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Investigating the information-seeking behaviour of genealogists and family historians

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People are increasingly investigating their family history (or genealogy) as part of their everyday information-seeking activities. This paper provides insight into this behaviour and presents a new conceptual model that captures the stages of activity carried out during people’s lifelong family history research. The model offers a multi-phase view of the research process, intended to illustrate: (a) the different research phases themselves; (b) the inter-relationship between phases; (c) distinct phase-specific behaviours; and (d) phase-specific resource preferences. Data collected from amateur family historians by interview and questionnaire has helped to validate the model and provide insights into the information resources used. The findings complement existing knowledge about family history research and will benefit: family historians as they seek to navigate within the research process; providers of genealogical resources as they seek to better support users; and academics as they study information-seeking behaviours in various contexts.
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Investigating the Information
Seeking Behaviour of Genealogists
and Family Historians
v
DOI: 10.1177/016555150000000
jis.sagepub.com
Paul Darby and Paul Clough
Information School, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom
Abstract
People are increasingly investigating their family history (or genealogy) as part of their everyday information seeking
activities. This paper provides insight into this behaviour and presents a new conceptual model that captures the stages
of activity carried out during people’s lifelong family history research. The model offers a multi-phase view of the
research process, intended to illustrate: (a) the different research phases themselves; (b) the inter-relationship between
phases; (c) distinct phase-specific behaviours; and (d) phase-specific resource preferences. Data collected from
amateur family historians by interview and questionnaire has helped to validate the model and provide insights into the
information resources used. The findings complement existing knowledge about family history research and will benefit:
family historians as they seek to navigate within the research process; providers of genealogical resources as they seek
to better support users; and academics as they study information seeking behaviours in various contexts.
Keywords
Librarianship and information science; Information seeking behaviour; Family history and genealogy
1. Introduction
Family historians seek to identify their ancestors by locating and searching historical documentary resources, the goal
being to construct a network of forebears, normally recorded and presented on a diagram known as a family tree. This
task may be facilitated by documentary transcripts, name indices, or databases, but usually also involves hours of
trawling through pages of source material. The terms genealogy and family history research are used interchangeably,
but differ in scope: genealogy is the systematic tracing of an individual’s ancestors and their key information (dates and
places of birth, marriage and death etc.); family history research seeks to go further by unearthing supplementary
information about ancestors’ home, educational, working, social and political lives. Throughout this paper genealogy
and family history research are referred to collectively as family history research and abbreviated to FHR, whilst
genealogists and family historians are termed family history researchers, or FHRs.
The legal and medical sectors have long utilised professionally acquired genealogical information, but there has
recently been an explosion of interest in ancestral discovery amongst amateur and hobbyist researchers, facilitated
greatly by the Internet [1]. FHRs utilise resources ranging from widely available broad-coverage collections to more
specialised though limited sources, some requiring significant effort to access (e.g. travel, additional education, special
permissions). Typically FHRs visit local libraries, archives, national centres, and niche collections, both in-person and
online, behaviour characterised by Yakel as ‘everyday life information seeking ... a unique example of intensive and
extensive use of libraries and archives over time’ [2]. The task is pleasantly open-ended, limited only by practicalities
(record survival or accessibility; willingness to expend effort) or informational difficulties (ambiguities or dead-ends),
and, though the research activity itself is fairly solitary, the sharing of methodological information is common.
Corresponding author:
Paul Clough, Information School, The University of Sheffield, Regent Court, 211 Portobello Street, Sheffield, S1 4DP
Email: p.d.clough@sheffield.ac.uk
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Paul Darby and Paul Clough 2
The research described in this paper is intended to add to our understanding of the information behaviour of amateur
FHRs, an important group for a number of reasons, not least that they make up an increasingly large proportion of
users of heritage and archive resources, between 50 and 90 percent according to Tucker [3]. Improved understanding of
their activities will allow institutions to: more effectively tailor information provision (finding aids; digitisation
policies; database and website designs); more accurately measure user satisfaction; and so develop information systems
to fully exploit collection potential with regard to the needs of FHRs. Amongst repository staff, a better appreciation of
FHRs’ aims, preconceptions and misconceptions will improve the user experience for such researchers. The novelty of
the interaction between FHRs and information resources provides an example of a little-investigated, potentially
unique, mode of information behaviour, and there is evidence to suggest that established behavioural models fall short
when describing FHR activity [4, 5].
In this paper we seek to illustrate the different types of information behaviour usually exhibited by FHRs throughout
the full extent of their quest by proposing a conceptual model to describe the distinct research stages or phases
typically encountered, and by providing definite examples of preferred resources during key research phases. Implicit
is the belief that FHRs’ information behaviour is complex and changes over time as: research experience is gained;
researchers’ personal circumstances change; research focus shifts; and research interests develop [2, 5, 6]. A multi-
phase view of the FHR process is offered which illustrates: (a) the different research phases; (b) the inter-relationship
between phases; (c) distinct phase-specific behaviours; (d) phase-specific resource preferences.
