You only have to look
I am irritated every time I hear the ad that says “you don’t need to know what you’re looking for, you only have to look”. Advice like that encourages some people researching their family history to accept anything they find without question, especially when it is the only name that seems to match when searching an index.
The internet is littered with family trees wrongly patched together by people who did not look for corroborating evidence before adopting an ancestor.
Some of my “problem” ancestors took a great deal of hunting, through every available source I could access, before I finally found some record or some descendant or something that provided a clue to a mystery. Then lots of cross-checking was required before I could have some confidence in my conclusion. For example, it took nearly 10 years of very focussed research before I found the necessary evidence for one ancestor, Samuel ETHERINGTON. (I did also research other ancestors in those intervening years!)
I do believe that any research needs to be focussed and directed. Be systematic in the way you check all the sources you can. Lucky dip research occasionally brings unexpected finds, but without careful cross-checking of details, you won’t know whether that find belongs in your tree or not.
Having said all that, new indexes and newly digitised records are recently being released at such a rate that it is difficult to keep up. Because I was so obsessed with one particular ancestor, I once could be fairly confident that I had checked most of the available sources of information about him. But with more ancestors in my tree and more sources to check (and less time – but don’t get me started on that) – anyway there are bound to be people in your tree that you have not yet sought in unlikely places as well as the more obvious.
Because I’m writing some new courses, I was looking for examples of some lesser used sources. Today I was checking online indexes on the website of the State Records Authority of New South Wales, the archives of the NSW government.
You can’t browse shelves in a government archives (as you might in a library), but you can browse online indexes. Not every sort of record is indexed and not all indexes are online, but a lot of them are.
Today I was checking indexes I don’t usually bother with and was quite surprised at how much I found. I did not know before that John McNEILL was a 1st class porter at Darling Harbour Goods Yard in 1910. Or that two James ETHERINGTONs (father and son) held Publican’s Licenses for the Nell Gwynne Hotel (York Street Sydney) in the 1850s. I found more bankrupt ancestors (and bankruptcy files can contain a wealth of details about daily life).
Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps I did know what I was looking for, but I was still surprised with what I found. And I am so glad that I looked!