Genealogy Tips & Tricks: Learn to analyze your data

Learn to analyze your dataBy Barry J. Ewell

What exactly is analysis? It’s the dividing of information into its six parts: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Each of the six parts can be applied to every document or source that you acquire.

To quote Sir Conan Doyle writing as Sherlock Holmes in The Beryl Coronet, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever you have left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Let’s look at what each of the six parts means to genealogists.

  • Who. You can define the who before you start your search by asking who created the source.
  • What. What do you want to know? What information does the source provide?
  • Where. “Where” is probably the most important fact after “who.” Are the records in national, state, county, parish, town, or precinct records? Where did you find the records?
  • When. Determine a timeframe or time period so you know where to search for records.
  • Why. Why was the source created? Why did your ancestor emigrate from Germany to the United States? Why did they move from Illinois to Wyoming? Why are there so many German (or Irish, or Italian) people in the area?
  • • How. How does the information agree or conflict with information from other sources? How do I answer all these questions? How do I find the records I need?

As you analyze your data, you will be able to make good decisions about its value and accuracy. It’s not necessary to write the answers to the above questions, but writing your conclusions will help to clarify your thinking and reveal any inconsistencies.

Take time to carefully review your research. Look at the sources. What is the artifact? What documents did you use? What books did you use? With whom did you speak?

Look at information gathered from oral or recorded histories. Review previous research.
Correlate unrelated information by categorizing your information. Is it primary information (participant, eyewitness) or is it secondary (non-participant)?

Look closely at the evidence. What does the evidence say to you? How relevant is the information to your research? Does it provide direct answers to the questions you are researching? Does it provide indirect answers that help answer the question but do not stand alone? Does it provide negative answers or no answer at all? Is there information missing? What are you seeing that you didn’t see before? New insights? Different conclusion? Same answer? Different clues?

Learn to analyze the documents you find. The questions include the following:

  • What is the source citation of this document?
  • Is this an original document or a derivative?
  • Where did the document originate?
  • When was the document written?
  • Who is the primary individual listed in the document?
  • Who are the other individuals named in the document? What are their roles?
  • What relationships are stated?
  • What is the purpose of the document?
  • What information is directly stated within the document (such as dates or places)?
  • What information is implied (indirect) by this document?
  • What information is not stated, (name of wife, names of children, and so on)?
  • When was the document recorded?
  • Who had jurisdiction over the document then? Who has current jurisdiction over the document?
  • What other document(s) partner with this one?
  • What hints are contained within the document, suggesting additional research?

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