This research is novel in that it focuses on amateur FHRs and depicts their unusual, possibly unique, behaviour
profile to a high degree of specificity and detail, by means of a conceptual model. Much previous work has considered
academic- or employment-initiated FHR which generates quite different behaviours [5]. Furthermore, since ostensibly
similar records and record-keeping systems differ internationally and most previous FHR-related studies originate in
North America, their applicability to UK-based FHR is limited, particularly in relation to specific resources. This
study, carried out in UK repositories, deliberately focussed on UK-based FHRs and their use of mainly UK-originated
resources. Though the model is generalisable beyond the UK, some resource findings are locality-specific. Finally, the
research takes a user- rather than a collection- or institution-based focus and seeks researchers’ own opinions regarding
their information seeking activities and preferred information resources.
The paper is structured as follows: section 2 summarises previous FHR studies and why further research is
warranted; section 3 outlines the research methodology; section 4 presents results, including a full explanation of our
final model and empirical findings on resource preference for specific FHR phases; section 5 considers findings in the
broader research context; and section 6 provides a summary and suggestions for future work.
2. Past work
When considering the interaction between users and custodians of archival information, only recently has the focus
shifted from a collection-based perspective to a more user-oriented one. Widely regarded as the first academic study to
investigate the behaviour of FHRs as a specific group, Duff & Johnson [6] focussed on primarily professional
researchers who, it was supposed, had a wider perspective on the research process. They found that FHR surpassed
simply gathering dates and suggested three collection phases: tracing individual ancestors; collecting relevant personal
information; and gathering contextual information about their lives. They found that names were paramount to FHRs,
followed by geographic locations (sometimes refined after consulting maps), and usually qualified by dates. Subjects or
events were also used but less frequently. These search terms, though, did not mesh with the provenance-based finding
aids found in archives and so research questions needed to be re-framed, a difficult task, particularly for novices. By
necessity, FHRs overcame these difficulties by developing trusted and repeatable search strategies, thereby building
collection-specific expertise, in part by sharing knowledge with fellow-researchers in informal social networks.
Yakel [2] investigated specifically amateur FHRs, finding their research to be an on-going process, as meeting one
information need usually generated another. Simply gathering genealogical facts was gradually overtaken by the desire
to create a more inclusive narrative in the search for connection and meaning. FHR’s relevance to self-discovery and
collective memory was explored by Yakel & Torres [7] and conceptualised as ‘a community of records’, the inter-
relationship of fact, meaning and truth. This shift of researchers' focus from cognitive to more affective aspects
illustrates a changing information need as individual FHR progresses. Learning how to do FHR was a significant part
of this evolutionary process with fellow researchers favoured over professional intermediaries as educators.
Butterworth noted that, unlike traditional information seeking and retrieval (IS&R) research subjects, amateur FHRs
were highly motivated within social and cultural contexts [5]. The process of creating self-generated research questions
and solutions for a valued audience (self, family or simply posterity) offered regular incremental rewards sufficient to
Journal of Information Science, 39 (1) 2013, pp. 1–13, DOI: 10.1177/016555150nnnnnnn © The Author(s), 2013
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Journal of Information Science, 39 (1) 2013, pp. 1–13, DOI: 10.1177/016555150nnnnnnn © The Author(s), 2013
offset any negative aspects of IS&R [8] and was an end in itself, often developing into local history research as
contextual information assumed more importance. The same author stated that the complex motivations behind FHR
are particularly under-researched, encapsulated by few if any existing models, and characterised FHR as strongly social
(groups and sharing), but weakly collaborative (mainly solitary research), with ill-defined activity boundaries making it
hard to study within established frameworks [5]. He suggested that the incremental nature of FHR, with continual
redefinition of objectives, means that Bates’ berry picking model [10] has something to offer in explaining FHR
behaviour. In this model of searching the user’s query is continually shifting and is not satisfied by a single retrieved
set of results, but rather by a selection of relevant items (“berries”) found along the way. In investigating design
methods for digital library systems Butterworth himself proposed a behavioural model for ‘personal history
researchers’ (FHRs), based on ‘educated guesswork’ and input from a single researcher, which proposed a complex
inter-relationship of four stages: question formation; identify archive; search and browse; interpret [9]. Butterworth &
Davis Perkins [4] found that: FHRs had well-articulated research objectives, likely because they were highly
motivated; their questions were self-generated and refined by previous interactions; and they suffered fewer negative
aspects of IS&R than professional researchers with imposed objectives [8].
FHR within a wider context has been investigated by other researchers. For example, Fulton looked at how its
pleasurable aspects as a leisure activity influenced research behaviour [11] and defined FHR as an example of
Stebbins’ concept of ‘serious leisure’: the pursuit of a substantial and fulfilling amateur activity often necessitating the
development of special skills [12]. Fulton also studied the social constructs and norms formed around the sharing of
information between amateur FHRs and found it to be an important aspect of FHR, supporting learning as well as
research success [13]. A few studies have looked at use of the Internet for FHR. In a US-focused study Frazier
considered various aspects of online FHR, including which web resources were most-visited [14]. Veale investigated
how FHRs interacted with the Internet, particularly researching, publishing and collaborating. Information quality,
security and over-commercialisation were concerns voiced by FHRs [15]. Garrett investigated the use of Ancestry
1
, a
commercial provider of online genealogical data, amongst users of a US archive and found that most participants used
the website, many availing themselves of free on-site access. Such online tools were viewed positively but did not
replace valued on-site visits to view material and seek advice from staff [16]. Skinner considered amateur FHRs’
satisfaction with various resources, interestingly by seeking opinion from both FHRs themselves and the professionals
who assist them [17], an approach also advocated by Butterworth [5]. Skinner found a generally satisfied group of
researchers, with certain preferences regarding information formats, and which again valued face-to-face interaction
with knowledgeable repository staff.
