What Does “Reasonably Exhaustive Research” Really Look Like?

In meeting today’s genealogical proof standard of completing “reasonably exhaustive research,” I have found that there are many different understandings of exactly what this means.

Personally, I think this is a good visual representation of “reasonably exhaustive research”:

Public Domain Image

Yep, an artichoke. At first, I was thinking an onion might do it, but onion layers are one on top of the other, working their way into the center.

Exhaustive research, I think, is more like peeling away layers of artichoke, which not only work their way step by step toward the middle, but each layer has many small pieces overlapping each other.

Let’s take a look at what each layer represents. The outermost portion of the artichoke probably best equates to today’s internet sites. We have the handful of big ones like FamilySearch and Ancestry, but depending on where one lives, there are additional “big boys” like Library and Archives Canada, Scotland’s People and so on. Some of these sites are free, although others are by subscription. I’ve met fellow genealogists who will proudly state that they have “searched and searched,” but there just are no records.

I am sure if I asked them if they had done a reasonably exhaustive search, the answer would definitely be YES! And where were these places that constituted this exhaustive search? Sites A, B and C online. I think most fairly experienced researchers would quickly agree that this would be a newbie mistake and I concur.

Let’s look at the next layer of the artichoke – lesser known national, regional and some state repositories that have some, but not all, of their holdings available digitally. Although I use the word “state” because I live in the U.S., provincial records certainly fit into this category. These repositories in reality should be represented by at least two layers of the artichoke, because there are a lot of them. Examples include the U. S. National Archives, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Missouri Digital Heritage, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Canada, Arkiv Digital in Sweden, etc.

Newbie family historians quickly learn about these resources and most of them are fabulous, BUT not only don’t they have everything in their holdings, they also don’t have everything online. I’ve heard the complaint that not only has someone searched Sites A, B and C from the outer artichoke layer, but even Site D from this layer doesn’t have the records sought. Have they tried contacting the society/archives/repository directly to ask about items in their collection not online? The answer to that has usually been No! Or, I didn’t think of that. Isn’t everything online?

Neither of these situations, in my opinion, comes close to reasonably exhaustive research. The heart of the matter, or in this case, the heart of the vegetable, is more complex, tightly woven,more difficult to find your way and harder to pick apart.

Reasonably exhaustive research must, for the most part,  include leaving no stone unturned. Here are a few examples from my own research over the last 35 years.

  1. The Danish branch of my family tree was woefully bare for 30 years. The family migrated to Maine, so I searched state and local resources right down to the local historical society. I hired a researcher in Salt Lake City to find a home for my Frits Wille Oscar E. Johnson born in May 1845. Eventually, I searched the Danish 1880 census online and picked up the family’s trail in Copenhagen, but it went cold with Frits’ father, Johannes. From there, I spent hours reading baptismal records and Danish military levying rolls, page by page by the hundreds, as Johannes was a career soldier. Eventually, I was led to the Unwed Mother’s Hospital records in Copenhagen, filmed by FamilySearch. However, those records only covered the babies born, not the mothers. The mothers’ records were separate files, unfilmed, and held in the Danish National Archives, which cause me to hire a professional researcher in Copenhagen to retrieve a copy of his mother’s file. That met the standard of “reasonably exhaustive research” and enabled me to piece together the story of the Jensen family.
  2. My husband’s Sturgell family was another tough nut to crack (or artichoke layer to peel, if I stick with my original analogy!) In the pre-internet days, I wrote hundreds of letters to county clerks in two states, seeking information. I visited the Arkansas State Archives, digging through unpublished records. I corresponded with other researchers working on the Sturgells. I visited the Missouri courthouse to retrieve land deeds, but also found an original divorce packet that hadn’t seen the light of day since it was filed in 1876. I met distant cousins who shared family stories and, when digitized newspapers appeared online, I was able to gather enough documentation to piece together the family of Isaac and Mary Bandy Sturgell.

Have I mentioned that reasonably exhaustive research can’t be accomplished in a day or a week or probably even in a month???

If I were beginning to research a new person or branch of my family today, in order to convince others that I was meeting the genealogical proof standard of reasonably exhaustive research, I would begin by gathering what I already knew or believed to be true about this person/family.

I would start peeling away the outer layers of the artichoke by visiting online websites to see what clues or actual documentation might already be easily accessible. Could other researchers working on my person/family contribute to the little knowledge I had at the start?

Next, I would begin step-by-step research in locales (state, county and town) where the person/family lived, worked and were born, married and buried. Some of this research might be accomplished through digital images or microfilmed records, but it likely would also include phone calls, email or actual snail mail letters and, best of all, if possible, on site visits.

It would include reviewing vital records, court house records (many of which have NEVER been microfilmed or digitized), contacting local libraries and historical societies, looking for distant cousins interested in the family history, reading biographical and church histories in print and contacting organizations such as local ethnic societies, if appropriate to my research.

I would most definitely be reading up on all the types of records which might be available and unique to the area – e.g. Loyalist records in Canada, moving in and moving out records of Swedish parishes, centennial or bi-centennial publications, school records and locally created manuscripts detailing the area’s history.

To summarize then, reasonably exhaustive research must pick away enough layers of the artichoke to reach its core area. Beginning steps would include searching major sites like FamilySearch, Ancestry and My Heritage, but that is just the equivalent of dipping one’s toes in the water.

The search must continue, sifting through state, county and local resources, not only online, but through physical holdings housed in various repositories, from archives to societies to public and private libraries. Sources should include commonly found collections, such as land deeds and probates, but must also include lesser used records like tax lists and local historical diaries.

The final stage would be to locate unique resources, which might be indexed online (but also might not be), but which contents would need to be read and reviewed in person, either by oneself or a researcher near the locale in question. Examples here might include manuscript collections, historical family papers and original town minute records.

My take on all this is that if a researcher hasn’t reached the final stage, then he/she has not met the genealogical proof standard of reasonably exhaustive research!

I hope you will come back tomorrow when I begin a short series on delving into original source records in my quest to prove the parentage of my Joseph Coleman who lived in Bowdoinham, Maine during the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century.

It’s a great example of reasonably exhausting exhaustive research.





6 thoughts on “What Does “Reasonably Exhaustive Research” Really Look Like?”

  1. Great article Linda, although I am exhausted thinking about all the work I still have to do. I have been pouring over records on Find my Past and broke a brick wall I had on a great, great aunt. One less wall to climb. I also found a picture of my great uncles grave in France. I was there and did not previously know he was buried there in Flanders Field. Now I know I am just peeling the artichoke. Thanks

  2. Terrific perspective, Linda. Another example of those who don’t “get it” is the folks who say they have been searching for XX years, and it turns out they mean they have been posting queries on message boards. Oh, what delights they are missing!

  3. This post reminds me that I’ve become a little less energetic in my searches over the past couple of years. When I first started research about 9 or 10 years ago I borrowed every book I could find (I especially liked The Source) that suggested the kinds of records I could search and places where I might be able to find records for my ancestors. I need to generate more enthusiasm again!

  4. Great article Linda. I think the onslaught of online sources has led many people to believe they can do all that is needed quickly and online without further research or need for careful analysis. Many of the newbies I work with quickly lose steam when they find out what is really required to solve some of those stubborn problems. As much as I LOVE all that we now have access to online, I do think it can lead us to be lazy researchers if we don’t keep the principles in mind that you outlined.

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