Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Definition of “A Reasonably Exhaustive Search”?

Now that I am getting back to exploring my family tree, I’ve picked up a project that I had started before my unexpected hiatus: transcribing Lodewijk Wesselo’s letters, which reside in the Wesselo Family Archive at the CBG in The Hague. And while doing that, a question that has plagued me before popped into my head again. What, exactly, does ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’ – as posed in the Genealogical Proof Standard – mean?

Is it making sure you’ve covered a person’s entire life, from birth to death? Is it going to every archive that could possibly have sources – even if those sources wouldn’t add any new information? Or is the definition dependant on who you’re researching? Will you do a more exhaustive search for a direct ancestor, especially if you have a lot of information about a side-branch ancestor already?

As for Lodewijk, he’s a brother of my great-grandmother, so a side-branch ancestor and not a direct ancestor. The sources that are in the Wesselo Family Archive – collected by various Wesselo genealogists over a period of many decades before being donated to the CBG – cover his entire life. I searched out some original documents as well as some additional sources based on the information I found in the archive. Have I done enough?

I know there are two archives that might hold sources about him – but it is highly doubtful they could tell me anything new. Both of these archives are not particularly close to home and currently I have no other reason to visit them. An on-line search did not give me any indication that there is anything about Lodewijk Wesselo at either one of them, but the type of source he might be in at those places isn’t indexed on-line, so that doesn’t say much. The chances of new information are very low, while the time and money I would have to spend on searching is fairly high. Yet, can I say I’ve done ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’ if I don’t check?

In this case, I’ve decided that I am ‘done’ with Lodewijk Wesselo – as far as searching out sources goes, anyway. I’ve made a note of the archives, and should I ever need to go there for another ancestor, I will certainly look for him as well. But I will not make a trip just for him. But I will admit, that had it been one of my direct ancestors, I would have gone. So I’d say that the definition of ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’ definitely depends on who exactly it is you’re researching – and how much information you already have about this ancestor.

So, when do you call it ‘done’? What is your definition of ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’?


  1. I think a reasonably exhaustive search does depend on the relative. For ancestors, I try to find everything possible. For ancestor's family members, I do not go to quite those lengths, unless I need the information to push back another generation.

    1. Amanda: I think I am a lot like you in how much I try to find of a particular ancestor. Time is limited, and sad to say, direct ancestors get more of my time.

  2. It depends on the specific research question you are trying to answer. What was/is your specific research plan? As you clarify the research problem and create a strategy to solve it, you list specific places that might have the information you need. Execution of the plan to solve the research problem in question in the listed repositories should then meet a reasonably exhaustive search.

    ~Caroline Pointer

    1. Caroline: It's actually not a specific research question I am trying to answer. I'm working on writing his biography and in order to do that I read over all the information I have for him again. I noticed (as I had before) that there were two archives I hadn't checked yet for records of his employment in those cities. So if I had to formulate a research question these sources could potentially answer, it would be: "What was his working life like?"

      Now, I've got tons and tons of information about this already, and a lot of it are direct, primary sources, with plenty written by himself at the time it happened or close to it. Any sources in those archives would be either secondary, indirect, or both. So do they really add something - if they are there at all?