It is surprising that FHRs are still under-researched, particularly their selection of resources, and many researchers
recommend further study since current models do not easily capture their behaviour [4, 5, 16, 17 etc.]. This paper seeks
to complement existing research by: developing a conceptual model to highlight the activities undertaken by FHRs; the
order in which these are carried out; and the resources used by individuals at key stages.
3. Methodology
A mixed-methods approach was adopted to explore FHR activity and the resources used to support this activity, which
might include, for example, historic census returns, church records, local newspapers and maps. An initial framework,
based on prior work, was created to describe the main phases of the process (Section 3.1) and to provide a structure
within which to orient subsequent investigations. The work is best described as deductive since the resulting model was
based on data collected from practicing FHRs with reference to an initial conceptual framework. Predominantly
qualitative in nature, the research used data from in-depth unstructured interviews, augmented by quantitative analyses
of responses to several specific questions (Section 3.2). The particular characteristics of much amateur FHR activity
(very long-term research, carried out sporadically yet intensively) meant that other research instruments, such as long-
term longitudinal studies or personal activity records, whilst helpful in some situations, were inappropriate here.
3.1. Initial framework
Based on past work (Section 2) combined with the first author’s experiences as a staff member assisting FHRs in a UK
county archive and a local studies library, a framework was constructed to encompass eight proposed and distinct
phases of activity that FHRs might encounter (see Section 4.1). The framework loosely reflects Wilson’s model of
1
http://www.ancestry.co.uk/ or http://www.ancestry.com/
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Paul Darby and Paul Clough 4
information behaviour in that it recognises: initial triggers; motivations for starting and continuing the research
(‘activating mechanisms’); factors influencing research (better illustrated in later parts of the survey); and various
levels of seeking behaviour [18]. It also draws on the information seeking model proposed by Ellis [19]. Further
discussion on various types of conceptual models for IS&R research are provided by Järvelin & Wilson [20], including
the analytic or causal versus the more process-oriented. Our final model describes the FHR process rather than possible
causative factors. It seeks to illustrate the stages involved in FHR rather than explain underlying drivers.
In the framework, phases are arranged in an ordered or temporal fashion supposing that people begin at the first
phase and work through subsequent phases sequentially without omission, sometimes going back and resuming the
sequence from an earlier phase as research focus changes. The activities fall into two categories: (a) preliminary
phases: collecting information to enable FHR proper to start; and (b) main research phases: the primary data gathering.
Most FHRs visualise and organise their information using a family tree (or pedigree) diagram, a documentary
representation of genealogical relationships. We propose that the research effort required to populate the tree, by
tracing as many ancestors as possible, varies with ancestor dependant on a number of factors and generates differing
forms of information behaviour, described by different phases of the framework.
Our overall aim was to produce a model describing the activities undertaken during FHR, by analysing findings
from the interview and questionnaire surveys, with reference to the initial framework (Section 3.2). The interview data
in particular suggested: (a) additional phases; (b) unnecessary phases; (c) alternative phase sequences; and (d)
alternative model structures. The questionnaire data indicated preferred resources for key research phases. The model
(described in Section 4.1) will show the research phases typically encountered by FHRs; particular resources associated
with different research phases; and how the phases are encountered (sequentially, in parallel, iteratively etc.).
3.2. Data collection
3.2.1 Participants
Participants were members of the public who were also practicing FHRs. Their informed consent was obtained, as
required by the Research Ethics Committee of the University of Sheffield. The self-selecting sample consisted of users
of repositories in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire (UK), supplemented by individual members of family history
groups. Almost all were amateurs, conducting FHR as a leisure activity; one carried out fee-based research regularly,
one infrequently. 23 participants made up the interview sample and 21 the questionnaire sample (of which 17 had taken
part in the interview survey). The new questionnaire participants came from informal contacts.
All but one participant (96%) did FHR for themselves and about a quarter (22%) carried out work for a family
member. A few (13%) researched for a friend, and two (9%) did so for a paying client, at least occasionally. The mean
duration of research was 9.7 years, ranging from a few months to 44 years. The mean number of research visits (any
trip relating to FHR) was 33 per year, ranging from, on average, less than one trip to around 200 trips annually. Online
sources were used frequently, with 66% of participants using them several times per week and 13% weekly. Only 4%
of researchers never used the Internet for FHR.
