Have you ever looked at the same resource (book, map, microfilm, etc.) more than once for the same information, and it wasn’t there. Then came away frustrated realizing that you’ve looked there before! I know I have….many, many times.
I realized that the problem wasn’t that the information wasn’t there the second or third time I looked. The problem was that I never wrote down – in a place I could find it again – that I had looked there before and not found it. If I was being disciplined, I would list the sources where I did find something, but I wouldn’t take the time to write down where I didn’t find something!
The Solution is a Negative Finds List
I learned the term “negative finds” from another researcher. It was like a “light bulb” moment for me. A negative find, is a source I have checked but the results were “negative.” I didn’t find what I was looking for in that source. It may not be so critical if you’re doing light or casual research on an ancillary ancestor in your tree. But I have found it is critical if I’m doing wide and deep research that may span days, weeks, or years on a particular ancestor because there is no way I’m going to remember every source I check, let alone what I was looking for in the source.
You may have seen my blog posts about timelines. Because I rely so heavily on these, and I create them in Excel, it is a natural extension to create a negative finds list in an adjoining tab in Excel for that research project. Every source touched either goes in my “source list” or my “negative finds” list.
What’s in a Negative Finds List?
You can certainly create these as simple or detailed as fits your needs. Here’s a brief summary of what I choose to put in my list.
- The name of the source and the identifying characteristics (Dewey Decimal Number, author, etc.)
- The name of the repository (Where I found it.)
- Who I was looking for. This is huge. You may turn to the 1940 US Census one hundred times looking for different ancestors. If you don’t write down who you didn’t find, you’ll start spinning in circles looking for the same people over and over again.
- The spellings searched. We know any surname can be spelled dozens of ways. And over time, I find new spellings for each surname I’m researching. If I don’t write down the spellings I used when searching, I could miss opportunities down the road when a new derivation comes to light.
- When I searched. See above point about how search efforts evolve. New information may come to light that merits a new search. That new information and search opportunity will be easier to access if there is a clear idea of when the last time the record was searched.
- Comments. This ever-present, always-useful field makes a great place to put any extraneous comments on the search experience, such as “need to check another volume,” maybe a better copy is found online,” “need to look for other spelling variations,” and so on.
Here’s a sample of a negative finds list for my “Vincent Smarsh” research. Notice I’ve used the same list to parse records for a father and son duo with nearly the same name. (bonus tip!)
Added Research Leverage
The value of negative finds list really came home to me last week when a distant Smarsh cousin reached out to me and wanted to work together to find the oh-so-elusive birth origins of Vincent Smarsh. I was able to send her my timeline and my negative finds list. She was able to leverage the negative finds list. Not only did she avoid chasing the same non-fruitful paths I had tread, BUT she was able to “review” the list asking questions about whether I had checked this or that beyond what I hadn’t found in the list provided. It was a real help to both of us. If you’re doing collaborative research, I’d do a negative finds list in a heartbeat.
Go forth and don’t find and record.