Solid research strategies are essential for every genealogist's toolkit, and a vital means of breaking down brick walls. The Society of Genealogists' Else Churchill takes you through everything you need to know.

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When approaching any genealogical problem its essential that you ensure that your research is and has been done in the most effective and efficient way.

Developing research strategies: Key points to remember

  • Identify the gaps
  • Where is the missing information?
  • How do I access it?
  • What are my priorities?
  • Determine the logical and practical order

Identifying where the gaps are in your family history, or possibly in your knowledge of the sources, is a crucial part of developing a strategy to make the most effective use of the time you have available to study and explore your family history. Considering the various ways in which the missing information may be discovered, investigating how and where to find the relevant information, determining the priorities and the logical or most practical order in which to approach the research are skills which every family historian naturally evolves over time - however there's no harm in getting a head start!

It will help you to be realistic in your expectations. Not every line can be traced. In my own family history I have only one line that goes back to the 1660s, and that is as far as the records survive. Other lines commonly stop around the mid to late 1700s with a not unusual occurrence of a couple seemingly turning up in parishes having children baptised but with little or no clues as to where the parents married or came from, if not the parish they ended up in. That doesn't make me a better of worse genealogist, it just means I've gone as far as the evidence and sources currently let me.

When I prepare to approach any genealogical problem whether for myself, or to help another genealogist, I find I am always having to ask the fundamental questions: Who? What? Where ? When? and Why?

Who are you looking for?

Do you actually know their name? The name you know might be the name they used informally rather than the name they were registered with. Everyone knows me as Else but that's not the name my father had put on my birth certificate, much to my mother's surprise, and because I don't like that name I rarely use it and it's on very few documents.

The type of person will also influence what can be found.Are we dealing with an agricultural labourer (or AgLab for short), or a lord of the manor? But remember the AgLAbs worked on the manor and farms, so knowing who their employers or landlords were may be important too.

What are you looking for?

Baptism, birth, marriage, death or burial? What information do you hope to find from that source? Can another provide the same information?

Where might an event have occurred?

Which parish, county or country? Knowing this will help you pinpoint exactly what you are looking for, and whether those records exist.

When did the event occur?

Time and context are crucial. It is vital, for example, to know that you only get birth certificates in England and Wales after 1st July 1837, or that the procedure and location of wills differs before and after 1858.

Why are you stuck?

Usually it's down to too many or too few possibilities. Are the gaps in the records or in your knowledge? Do you simply have insufficient information to go any further at present?

So the next time you find yourself faced with a brick wall, simply ask yourself Who? What? Where ? When? and Why? You'll find yourself thinking about the problem in a completely different way, and more often than not, that's all it takes to make the breakthrough.

Find more tips from Else and other experts on our blog.