3.2.2 Interviews
In
terv
iews allowed exploration of participants’ FHR practices and were piloted on knowledgeable staff from the target
repositories (county archives and local studies libraries in the region). They were unstructured except for reference to
the initial framework (and use of a topic list as an aide-memoir for the interviewer) and were conducted at the
repository being visited or another convenient location, usually the participant’s home. Duration varied: the shortest
around thirty minutes; the longest about two hours.
To avoid intimidating participants, conversations were not recorded electronically. Comments were noted down and
later transcribed into electronic documents whose content was subsequently divided such that all comments pertaining
to a given topic were collected together. This allowed the different responses within each topic to be noted and given a
code value. The texts for each topic were then analysed line-by-line and coded accordingly, then individual codes
totalled to provide a measure of opinion and to facilitate simple statistical analyses. To improve coding consistency and
transparency codes were added into comment texts, allowing subsequent review by the authors and other researchers.
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Paul Darby and Paul Clough 5
Figure 1. The proposed model of activities involved in and resources used for family history research
3.2.3 Questionnaires
Following
interview analyses additional data about phase-related resource choices were sought by questionnaire. The
resources list therein acted as a memory-jogger for participants, the need for which became apparent during interviews
when some resources were mentioned only after a chance reminder. The questionnaire sample was predominantly the
same group as for the interviews. In most instances questionnaires were disseminated and returned by email.
Piloting suggested 15 to 20 minutes to complete the questionnaire, which was made up of three identical lists of 48
resources (e.g. Census online; Post-1858 wills etc.), each list to be considered in relation to a single key tree-building
phase, i.e. phases 5-7 in Figure 1. Using a Likert scale: very good; good; neutral; bad; very bad, resource effectiveness
was graded for each phase. Resources not used were left blank. For each of the three phases under investigation, votes
for each of the five grades, across the 48 resources, were summed to give a count for each grade/resource/phase
combination. A single score per resource within phase was achieved by applying a weighting factor to the grades: +2;
+1; 0; -1; -2 respectively, then summing the weighted values per resource/phase combination.
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4. Results and analysis
The final model's research phases, their inter-relationships and attributes are shown in Figure 1. The proposed model is
presented first as subsequent discussions will refer to particular phases. The results are presented as follows: the model
overview (Section 4.1); details of the model’s constituent phases (Section 4.2); and findings linking particular
resources to key research phases (Section 4.3). Note: Unless otherwise stated, individual statistics are independent of
one another, i.e. participants can be counted in more than one category.
4.1. Model overview
Table 1. Comments on proposed framework (interviews)
Comments on proposed framework (response rate 22 of 23) Count Percentage
General agreement with proposed phases 20 91%
Fundamentally disagree with proposed framework 0 0%
Jumped into middle of phase sequence 8 36%
Did some phases in different order 6 27%
Research seen as a strongly iterative process 3 14%
A sequential ordering is implied by the phase numbers of the model (see Figure 1). It is assumed that FHR is initiated
at phase 1: trigger event, and usually followed by phase 2: collect family information, though findings suggest some
researchers skip this phase. Phase 2 may be followed by phase 3: learn the process, though this is not the case for an
increasing number of FHRs, so phase 2 (or indeed phase 1) could alternatively be followed by phase 4: break in, bi-
passing phase 3. For phases beyond phase 3 we suggest a parallel aspect to reflect the continuous learning reported by
many FHRs. By definition there is a strongly implied sequence from phase 4 through phases 5, 6 and 7: tree-build -
easy; medium; hard to phase 8: push back selected lines. At any of these phases it is possible to go back to an earlier
phase and resume the sequence, possibly when initiating research into a new ancestral line. It would, though, be
unusual to revert back as far as phase 1 or 2. Jumping back to phase 3 is now meaningless since learning is only
considered as a discrete step the first time through. Thus the model describes the iterative and cyclical nature of the
FHR process by supporting alternative pathways through its constituent phases.
There was good agreement (91%) with, and recognition of, the phases of the initial framework and no respondents
fundamentally disagreed with its components or overall structure. Some agreed it reflected how they had done things
themselves but wondered whether this was still relevant to today’s researchers. Others questioned the order in which
phases might be encountered and whether some would be skipped initially or omitted entirely. Some FHRs started their
research in later phases (36%) or experienced phases in a different order from that proposed (27%): “At first you don’t
follow a proper path - you want to learn a little bit about everybody” (A007); “I started looking immediately for
specific individuals using online resources – didn’t do phases 2 to 4” (A023). One researcher “jumped to earlier
records because I’m fascinated by the nineteenth century” (A025). Several (14%) commented on the process being
iterative. Some respondents thought that the Internet encouraged novice or younger FHRs to skip earlier phases and to
engage in initially unstructured, exploratory activity, behaviour characterised by speculative, unfocused searching
using, perhaps, general search engines with simple search terms. One researcher suggested “an extra phase to reflect
early speculative searching online(A022), though this was not included in the final model.
4.2. Phases of the model
The individual phases of the model are now considered in turn.
