Asking the Right Question: Part 2

I presume you took my advice from Part 1 and now have tea and biscuits at the ready? Excellent – they’re the foundation of many a good research session. If you followed through Part 1, you’ve now got your research question written down and possibly tacked to the wall or computer screen on a sticky note. Hopefully this week’s discussion will get you thinking about whether it’s the right question to be asking.

We already saw in Part 1 that a good research question should give your research structure and direction; define the parameters of your search, and encourage you to check your existing work for mistakes.

But how should we go about writing a question – where should we start?

A white outline on a black background shows us the outline of a person with a thought bubble containing a question mark. The question isn't specified, so what should the person be asking?
What question should we be asking? Image by Noelia, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Finding the Right Words

First things first: remember that forming a good research question should be viewed as a work in progress. You might not get it right first time, and that’s OK. Be prepared to reappraise your question critically and to improve it, until it’s providing you with the right structure. The more you go through this process, the better you’ll become at writing good questions!

Let’s identify the main question words.


Many genealogical problems are about time and place, because you’re trying to locate an ancestor in a particular town, county or region at a particular point in time. This means that you will find yourself using WHEN and WHERE questions the most.

The time and place you’re interested in also have a bearing on the record set you are looking in. If you’re trying to locate your Great-Grandpa Eric’s military service records and he died in 1894, then you won’t find him in WW1 record sets. Likewise, if you have ancestors who lived in Shoreditch in the 1860s, you’ll need to know that it was then in the county of Middlesex – this will determine where the relevant records are stored and searched. WHEN and WHERE are really important in genealogy.

Let’s see how question writing works. You may remember the PEARSON family from the end of Part 1: a family tree just waiting to be explored – let’s revisit them now.

How to Write a Research Question

Take a look at the simple tree for the PEARSON family shown in the image below. We were thinking about Charlotte OLIPHANT, and what questions we could ask about her.

A pedigree diagram of the Pearson family, showing George Pearson, born in 1886, who in 1908 married Charlotte Oliphant, born in 1879. They had three children: Henry in 1909, Margaret in 1910, and George in 1914.
The PEARSON family of Carlisle, Cumberland, showing George and Charlotte with their three children. What research questions might we ask to find out more about Charlotte?

Quick inspection of the tree indicates that we don’t seem to know about Charlotte’s death, or know the identities of her parents (perhaps we’d need to revisit her birth certificate and see if we forgot to write down their names), or whether she had any siblings. In fact, there are a multitude of questions to be asked – we’re only going to focus on a couple of examples.

Setting a bad example: the Haystack Approach

You may not have stopped to think about it, but the research question you’re asking, and the way you phrase it, fundamentally affects how you interact with search provision on online databases, such as Ancestry, FindMyPast, FamilySearch or perhaps digitised archival collections at your local record office.

WHAT information can we find out about Charlotte OLIPHANT?

Is this a good research question? Unfortunately not. Remember what we said about a good research question: it should give our investigations structure, direction and parameters to work within. Just asking “what information can I find?” is a scattergun approach and doesn’t give you a Yellow Brick Road to follow. I call this kind of question a Haystack Approach, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.

The problem with the Haystack Approach is best illustrated by thinking about how you might research this question online. Many of you no doubt are users of Ancestry – let’s take a look at how you’d perform a search using this question.

(NOTE: Ancestry non-users, fear not! What you’re about to see applies to many of the other online providers too, so please bear with me on this one).

A field of rolled hay bales. Closer bales are visible in the foreground and there are several other bales visible, stretching off into the distance, giving the impression of a lot of haybales to look through if we wanted to find something.
Fancy looking through all these for a needle? Thought not…you might want to rethink your search strategy. Photo by Jason Karsh, CC-BY-NC 2.0

When you look at the home page of the Ancestry screen, you’ll see a search box just inviting you to throw names and dates in. If you were to put Charlotte OLIPHANT’s name and date of birth in here, the Ancestry system will search through ALL of its record sets to look for her. Some of those records might be relevant, but thousands upon thousands of them won’t be.

A section of the home page from the commercial genealogy site Ancestry, showing the general search facility. Charlotte Oliphant's name has been filled in the First Name and Last Name fields.
An example of the general search box, to be found on the Ancestry home page.

Are you really expecting to find Charlotte listed in amongst Wales, Wills and Probate, 1513-1858, or Matriculation Roll of the University of St. Andrews 1747-1897? Probably not, so for now let’s not cloud our search results by blanket-searching in things which aren’t relevant – doing so will just give us more results to look through and it might prevent us from noticing the really useful records.

