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I've been wishing that a program/website existed that would look at my tree and tell me what I should research next. Should I try to find the birthdate of my great-grandfather, or should I try to find his deathdate first? Once I've selected a research goal, I know I can go to the FamilySearch wiki to find out where I should search; my question is, is there anything to help me determine what I should search for.

I'm aware of GenSmarts, which suggests a number of resources I can search to find various pieces of information. This is close, but I'm looking for something that would suggest a research goal and then direct me to the appropriate page(s) on FamilySearch wiki that will tell me where I can search for that information.

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    It's good to see you here, Dallan. Nice of you to discover our great Q&A StackExchange site for genealogy. – lkessler Sep 24 '17 at 2:24
  • Do you relate ONLY on FamilySearch records? There are many services completely different from F-S. Also unfortunately there are many regions (like Romania, Russia or Alaska) not covered by F-S and it is more convenient to use other services for tree building. – George Gaál Sep 25 '17 at 21:33
  • No, I'm interested in records from all over. The FamilySearch wiki includes pointers to records on many websites, not just FS. For example, here is the record selector for Romania: familysearch.org/wiki/en/Romania_Record_Selection_Table – Dallan Quass Sep 26 '17 at 1:39
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In addition to GenSmarts, there are other programs that will help you track your research progress.

GenDetective by Rumblesoft, Inc., like GenSmarts, reads files from genealogy software (see compatibility list) and helps you identify research opportunities.

Evidentia aids in evidence analysis. According to the home page, the benefits of using Evidentia include:

Supports the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) by:

  • Requiring all claims to have a source
  • Fully analyze evidence before reaching a conclusion
  • Finally feel confident about your conclusions and know for sure when you’ve done a reasonably exhaustive search.

Evidentia includes a feature called the Cousin Tracker which helps you keep track of your progress in researching how you and a cousin are related to your most recent common ancestor (MRCA), a feature which has been popular for those doing DNA research.

Other resources won't read your GEDCOM to look for holes, but will give you a list of possible records to look for, based on what information you want to find:

There are also articles in the FamilySearch wiki offering research guidance for different localities and for different purposes, including the Strategic Research Logs for England.

You asked:

Should I try to find the birthdate of my great-grandfather, or should I try to find his deathdate first?

This is a tricky question because it reveals a hidden assumption -- that you might be looking for a record or group of records that will give you direct evidence of your great-grandfather's birth or death date, and that you might be willing to take the information you find at face value. (See Thomas W. Jones' paper "Perils of Source Snobbery" for examples of what he calls "preferred sources" that contained errors.)

It may be more productive to ask yourself why you want to know (or prove) the date.

  • Do you want it simply to fill in a blank on a family group sheet or in your program?
  • Do you need it to narrow the date range in your search for other records?
  • Are you trying to disambiguate two people with the same name?

It is difficult to set priorities for different tasks if you don't have a clear idea of what your purpose is for the information. Assuming no pedigree collapse, you have four great-grandfathers, and the answer to your question of what to look for first might not be the same for all four of your great-grandfathers.

The FamilySearch Wiki's articles on the Principles of Family History Research and on the Research Process give an overview of doing research.

Software such as GenSmarts, FamilyTree Analyzer, the plugins within Family Historian 6 such as the Lookup Missing Census Facts plugin, and other technology can be good for finding holes or data-entry errors (such as birth dates with transposed digits that cause gross errors) in your data, but they can only go so far. To make an informed decision about what you want to look for, look for topic research guides such as the ones in the FamilySearch Wiki, at the The National Archives (TNA) in the UK, The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in the US, and so on, or guides to researching in the particular locality.

Books such as Marsha Rising Hoffman's Family Tree Problem Solver contain cases studies that show how the author worked through specific problems. After seeing how other genealogists went through the research process, it will be easier to decide which information is higher priority for the particular situation you're looking at.

There are many resources available -- but only you can answer the question of what information you want to know first.


The best advice I can give for someone trying to transition away from hint-collecting to doing real research is to start keeping a journal and to write down your thoughts about what you've discovered and what you want to find -- to think about the goals for your research.

The software I use most to accomplish this is Scrivener (and to a lesser degree, Scapple) from Literature and Latte. Scrivener is writing studio software which incorporates three different types of views into one program: a document view, a Corkboard (with index cards) and an Outliner. I use it to keep all of my genealogy research notes and to organize the material I collect about doing research -- the kind of material which doesn't fit well into traditional programs designed for genealogy.

Topic research

This screenshot shows my Scrivener project for doing US Land and Property Ownership research. It was inspired by Michael John Neill's posting on 25 Sep 2017, Property Owners: Got It, Were Taxed on It, Got of Rid of It for his blog Genealogy Tip of the Day with Michael John Neill. I started by making a checklist of the records he suggested we look for when tracing property:

  • record of acquisition: a deed of purchase, patent, inheritance, etc.
  • payment of property taxes: do that or lose it.
  • record of disposal: deed of sale, will, foreclosure, tax sale, etc.

This is in the document "real property checklist" which you can see in the Binder on the right.

