Conducting a Literature Survey, Part 2

See Conducting a Literature Survey, Part 1 for the beginning portion of this discussion.

Conducting a literature survey can be an overwhelming task, especially to the beginning genealogist, but it doesn’t have to be. Following are some tips to make the process both manageable and fruitful.

One of the best helps for managing genealogical research is in the creation and maintenance of lists of published works available for the localities in which we research. These lists are a go-by for conducting a literature survey, and provide information at a glance about the histories and transcribed or abstracted records available within the area under focus. Best of all, they’re highly useful: since our ancestors tended to “lump” into clusters, several related families with different surnames might be located within each locality; thus, the lists can be used over and over again without having to duplicate the creation process when moving from one research project to the next within a given locale.

Such lists are easy to create, but somewhat harder to maintain. To start, search WorldCat for the locality. Write down every relevant hit the search returns, being sure to include the full title of the work, the author, publisher, the copyright date, and other identifying data. If the book is available in a nearby library, include that information as well.

As with family histories, many records abstracts may be available in leaflet or folder form or otherwise published in a very limited manner, in which case the researcher has three options: 1) ask other researchers in the target locality about the availability of published works; 2) read articles about families who lived in the target locality, being sure to search source citations for possible helpful publications; or 3) obtain a thorough knowledge of the unpublished “primary” records available for the locality. These are all steps one should take when researching in a new locality.

Many records abstracts are also published in genealogical and historical periodicals, such as those mentioned in Part 1 of this discussion. When conducting searches in PERSI and periodical indices, search not only for the target surname, but also for the locality in which those ancestors lived. Doing so will turn up a broader array of useful articles than a simple name or surname search. Include records abstracts published in periodicals when creating lists of published works for the area under study. Back issues of periodicals can often be purchased from the publisher, or are generally available at libraries in or around the locality they cover.

Online book sellers and auction houses (Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and eBay, for instance) are excellent places to search for copies of publications, as are the many genealogy-specific publishing houses. Genealogical Publishing Company and Heritage Books are two popular companies with large selections, but there are also many smaller publishing companies that may deal only with works pertaining to a certain region or county (e.g. Teresita Press).

Many histories and published records abstracts are out of print. Some have been reprinted and may be available through the sellers mentioned previously, but there are still many other useful histories and genealogies that have not been reprinted. The latter may be available through, for instance, Google Books or the Library of Congress, but they may also languish uncatalogued in the Special Collections section of larger repositories, making published, documented genealogies of other area families a necessary addition to one’s reading list.

Be creative when searching for published works. Mailing lists and message boards are excellent ways to learn of useful material, new or old, as is networking with other local genealogists. Keep in mind that new histories and records abstracts are being published all the time. One way to keep up with this is to order catalogues from publishing companies, but another way is to stay in touch with authors who continually publish about a locality of interest. In this way, one may more easily maintain lists of published works.

The key to keeping the literature survey in hand is to be methodical and remain organized. Do not hapharzardly slosh through the literature. Rather, systematically search each work, recording the results in a research log, making copies when necessary, and checking each item off of the compiled list as it is searched. Promptly file any information found, being certain to note any clues or inconsistencies which need follow-up work. Include negative search results as well so that there is no question whether a work was searched for information on that project. In this way, the survey becomes a useful tool in the research process, rather than generating an overload of information.

This discussion will be continued in part 3, Conducting a Literature Survey: The Internet.

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