4.2.1 Phase 1: trigger event
A specifi
c event (or events) usually triggered FHR (see Table 2), catalysing investigation of long-held family questions
posed by the researchers themselves or other family members (45%): “The desire to learn about father's Navy career
(A007); “Seeking birth parents of a ‘foundling’ ancestor” (A017). A change in practical circumstances e.g. more time
after retirement or improved access to resources was a common trigger (41%), as was the desire to learn about
mysterious stories (32%): “A wish to get to the truth behind some dreadful family stories (A003); or “A desire to get to
the bottom of some ‘funny business’ surrounding an ancestor who was ‘a bit of a rogue’” (A004). Other reasons
included: the discovery of family documents; school projects; capturing the experiences of elderly relatives; media
programmes.
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Table 2. Phase 1: trigger event (interviews)
Characteristics of phase 1: trigger event (response rate 22 of 23) Count Percentage
Specific objective or information gap 10 45%
Practical factors 9 41%
Family anecdotes & mysteries 7 32%
Family members 7 32%
Family documents or artefacts 5 23%
4.2.2 Phase 2: collecting family information
Table 3. Phase 2: collecting family information
(interviews)
Characteristics of phase 2: collecting family information (response rate 20 of 23) Count Percentage
Verbal information from family members 16 80%
Family documents 12 60%
Family photographs 7 35%
Family artefacts 4 20%
Previous research by other family members 3 15%
Tried but not very successful 3 15%
Unco-operative family members 3 15%
Beginning FHR can be daunting so novice researchers often start by gathering information from within the family,
research activity which often provides relatively easily-won rewards. Table 3 summarises characteristics of this stage.
Phase 2: collect family information includes collecting family anecdotes (80%), gathering documents like BMD (birth,
marriage and death) certificates (60%), or family photographs (35%). Physical artefacts also provided useful
information: “A personal diary from the Crimean war” (A027). Previous research by other family members helped
some (15%), though information quality was variable. Some FHRs failed to gain useful information during this phase
(15%), finding family members unwilling or unable to help: “What do you want to know that for?” (A007); others had
no one to ask and had to rely on their own memories.
4.2.3 Phase 3: learn the process
T
a
ble 4. Phase 3: learn the process
(interviews)
Characteristics of phase 3: learn the process (response rate 22 of 23) Count Percentage
Learning is on-going 10 45%
Learning-by-doing or trial-and-error approach 9 41%
No specific learning phase 6 27%
Join group or society and/or attend events 8 36%
Text books & magazines 7 32%
Online resources & ‘How To’ websites 6 27%
Family members or friends 6 27%
Library or archive staff 6 27%
We propose that researchers must somehow learn about the FHR process to satisfy informational objectives effectively
and indeed this was not questioned by FHRs. Learning, though, went beyond the single discrete phase 3: learn the
process, with almost half of respondents (45%) saying that it was a continuous part of their research activity: “to
appreciate the limitations of sources” (A003); “because catalogues and collections are often hard to understand
(A000); “to properly interpret resources” (A007). Some (27%) had not personally experienced a discrete learning
phase; others wondered if it was relevant to today’s FHRs, citing as probable reason the easier information access
afforded by the Internet and the growth of trial-and-error searching. Learning-by-doing was a significant method of
developing information gathering techniques, with many FHRs (41%) employing a trial-and-error approach to
searching. One respondent described “plunging in at the deep end” (A008); another said “I just followed my nose and
learned things as I went along - I made a lot of mistakes at first” (A026). Our model includes a parallel learning
component from phase 3 onwards. A distinct phase 3 was retained because it is still a valid research phase for some.
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4.2.4 Phase 4: breaking in
Table 5. Phase 4:
breaking in (interviews)
Characteristics of phase 4: breaking in (response rate 18 of 23) Count Percentage
Sufficient information to access census resources immediately 13 72%
Speculative jump into census 0 0%
The nineteenth and early twentieth century census returns are unquestionably a key FHR resource - one participant
advised: “Get to the census as soon as you can” (A014) - and the original supposition was that researchers would take
purposive steps to gather ancestral information to enable them to utilise this valuable resource. In fact most FHRs
(72%) were already aware of ancestors for whom to search within census resources. No FHRs reported jumping into
the census speculatively, counter to other indications of trial-and-error searching. Many respondents talked more
generally about an initial key discovery which launched their research: “A military service record provided his next of
kin and an address and that set me going” (004); “Family bible dates often went back well into the nineteenth century
(A013); “...travelled to specific locality in Scotland and accessed initial information at a local library” (A026). In light
of these findings the definition of phase 4 was broadened to accommodate any finds that launch the research process,
and was renamed ‘break in’ to better illustrate this important step of commencing the research.
4.2.5 Phases 5, 6 and 7: easy, medium and hard tree-build characteristics
Phases
5, 6 and
7: tree-build - easy; medium; hard encompass the key task of constructing the family tree, the essential
reason for doing FHR. All respondents reported experiencing phase 5: tree-build - easy and phase 6: tree-build -
medium activity and around half (48%) had encountered phase 7: tree-build - hard. The task is most commonly
approached in a breadth-first manner, initially perhaps going back five or six generations, though some FHRs (23%)
pursue a depth-first alternative, following single lines back as far as possible, one at a time.