The other folders collect webinar handouts and other research guides on the topic, plus information from Ancestry, FamilySearch, and other websites about the specific online databases I might want to consult when doing land research.

topic notebook for land and property research

Once I set out to follow Neill's tips and trace the ownership of specific people and properties, I'll create a new project for those specific people, or add a Land Records folder if I already have a project going.

Ordering Documents: Which one first?

The second screenshot is from the Scrivener project I created when the General Record Office (England and Wales) offered pilot projects where researchers could buy PDFs of birth, marriage, and death registrations, and I was having difficulty making up my mind which certificates to order first. (The Wills folder is for wills or other probate papers I'd like to order copies of from the Find a will or probate document (England and Wales) search and online ordering site at the Gov.UK website.)

I put each reference on an index card in Scrivener and moved them up and down in the outliner as I thought about which certificates I wanted most. Some of the documents in the research folder are notes about what information I could expect to find on the certificates. For the marriages, one of the deciding factors was whether or not I already had information about the marriages from the parish registers. I made index cards for each marriage I wanted to know about, then noted which ones I had found parish registers for, and which not, then moved the index cards around so the higher-priority certificates were on top.

tracking document ordering

Tutorials showing how other people use Scrivener for genealogy (usually for writing up the final product of your research) can be found on YouTube, such as Lyn Palermo's Introduction to Scrivener for Family History Writers. Palermo has also made Scrivener Templates for Family History Writers which are people-focused, rather than my source-centered examples:

  • Family History Template – 4 Ancestors (For use with as many ancestors as you like, includes 4, eliminate or add as you wish.)
  • Surname Template –Single Surname 3- Generations (Provides 3 generations of single surname, add or eliminate generations as needed.)
  • Couples –Family History Template One Couple (Provides for two ancestor’s individual stories and then their combined story.)

A link to her entire video catalogue is also on that page.

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    Thank you! What I'm looking for is software that uses the principles in the various links you've described to suggest proper goals. You say "only you can answer the question of what you want to know first", but many novices can't answer this question because all they've done to this point is click on hints. I think it would help them if there was some tool to give them suggestions. I haven't run across GenDetective before - I'll check it out. – Dallan Quass Sep 25 '17 at 16:32
  • I've added a new section to my answer about Scrivener, the software I use for research planning. Scrivener doesn't address your needs directly, but this is my go-to tool for making the kinds of decisions you talk about in your question. I have to write things out, gather my research guides, and make index cards in order to make up my mind about where I want to go next. – Jan Murphy Sep 25 '17 at 21:25
  • That's really interesting! My wife has used Scrivener for authoring books, but I'd never thought of using it for genealogy before. I'm watching the YouTube video you mention now. – Dallan Quass Sep 26 '17 at 18:30
  • I'm marking this answer correct. Although GenDetective doesn't exactly answer the question of "what should my next research goal be", it comes closer than other tools I've reviewed. Also, the idea of using Scrivener is pretty interesting. If you're a FamilySearch user, Find-A-Record does a nice job of pointing out possible research activities. It's similar in purpose to GenDetective's "My Research Progress" view. – Dallan Quass Sep 26 '17 at 18:37
  • Good example of the use of Scrivener -- are you aware of any Scirenver Project templates that make it easdier for Genealogist to use it? – ColeValleyGirl Sep 27 '17 at 7:04
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There really are not too many programs of the type that will suggest what to research.

But one possibility is Find-A-Record, which was designed to be a research assistant that works specifically with FamilySearch.

On their Help page, they state that Find-A-Record will scan your FamilySearch tree starting with yourself and will look for and present you with research opportunities. They say:

Each opportunity has a title which is a short description of what needs to be done. The background color represents the opportunities category while the title represents the opportunities type. Click on an opportunity card to see details about what needs to be done.

It is an online program created by Genealogy Systems (John Clark and Justin York). This is the screen shot of it from their website's home page:

enter image description here

You can find some videos with demos of the program at the Genealogy Systems You Tube page.

An early version of the program was one of the top finalists in the 2014 RootsTech Developers Challenge. Here was Ancestry Insider's review of the program.

They have a blog, and it appears the last blog entry is in 2015, so they may have stopped development of the program. But the program is still available and working and is free.

  • Thanks! I'd forgotten about Find-A-Record. I'll ask Justin what the current status is. – Dallan Quass Sep 25 '17 at 16:27
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I've never tried it myself but I think that Gramps offers a feature like this: What's next?

The What's Next Gramplet displays a list of the "most urgent" information gaps in your family tree. It is based on the following assumptions:

  • You want to know first and last name, birth date and place, and death date and place of each person
  • You want to know father, mother, marriage date and place, and - if divorced - divorce date and place of each family with married parents
  • You want to know at least the mother of each family with unmarried parents
  • The closer the relationship to the main person, the more "urgent" the information gap is.
  • The closer the common ancestor is from the main person, the more "urgent" the information is (e.g. nephews are considered more "urgent" than uncles, even though both have a distance of 3, because for nephews the common ancestor is father/mother, while for uncles, the common ancestor is grandfather/grandmother)
  • Marriage data and personal data of the spouse is slightly less "urgent" than personal data of the directly related person
  • Half brothers are less "urgent" than brothers

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