Conducting a Literature Survey, Part 1

One of the first steps every genealogist should take when researching a new ancestor or surname is to conduct a literature survey. The purposes of a literature survey are simple: 1) to avoid the unnecessary duplication of another’s work; 2) to find transcribed works leading to extant records; 3) to get a “feel” for the time period and locale in which the target ancestor(s) lived.

Conducting a literature survey is relatively easy and painless, depending on the resources at one’s disposal, and should cover the following, at a minimum:

  • Biographies, compiled or individual
  • Family histories
  • Local histories
  • Transcribed and abstracted records
  • Periodicals, except for newspapers (which are searched during the research phase)
  • The Internet

Most biographies, histories, and published transcriptions can be located through WorldCat (see WorldCat for more information on the contents of its online catalogue). Once a copy of a needed item is found, the researcher may request the item through their own library or directly from the lending library, depending on the lending policies of each institution. If copies are not available for circulation, the researcher may wish to travel to the lending library to search the item. If such travel is not possible, the researcher may opt to find a volunteer (see RAOGK) or hire a researcher who can visit the library and search the work in question.

Unfortunately, many compiled genealogies are only available as leaflets or folders in the local public library or historical society, but such entities are usually willing to answer questions about their uncatalogued material when queried respectfully via mail or telephone. They may also be willing to conduct a search within these items, if the search is brief and concisely stated.

The periodical search should include:

  • newsletters produced by local historical and genealogical societies, and by family associations or surname study groups
  • local and regional magazines, especially those with a focus on history
  • field-specific magazines, such as Everton’s Genealogical Helper
  • quarterlies and journals produced by lineage societies (e.g. the DAR), and state, regional, and national genealogical and historical societies

Many of the these periodicals have been indexed by the Allen County Public Library and compiled into a database known as the Periodical Source Index, PERSI for short. Some important journals are not indexed in PERSI (the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, for example), but they are well worth the added effort and money needed to track down indexes or to join the societies in question so that one has access to the members-only indices.

The Internet is one entity which is treated with both respect and disdain by seasoned researchers: respect because of the sheer capabilities of the Web, and disdain because much of the genealogical information disseminated online is virtually worthless, either because it’s poorly documented, poorly reasoned, or out-and-out untrue. Nevertheless, the Internet should still be searched for information on the target ancestor or surname, not only for the reasons mentioned at the outlay of this post, but also to find others interested in the sought-after ancestor.

See Conducting a Literature Survey, Part 2 for a continuation of this discussion, including tips on managing a literature survey without becoming overwhelmed.


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