The distinction between phases 5, 6 and 7 is subjective and not clear-cut, but still a valuable means by which
different behaviours can be explored. Phase 5 is when the easiest finds are made, usually more recent forebears. Main
resources are those most easily accessed, requiring little expert knowledge to use and perhaps offering some form of
indexing or transcription: “...speed of finding people by [online] name searches” (A004); “Straightforward to go back
several generations” (A010). In phase 6 reasonable effort is required and tasks might include confirmation of earlier
findings using ‘more trustworthy’ sources e.g. originals or facsimile copies rather than transcripts: “I started with
transcribed resources - easier to find information - then originals” (A017). Coverage is typically not nationwide from
a single source, but similar records are available at local level throughout the country, necessitating travel and some
knowledge to access: “I started to visit archives to access church records - baptisms on micro-fiche” (A029). Phase 7
describes the highly purposive behaviour necessary to locate ‘difficult’ ancestors, not found in earlier phases, or to
resolve ambiguities. The breadth of potential resources is larger than for preceding phases making research more
piecemeal. Use of specialist collections is common, as is the need to travel to access sources, e.g. “Gloucester record
office to look at a prison register” (A000); “Society of Genealogists' library” (A026).
Table 6. General characteristics, phases 5, 6 and 7: tree-build - easy; medium; hard
(interviews)
Characteristics of phases 5, 6 and 7: tree-build - easy; medium; hard
Phase 5
N=23
Phase 6
N=23
Phase 7
N=11
Use of online resources 70% 48% 18%
Use of physical documents (including copies on various media) 48% 87% 91%
Archive, local studies library, family history centre 61% 78% 73%
Society, group, course, or introductory event 17% 26% 9%
Desire for contextual information 4% 9% 18%
Table 6 shows some non-resource-specific research characteristics through phases 5 to 7. As ancestor identification
becomes more difficult the use of online resources declines (70% to 18%), whilst the use of physical material increases
(48% to 91%), probably indicative of the lesser online availability of more unusual records and the initial focus on
digitising records with the widest appeal. The high and relatively constant usage of archives, local studies libraries and
family history centres (averaging 71%) illustrates the multi-level appeal of such institutions as places where serious
researchers can access specific resources, and simultaneously where novices can take their first research steps. The
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Paul Darby and Paul Clough 9
increasing desire for contextual information about ancestors and their lives (4% to 18%) supports findings of other
researchers [5, 6, 7]: “I started to want to build up a general picture of peoples lives” (A024).
4.2.6 Phase 8: push back selected lines
Relatively few survey participants (35%
) reported reaching phase 8: push back selected lines, the phase during which,
having constructed a well-populated family tree, the FHR concentrates subsequent effort on pushing back particular
ancestral lines and which necessitates accessing more ‘difficult’ resources: difficult to locate; access; read; understand;
or interpret. Few have guaranteed breadth of coverage or central means of access, and many require specific knowledge
to interpret effectively. Two distinct sub-phases of behaviour were apparent in phase 8, defined by degree of familiarity
with such sources: occasional users of such material (50% of respondents); and regular users (38% of respondents).
The final model illustrates these two distinct but associated sub-phases by splitting phase 8 into: 8a: push back selected
lines - occasional and 8b: push back selected lines - regular. It seems reasonable to assume that FHRs start at sub-
phase 8a, and with experience some, though not all, progress to sub-phase 8b.
Table 7. Phase 8: push back selected lines
(interviews)
Characteristics of phase 8: push back selected lines (response rate 8 of 23) Count Percentage
Occasionally use ‘difficult’ records 4 50%
Copy material for later interpretation 2 50%
Link into pre-existing research 1 25%
Seek specific tuition to utilise difficult records 0 0%
Regularly use ‘difficult’ records 3 38%
Copy material for later interpretation 0 0%
Link into pre-existing research 0 0%
Seek specific tuition to utilise difficult records 1 33%
Note: italics counts and percentages are within non-italic categories.
Though respondent numbers were small, findings indicated distinguishing behaviour for each sub-phase. In sub-
phase 8a FHRs used complex documents in relatively superficial ways, relying heavily on the work of intermediaries:
(a) catalogues: one relatively inexperienced researcher “rapidly started to use difficult records after research linked to
a major family with a large archive of documents” (A008); (b) transcripts; (c) previous research, though not without
awareness of the need for independent verification; (d) interpretation by third parties: “I'm not an expert on reading old
documents ... I take a copy ... ask others for help in reading and interpreting it later” (A024). By such means complex
content is collected, interpreted and absorbed into researchers’ collections. In sub-phase 8b FHRs’ behaviour was more
purposeful and targeted, for example, researchers sought additional skills like palaeography (reading old handwriting)
or Latin to access record content: “I joined a group to learn to read old documents” (A014).
4.3. Information resources
Table 8 shows highest-rated resources based on effectiveness for FHR, by tree-building phase, quantified by summing
questionnaire votes after applying grade weightings (Section 3.2.3). A high score is taken to indicate preference for a
resource. Effectiveness, though, is a complex criterion and measures opinion about various inter-related characteristics:
availability; accessibility; personal research success etc., and so warrants further investigation.
