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Case Studies as Genealogy Learning Tools

Case Studies as Genealogy Learning Tools

It's no wonder that when Legacy Webinars announced their most-watched webinars for 2023, Elizabeth Shown Mills featured prominently. Aside from the opportunity to learn from an expert in the field, she teaches by example. Many of the webinars she and other speakers from that list provided were based on case studies. Case studies aren't just popular as webinars; they are essential to our genealogical education and research. Why?

How do we, as researchers, learn how to do better research? Some of the ways we know might include reading or taking courses in methodology. Working on our research, learning by doing is also essential. Case studies are another way to learn as we go beyond a knowledge of common record sets and focus on problem-solving. It's through hearing the experiences of others that we can learn to do better research.

You might wonder how you could learn anything from a case study focusing on a location like New England when your research focuses on Spain. Genealogist Kimberly Powell wrote in her article on Genealogy Case Studies:

What is so eye-opening about the research of others, especially if the individuals or places in question have nothing to do with your own family? There is no better way to learn (aside from your own hands-on practice) than through the successes, mistakes, and techniques of other genealogists. A genealogical case study can be as simple as an explanation of the discovery and analysis of a particular record, to the research steps taken to trace a particular family back through several generations. Each one, however, gives us a glimpse into research problems that we ourselves may face in our own genealogy searches, approached through the eyes and experience of leaders in the genealogical field.[1]

Choosing webinars based on the speaker or how closely the topic matches what we are researching is not unusual. However, with case studies, we want to consider how the presenter solved the problem. What steps did they take? What questions did they ask? Where did they go for answers? Asking those questions means that the places and surnames may be inconsequential. Our focus is the steps the researcher took.

In a recent Legacy webinar I listened to by Gary Ball-Kilbourne PhD, CG titled The Many Wives of Howard William Lowe: Working with Social History to Glean Genealogical Insights his subject married five times. One of the marriages ended in the spouse's death but what happened in the others? Divorce is an obvious answer, but he didn't find the divorce records he expected to. So, he used social history to better understand how couples ended marriages in that time period. He understood that he needed to look beyond his understanding of modern marriage and divorce and instead look at the time period. His research into that question provided the answer. His research and handout are a must for others who exhaust traditional records sources and need to understand an era and location better.

It's easy to discount case studies, whether written or presented. They aren't necessarily "entertaining," and they may seemingly have nothing to do with your research because they are focused on a different location and surname. But that's not the point. Case studies help us better understand how to solve problems. They are the reason we read genealogy journals such as The National Genealogical Society Quarterly and listen to presenters' explain their research. As we choose what case studies to attend, consider what the presenter's research question is and how they found that answer. Use their handout to read more and possibly pick up sources to help your research.

[1] "Genealogy Case Studies," Thought Co ( accessed 3 January 2023).


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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