We can now see that by asking a general question such as “what can I find out about X?” is like hunting through a whole field of haystacks, looking for a needle which we might not even recognise if we did see it! If you’d like good quality, useful search results, the Haystack Approach is best avoided.

Getting Better: the Polished Approach

So it seems that our question lacks both structure and direction. Perhaps we should go back to the drawing board and see if we can improve it?

WHEN did Charlotte OLIPHANT (b. 12 April 1879) die?

OK, this is an improvement. We’ve made things a bit more specific by asking about a named event (Charlotte’s death) in a particular timeframe. This gets us thinking about the time period we’re looking in. Having taken the time to check our existing findings, we know that she survived her husband who died in 1929. We have her date of birth in 1879, so allowing for her living up to the age of 100 say, we now have a sensible time window for our search, of October 1929 – April 1979. This doesn’t yet define a record set to search in though: are we looking in England and Wales sets, or Scotland, or perhaps somewhere abroad? Let’s refine our question further.

WHEN and WHERE did Charlotte OLIPHANT (b. 12 April 1879, Carlisle), later PEARSON, die?

This is much better! By asking WHERE as well as WHEN, we now have a chance of defining a record set to look within. By including Charlotte’s place of birth as part of our research question, we have to think about the geography of our search. Her married name might also be relevant, so it’s good to have a reminder of that in the question.

Looking back at the family tree, we can see there’s a strong history of the PEARSONs being in Carlisle. Cumberland registration districts and record sets might be a high priority, although we should also entertain the possibility of Charlotte having died away from Carlisle. Carlisle is also close to the border with Scotland, so if we’re unsuccessful with our England and Wales searching, Scotland would be the next most sensible place to try.

An excerpt from the home screen of the genealogy website Ancestry, with an orange ellipse highlighting the location of a link to the Card Catalogue, a list of data collections.
If you look closely on the Ancestry home screen, you’ll notice this option for the Card Catalogue, highlighted here in orange.

So – now we return to Ancestry (or your preferred provider) and start our search. Armed with a useful research question, we know that we want to search through the England and Wales death registrations over 1929-1979. Hurrah – we have both a structure and direction for our search!

If you were performing this search on Ancestry, you’d need to visit the Card Catalogue. You can see how to access this in the figure on the left: find the listing for “Card Catalogue” on the home screen and click through. This will take you to the Card Catalogue: a listing of all the separate record sets on Ancestry.

Think of the Card Catalogue like a labelled series of boxes which you can search through. Back when you were taking the Haystack Approach, it’s as if the contents of all those boxes had been tipped out together. By contrast, in this Polished Approach you’re now looking at separate, clearly labelled boxes where you can access individual series, without searching through all sorts of unrelated sets too. Next step – choose which “box” to search in.

An example of the Card Catalogue page on Ancestry, showing a list of the relevant record sets for death indexes. An orange arrow is pointing to a record set called "England and Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916 to 2007"
An example of the Ancestry “Card Catalogue” page, which lists all the separate record sets; you can narrow the list down to find what you want. I’ve indicated the relevant Death Index record set – the one we want for our search – with an orange arrow.

Here, I’ve typed “Death Index” in to the Title field on the left-hand side, which narrows the Catalogue down to six possible record sets. From here we can see the one we want: England and Wales Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007 (indicated with the orange arrow). You’ll need to click on the title to search this set. The process of discovery can now progress in a sensible and considered direction!

Revisiting Your Own Question

Now revisit the personal research question you wrote down during Part 1. Does that question give you both structure and direction? Is it a Haystack or is it Polished? Will you need to refine it to make it useful? Try doing that now and see if it helps. During this process, you may realise that there are some vital details you don’t know about your individual and perhaps other research is required before you can ask the question you want to ask.

Here in Part 2, we’ve looked at how you can write and then refine your research question to make sure it’s giving you structure and direction. In Part 3, we’re going to look at how to use your question in practice.

Of course, having a polished question doesn’t mean that the questioning is done. Even polished surfaces eventually need re-polishing. Often, our research question needs to evolve as we move through our investigations, so next time we’re going to see what happens as our research into Charlotte OLIPHANT unfolds…

And perhaps next time you’re tempted to jump into a haystack, rather than pausing for a spot of polishing, stop and ask whether you’re asking the right question – or whether a few small tweaks here and there could help turbo-charge your research!

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