During phase 5: tree-build - easy FHRs preferred easy-to-access online resources which provide broad coverage
with indexed or transcribed content, in particular: census material (online and physical); online BMD indices; and
Ancestry. Even in this first tree-building phase there was significant use of physical records at repositories (45%), much
content un-indexed, most commonly: parish register material; trade directories; and newspapers. In phase 6: tree-build
- medium, census, BMD indices, and Ancestry scored highly, as did also physical parish material. Maps were
proportionately more highly rated than previously, both published Ordnance Survey (old and modern) and manuscript
versions (e.g. tithe and enclosure). County archive websites (for orienting and collection information) and visits to
TNA were also popular. A wider resource pool is noticeable in phase 7: tree-build - hard where the resource mix
differed markedly from phases 5 and 6. Physical versions of parish register records and BMD indices were considered
most effective. Few online resources scored well, probably having been exhausted in previous phases. Wills (ancient
and more modern) appear, as do less familiar records, deliberately sought out and pertaining to: nonconformist
worship; workhouses and asyla; land and property. More generalised resources e.g. museum or library websites;
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Journal of Information Science, 39 (1) 2013, pp. 1–13, DOI: 10.1177/016555150nnnnnnn © The Author(s), 2013
GENUKI website
2
(UK-oriented genealogy portal) did moderately well. Absolute scores decrease from phase 5
through to phase 7 because initially FHRs employed the same resources and broadly agreed as to their effectiveness,
whereas in later phases a progressively wider pool of used resources meant ratings were more dispersed. Also, only in
situations where a source was commonly accessed using different media was the resource/medium combination
investigated as a separate entity; in other cases medium was not taken into account. Thus key resources (ascertained
from preliminary work) were more closely investigated with respect to delivery medium. Medium-independent
resource comparisons are not provided, but can be achieved by summing scores for a given resource across all media.
Table 8. Resource effectiveness, highest-rated, phases 5, 6 and 7: tree-build - easy; medium; hard
(questionnaire)
Resource within research phase (Response rate 21 out of 21)
Weighted
Score
Votes
Phase 5
Census returns online 29 20
GRO indexes of birth, marriage & death - online (various free & fee-based) 27 19
Ancestry website 25 18
Parish register originals (including film; fiche; photocopies) 24 15
Census returns - physical media (film; fiche; photocopies etc.) 17 14
Trade directories - all media 12 11
Newspapers - physical media (including film; fiche; photocopies) 12 11
Parish register online transcripts (excluding International Genealogical Index) 12 9
Phase 6
Parish register originals (including film; fiche; photocopies) 20 13
Ancestry website 18 17
Census returns online 18 17
GRO indexes of birth, marriage & death - online (various free & fee-based) 13 16
County archives & record office websites 8 9
Census returns - physical media (film; fiche; photocopies etc.) 8 11
Find My Past
3
website 8 7
Maps Ordnance Survey (old & modern) - all media 8 8
Phase 7
Parish register originals (including film; fiche; photocopies) 7 12
GRO indexes (birth, marriage, death) - other media (including film; fiche; photocopies) 5 4
Post-1858 wills - all media 5 6
Pre-1858 wills (ecclesiastical) - all media 4 5
Poor law / workhouse / asylum records 4 6
Nonconformist chapel registers 4 5
5. Discussion
The objective of this research was to produce a conceptual model describing the informational activities of FHRs,
particularly amateurs whose complex motivations for research potentially lead to unexpected behaviours. Xie describes
search models as ‘illustrations of patterns of searching and the search process’, and adds ‘some ... identify factors that
influence the search process’ [21]. This highlights the distinction between process-oriented and causal (or analytic)
models as defined by Järvelin & Wilson [20]. Xie also notes that a universal model may not be achievable [21]. By
Järvelin & Wilson’s definition [20] our model is process-based since the causative factors which influence FHR
behaviour are not considered; rather the activity’s component parts and their inter-relationships are described. This
model is deliberately more focused on a particular context (UK-based amateur FHRs) than are traditional generic
models whose wider applicability necessarily reduces their direct relevance to FHR. For example, Wilson’s model
[18], though powerful and the basis for others, does not offer contextual detail. Ellis’s model [19], founded on the
information behaviour of academics, includes concepts like: chaining and monitoring which do not map well to FHR.
The multi-phase structure of our model owes something to generic models by, amongst others, Ellis [19], Wilson
[18] and Kuhlthau [8], and also reflects aspects of recent FHR-specific research, e.g. the gradual transformation of an
2
http://www.genuki.org.uk/
3
http://www.findmypast.co.uk/
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Paul Darby and Paul Clough 11
individual's FHR focus from cognitive to affective with associated behavioural changes. This is characterised by Duff
& Johnson as a 3-stage process of collecting names, then relevant details and finally contextual information [6]; by
Butterworth as the conversion of FHR into local history research [5]; and by Yakel as the increasing search for wider
meaning through FHR [2]. We also describe the cyclical nature of FHR, as findings modify subsequent information
objectives. Wilson’s model describes a similar feedback loop [18]; and Bates’ berry picking model [10] recognises the
evolution of queries in the light of findings and that information gathering is iterative (berry-by-berry).
