not "a search in all logical places" for the one document that answers a specific question. That's just a search. But a search is only one step in the research process. It's not even the first step. And no conclusion should ever be based on one document.
Problem analysis and research planning comes before the search. That research plan should include all known relevant sources. As that research is done, we have to
  • process the findings,
  • interpret each document,
  • correlate all the details,
  • evaluate the whole body of evidence, and
  • seek out new findings based on clues in what we've found.

Then we repeat the process until

  • we have a clear, logical, and convincing solution, with all contradictions resolved; and
  • we can say that our solution is based not only on the use of all relevant sources but also upon the application of all relevant methods and strategies, to find the less obvious evidence that could strengthen or invalidate our conclusion.

And yes. This fits a lot of people's definition of unreasonably exhausting research. But, like a good workout at the gym, amid the effort we discover that it turns from exhausting to exhilarating—and our work from that point on is much stronger.

Did I meet my word limit? No. That's where I always fail.

Posted 4 March 2016

PHOTO CREDIT: "Man Exercising," CanStockPhoto ( accessed 4 march 2016), stock photo csp17119461, uploaded 14 December 2013 by imtmphoto; used under license.

Submitted byJadeon Sat, 03/05/2016 - 12:15

Oh, yes, one should do as much research as possible regarding an institution's records holdings, and learn whatever one can about their location.

Licking County, Ohio has been a research focus regarding some cousins, with a hope of locating another cousin who disappeared in 1802.

Licking Co.'s Probate Court records burned on April 2, 1875, but the Court of Common Pleas records of such nice procedures as land partitions survive for before and after the fire period.  The County has posted a nice, if incomplete, listing of records and locations, including a few-word reference to an index to the partitions.  This turned out to be a 2-volume every-name index to the partitions, which hardly anyone ever asked to look at.

Another feature of the surviving records is that a Court clerk (which, I do not know) made a valiant effort to recover data from partially-destroyed documents.  In a volume entitled Administration Bonds and Letters 1874-1882 is a back-of-the-book section transcribing Probate Court Administration Bonds data, appointments of Administrators, and names of the Bond suretors, with the heading "Transcribed Copy" at the head of each page.  These pages go up to the date of the fire, and many predate the earlier date on the volume title.

My lesson here is to take a look in the book even if it does not appear likely that it would be rewarding.  You just don't know beforehand what exactly might be found.

Good hunting,

Submitted byJadeon Tue, 03/08/2016 - 07:43

EE, I am beholden for the compliment.  Thank you.

Happy International Women's Day :D

Submitted byKayRinFLon Fri, 05/27/2016 - 12:03

I came back from Ft. Lauderdale charged up and ready to go! Your lectures helped me visualize how to approach my research, and have inspired me to tackle writing up a kinship-determination study. I've been re-watching your lecture on your research process (thank you, NGS Streaming); I'm a visual learner, and need to read and see to understand. Would you consider publishing a compilation of your conference lectures as a book ("The Mills Lectures on Genealogy")? I learn a great deal through studying your published articles, but the lectures reveal your thinking process in a way not captured by the NGSQ articles.  I realize you have so many projects going that writing a textbook on genealogy just isn't going to happen anytime soon, but you already have the text and slides of your lectures at hand... It would be such a boon to us who missed your seminars at the genealogy institutes! 

In grateful admiration--

Kay Rudolph

Thank you, Kay, for the kind words and the inspiration. Research methodology and problem-solving strategies have been my passion for a long time--indeed the fuel for the first Advanced Research Methodology track that Samford University's IGHR launched in 1986. So by that calendar, a strategy text book is about thirty years overdue--and a couple of them are indeed on my to-do list. I'll try to make it happen before another thirty years.