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Extracting Keywords From Genealogical Sources

Extracting Keywords 1
Making A “Keyword List” From A Source

When I obtain a new genealogical source on a particular ancestor, the first two questions I ask myself are “What does this source tell me?” and “Are there any new leads I can follow in my research?” A good strategy for analyzing a particular piece of evidence is to create a list of keywords that appear in the source.

What do I mean by this? By definition, a Keyword is “a significant word from a title or document used especially as an index to content.”[1] In modern day lexicon, we might refer to this as a tag. I like to think of keywords in genealogical evidence as the different subjects I associate with a particular source. Chances are, you yourself, as a researcher, have extracted different keywords from a piece of evidence you’ve encountered in your research. Exploring different research subjects, places, and especially names all fall under the umbrella of performing keyword searches and is something that genealogists do regularly.

Even if you have some experience with this concept, have you deliberately incorporated this into your research plan? Extracting all of these keywords is an important step in analyzing the source; it helps to organize your research and understand the contents of that source better. Your brain is already associating the source with different subjects and concepts you are familiar with, but putting it on paper transfers these keywords from thoughts into a plan of action. What qualifies for the keyword list? Let’s take a look at this newspaper article on a man named Capt. Bensley Collenette and see how the concept works:


Image Source:[2]

After reading and examining the source, I highlight all the words or phrases that in my mind serve as a clue to more information on this individual and are worth investigating. Everything that is highlighted would be entered into my keyword spreadsheet. It might be helpful to create a column for the category, i.e. name, location/place name, occupation, but also the significance because we want to remember why it is worth noting in the first place. Don’t forget to include words that are unfamiliar to you as well, such as legal terminology from a court document. The next step is to research your list and pursue these as you would a particular ancestor, by entering them into your standard array of search engines, catalogs, and databases.

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This concept can be applied to any genealogical source and there are many benefits to using this strategy. Beyond just creating a more effective research plan, we lend ourselves better chances to having research success because we are not overlooking any details. I’ve used this strategy very successfully to find more records and create better narratives about my ancestors. Every kernel of information that connects to our ancestor’s life should be researched to obtain a more complete picture of that person. The simple steps it takes to make a keyword list can go a long way. Try this out with a couple of your own sources. For my next post, I will show how to use these keywords in genealogical research.


[1] “Keyword” Merriam-Webster ( accessed 4 Jun 2016).

[2] “For Steamship Inspector – Captain Collenette Is a Prominent Candidate,” Boston Post, 23 Feb 1894, p.2, image copy, ( accessed 5 Jun 2016).


Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).


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Thanks for the excellent idea. Although I think and write down strategies from keywords, I hadn't thought of compiling a spreadsheet with this information. Definitely going to give this a try :)

Ditto. I have a lot of key words in my head when I do a search. But I never thought of putting them on a spreadsheet or even on index cards. May I link this in my website?
Thanks bunches.

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