There are commonalities across traditional models and with Butterworth’s FHR-focused behavioural model [9],
within which the phases of our model may be situated. For instance, most describe an initial stage, possibly including a
trigger, during which an information gap is perceived (partly phase 1: trigger event) and the problem is comprehended
within existing frameworks, e.g. Ellis’s starting [19]; Wilson’s problem recognition driven, in part, by stress/coping
factors [18] ; Butterworth’s (high-level) question formation [9]; Kuhlthau’s initiation [8]. Initial preparations are then
made (phase 2: collect family information and phase 3: learn the process), as in Wilson’s problem definition [18].
Exploratory activity follows, when high-level browsing provides familiarisation, research leads or even serendipitous
finds (phase 3: learn the process; continuous learning; trial-and-error; and phase 4: break in), but also where initial
optimism may be displaced by doubt or confusion. This stage corresponds to Kuhlthau’s selection leading into
exploration [8]; Ellis’s browsing [19]; Skov & Ingwersen’s exploratory behaviour [22]. A selection or evaluation stage
usually comes next, during which decisions about potential usefulness of resources are made and confidence increases
(phase 3 and continuous learning have relevance here by supporting the earlier information gathering phases: phase 5
and 6: tree-build - easy; medium), resonant with Ellis’s differentiating [19]; Kuhlthau’s formulation [8]; Butterworth’s
identify archives and searching/browsing (within) [9]. With experience, and in the light of findings, objectives become
more focused and information is extracted more effectively (all FHR data gathering phases exhibit this evolution, but it
is particularly relevant in phase 7: tree-build - hard and phase 8: push back selected lines). This corresponds with
Wilson’s problem resolution through active searching, modified by intervening variables [18]; Ellis’s extracting [19];
Kuhlthau’s collection [8]; Skov & Ingwersen’s known item searching and meaning making [22]; Butterworth’s
interpretation [9]. Finally there may be a summarising stage (not included in our model) which for FHR might be
producing a finalised pedigree chart or multi-media item for dissemination. Kuhlthau’s presentation activity [8]
encompasses this stage, which may be accompanied by feelings of relief or perhaps disappointment.
The decrease in pre-research methodological learning and the in
crease in trial-and-error
searching has implications
for planning services and tools for use by FHRs. This change may, at least in part, be explained by the proliferation of
online resources which offer easily-won facts and incremental rewards [5] and thereby counteract potentially
demotivating negative feelings [8].
Regarding resource preferences during tree-building (phases 5 to 7: tree-build - easy; medium; hard), it was
unsurprising to see census, BMD, and parish material generally rated highly since they are widely recognised as the
main sources for FHR back to the early nineteenth century. Online resources scored highly during phase 5, but tailed
off in phases 6 and 7, an indication of the preference for easy access value-added content when available. Physical
resources at repositories were strong throughout; in earlier phases probably partly due to valued contact with expert
staff and fellow-researchers; in later stages because on-site visits gave access to a diverse range of potentially useful
sources, many unlikely ever to be digitised and made available online. Findings suggested the supplementing of purely
genealogical resources (e.g. BMD indices; parish registers) by those offering greater contextual information about an
ancestor’s life (e.g. wills; maps; newspapers) which supports previous findings [2, 5, 6, 7]. Online providers like
Ancestry and Find My Past were particularly popular in earlier phases, though the fact that local authorities in the
survey locality provide free-of-charge access in their repositories to the former may have skewed findings.
It is hoped that this model will be used as the basis for the exploration of further avenues of research into
FHR, augmenting the interpretations provided by more established generic models, and thus providing a framework
within which to situate observed behaviours and to formulate research hypotheses. Further studies might look at:
causative factors behind FHR behaviour, particularly (a) the complex motivations involved; (b) how FHRs choose to
learn (about research approach, resources etc.), and how this can be supported; (c) how FHRs’ informational objectives
change over time to include contextual information as well as the purely factual, and the consequent effect on research
behaviour.
6. Conclusions and future work
This paper presents an investigation into the information seeking behaviours of amateur family history researchers
(FHRs). Most past work has considered professional or academic researchers, rather than the growing sector of non-
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professionals for which family history research (FHR) becomes a potentially lifelong serious leisure activity. This
study has focused on FHRs from the UK in contrast to previous studies that considered mainly researchers from North
America. Contributions of the work include a conceptual model of information seeking that aims to capture the specific
activities conducted by individuals during FHR along with identifying resources used throughout the process. The type
of information used is clearly seen to differ throughout the process and consists of both physical and digital (including
online) resources. The resulting conceptual model offers a multi-phase view of the research process, intended to
illustrate (a) the different research phases themselves; (b) the inter-relationship between individual phases; (c) distinct
phase-specific behaviours; and (d) phase-specific resource preferences. The final model, based on data gathered from
practicing FHRs by interview and questionnaire, helps to provide a clearer picture of their research behaviours. Future
work should further validate the model and perhaps explore causative factors that may link the various phases.
Acknowledgments
Sincere thanks to the family history researchers who took part in this survey and to the staff and representatives of the
various institutions or groups from which participants were drawn. Work partially funded by the European
Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement number 270082 (PATHS).
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