Research Plan: Search Record Collections

Written By: Jayne McGarvey.

Covered In This Lesson:

  • The Benefits of Having a Strategy to Search the Record Collections

  • Let’s Take An Example

  • What To Do Next


In the Green Room we talk about the importance of planning your approach and considering search strategies BEFORE starting your research. Of course, an exception to this might be when visiting Ireland and you have the opportunity to get into conversation with a local. In that case, seize the opportunity and go with the flow. Now, back to planning!


The Benefits of Having a Strategy to Search the Record Collections

While the “Research Planning Worksheet” from the last two lessons in the roadmap helped you to set your “Working Hypothesis”, “Research Goals” and the sequence of your “research actions” – a “record search strategy” considers the “HOW” in a more considered way given the circumstances you encounter. I like to think of a record strategy as being the most effective way to reach your research objective based on your situation and the resources at your disposal. In other words, your record/documentation search strategy may change a lot depending on your circumstances.

A good strategy for searching the record collections at your disposal will:

  • Identify things like potential gaps in the record sets right up front – otherwise you may go in the wrong direction and waste a lot of time (or multiplied your brick walls!).
  • Recognise that recurring issues like incorrect phonetic spelling or surnames that can be spelt many different ways are to be expected – and planned for.
  • Help you recognise more time-efficient approaches to searches of large record collections.
  • Help you work systematically through a set of research approaches and exercises should you wish to revisit your research at a later date.

As mentioned above, a record search strategy will help you find practical solutions to common issues that you come across.  For example, if you are searching for a record for an ancestor whose surname has several potential spelling variants, restricting your research to one exact spelling may produce no potential records.  On the other hand, altering a surname spelling to include variants may result in 60,000 potential records.

How you write out your record search strategy – and record the results of those searches –  depends on your preferred style of working:

  • If you are a spreadsheet guru and love complex plans – then go that way.
  • If you are a doodler, you may wish to mind-map your record search strategy using the back of an envelope or an iPad.
  • However, we hope that you will try the “Search Potential Records” section in the Research Planning Worksheet – see end of this lesson for download instructions.

Let’s Take an Example:

Let’s look at a simple example to illustrate the benefits of a Record Search Strategy. I was asked by a client to discover more about his McCullough ancestor who was born in 1882 in County Down.

My client provided:

  • A 1911 Ireland Census record.
  • A 1903 Marriage reference.
  • Date of death.
  • Substantial proof of the next generation.
  • An indication that all these provided events occurred in Belfast.

My approach in such circumstances always includes :

  1. Closely inspecting and verifying my client’s documentation.
  2. Searching for a civil birth certificate to match the other client-provided information. I used where Irish Civil records may be searched for free.

As I already have two McCullough/McCullagh lines in my own tree, it’s a surname I’m actively researching.  Also, I was born and bred in County Down, so I’m searching in my own “back-yard”  – and familiar with the records and have knowledge of many of the local families.

Despite this knowledge, my first step is to log into John Grenham’s excellent Irish Ancestors website ( – free access to all Green Room members) and look at the surname and additional information about that surname. No matter how experienced you are as a researcher, it’s important to step back and consider the bigger picture at this early stage of research.

This is what I find:

You can have a closer look at the detail of the above screen-shot on John Grenham’s page here.

There are a number of  very simple reasons for using John Grenham’s site for surname information at this initial stage:

  • I know that the given surname can be spelt different ways. 
  • I know that variant spellings are more common around County Down (the area my client’s ancestor originated).
  • I know that there are a number of “Registration Districts” in County Down (the districts into which civil records are allocated when they are first recorded – we mentioned these in Stage 1 of the Research Roadmap). My client’s ancestor may have ended up in the city of Belfast for a wide variety of social, economic or family reasons – but may have originated from outside the city.
  • Although the majority of Belfast city is contained in County Antrim, a small part of the city crosses into County Down. It is possible that the man moved only a few streets to cross the county boundary – not moved from one side of the county to the other.

What I want to do at this stage is decide on the most efficient record search strategies (given the information I have and what I know of the civil record set) to search for this individual in the civil records on .

I see a few possible strategy options:

  • I can narrow the time range e.g. only search from 1880 to 1884 and then widen the range slowly.
  • I can search individual registration districts one at a time (but which one first?)
  • I can narrow the search by forename.
  • I can replace the forename with “unknown” (in case the child was registered without a name).

In addition:

  • As I don’t know the child’s mother’s name, using the indexes at the General Registration Office for Northern Ireland (GRONI) to search with a mother’s maiden name won’t help in this instance.
  • I could try the (a paid site) to search with the father’s forenames.

However, I won’t settle on the best record search strategies to use in this example until I have further inspected my client’s documentary evidence. That inspection might indicate that one strategy may work better than another in this case.

In Conclusion – and Over to You.

Five or ten minutes of thinking about the best record search strategies to inspect a collection and record the findings (or lack of them) can save hours of frustration and endless scrolling through very long record sets while still meeting the requirements of a “Reasonably exhaustive search”.

Over to you now – do you need some help organising a record search strategy (think of it as an angle of approach) to deal with a problem? Maybe you would like to share strategies that have worked when searching the records or even getting your relatives to open up and talk? 

What To Do Next:

That completes Stage 2 of the Green Room Research Roadmap. In Stage 3 we look at researching your ancestor in the area to which they immigrated.


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