A recent post at Bridging the Past about “Pinball Genealogy” got me to thinking about the various ways that I’ve structured my research in the past.
I think I started, like many people, by outlining what I could remember about my family. This included parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and so on. There wasn’t much of a structure; it was more an emptying of my head. It also wasn’t really research. It was documentation.
Next, I recall going through family documents and entering data from the information that I found there. Again, it wasn’t really research, though there was some searching involved as I started to piece various sections of family together.
When I finally did start researching, in the true sense of the word, I had two approaches. One approach was to try tracing a specific line back as far as I could document. I always seemed to get distracted by some interesting ancestor, though, which would lead me off in a tangent. This wasn’t always bad, but it didn’t feel like progress. The other problem with this approach is that I would become bored looking at the same family all the time, leading me to drop my research completely for months on end. My second approach was more fun. Basically I would research whichever ancestor was calling to me at that particular moment. I like the spontaneous nature of this approach, but it definitely leads down the Pinball Genealogy trail, and again, didn’t really feel like progress.
To motivate myself, I’ve tried a few different approaches. I think I’ve finally hit on one that I really like. It allows me to not focus on one family for too long, but still make progress on my research. Since reading the Pinball Genealogy post, I’ve started calling it Spiral Genealogy.
What I’ve been doing for the past few months is to research one generation at a time, along all lines possible, one person at a time. I started with my youngest daughter as the first generation. Once she was researched (I pulled her birth certificate out of storage) and documented, I moved onto the next generation: myself and my wife. I documented our births, wedding, and children, and then moved on to the third generation, starting with my father. Looking at this process on a circular pedigree chart, it forms a spiral, working outward from my children, moving in a clockwise direction from patrilineal to matrilineal lines.
How has this helped my research? First, it allows me to literally see my progress as the spiral grows. This keeps me motivated to add more. For each new person, I create a small research plan, outlining a timeline of their life based on what I already know. Using this timeline I can take a survey of what documents are available for research. Since I’m working with the same generation, and therefore generally within the same time-frames, I can focus much of my research on the same sources in many cases (census information, for example). Unlike when I was researching a single line, however, I don’t get bored working with the same family. Once I am finished with one person, I can move onto the next, which may move me to a different area of research. My wife’s family, for example, comes from Italian immigrants. This is a much different look than my own generation upon generation upon generation of New England ancestors. Eventually, though, when I reach the top of the spiral, I get to return to my familiar roots, and say hello to those people that I may have first met when I was documenting the previous generation. I then get to work with those people in more detail, taking someone who may have just been a name on their daughter’s marriage certificate, and digging into their story, filling in details of other children, occupations, migrations, and so on, and hopefully being introduced to their parents, the next level of the spiral, along the way.
Spiral Genealogy has been a great way for me to stay focused and motivated. This high-level approach, so far, has worked wonderfully. What methods do others use to approach their high-level research plans?