How should I record unsuccessful searches (that may constitute negative evidence)?



How should I record the fact that I have performed a search in a certain dataset and came up empty-handed?

As an example:

I search for Person X in the New Hampshire Marriages index on Family Search, but get no results. I have other clues that suggest they were married in a given date range (which is included in the index), but no records turn up.

I'm not looking for an answer on this specific situation; it's not the only "negative search" I've encountered. Also: census records, property records, B/D/M, etc. I'd like a general answer to how to record "negative evidence" -- or whatever terminology is best applied in this case.

For what it's worth, I'm using Gramps to manage my database.


Posted 2012-10-18T13:38:19.933

Reputation: 1 604

2There is a difference between a negative search and negative evidence. You might consider removing the reference to "negative evidence." – GeneJ – 2012-10-18T14:08:21.000

1Don't do this if you want it as a reminder to not search there again. Especially with online searches, its a big mistake to think that your record isn't there just because you can't find it. Search engines can be very fickle. I would only do this if you had some sort of timeout. E.g, you came back a year later and tried again. – None – 2012-10-18T14:30:28.697

@GeneJ, That's right. A negative search may be an example of negative evidence, but not always. Here in Ireland, for instance, a lot of records were destroyed and so a negative search may not be evidence of anything. – ACProctor – 2012-10-18T14:35:17.677

@JustinY ... Is there a way we can clarify these points in the question (assuming bstpierre wants that clarification)? – GeneJ – 2012-10-18T14:53:32.133

@GeneJ After reading through his question a few more times, I think it would be better for an answer to address those issues. ACProctor's answer touches on some of them. – None – 2012-10-18T14:58:21.097

@GeneJ, ACProctor & JustinY: These are useful comments. I think the most helpful answer would clarify the issues that you've raised and make appropriate distinctions in terminology. I'm going to leave the (questionable?) terminology in the question intact. – bstpierre – 2012-10-18T16:36:18.200



How you record any search (whether productive or not) depends upon your purpose in carrying out the search.

Testing a proposition

If you had an assertion (or testable proposition) in mind such as A and B were married at X in the period 1800-1840 then the results of your search, whether new data or empty set, need to be attached to (or at least linked to) that assertion.

Using Gramps, I will have a (putative) family entity for A and B with a (presumed) marriage event on which I would create a note of type Research. There I would record where, when, and why I searched with a comment on possible reasons for the lack of success and implications for future action.

If you wish you can create a note type of your own called "Empty Search". At some future time you can filter all your notes for a sorted list of empty searches.

Exploring a resource

There are times when a family historian will carry out "research" without a particular assertion in mind. In my case, this occurs when a favourite repository announces the availability of new datasets. If Trove at the National Library of Australia releases a new digitised regional newspaper, I will explore it by selecting some ancestral names that could have been associated with the location and running a few searches. This is just beachcombing, or butterfly catching. If I see something pretty, I will take it home but the only conclusion I can draw from coming home empty-handed is that (on that day) the source was not productive.

In those circumstances, any record I make is a precaution against being drawn back by whatever attracted me in the first place. Next time I decide on a wander through old newspapers to clear my mind, I need to be able to avoid paths I have followed before (or to retrace them deliberately, if there has been a suitable time lapse).

In Gramps, I have a choice of either Repository object (for Trove) or Source object (for the Bullamakanka Weekly Bulletin) as the place for the note that outlines my exploration (particularly the date) and its lack of productivity. In the case described, my personal practice is to use the Repository to hold that, since I won't create the Source record until it produces something I use.

Negative evidence?

Neither of the above discussions has any particular bearing on negative evidence, but when you review all of the research notes you have made on an asserted event, you may see a pattern of unproductive searches emerging that, taken together, challenge one or more aspects of your assertion. Perhaps A and B were common law partners, or migrated to X from Y, or married very young, or ... . A single failed search will not make you modify the assertion but continuing failure to find support will cause doubt to grow.

Of course the ultimate piece of negative evidence comes from a search which is unsuccessful but not because it is empty. If your search locates a record that A married C at X in 1822 then your proposition is seriously challenged.

Unless you have other information that now becomes conflicting evidence, and perhaps there was a second marriage ...


Posted 2012-10-18T13:38:19.933

Reputation: 13 238

1I don't think the repository is the correct place to store the note. I think it should always be the source object. One source may be held at many different repositories, so you need the source search details with the source. – lkessler – 2012-10-19T02:43:48.337


Research logs are a wonderful way to record your positive or negative findings. Keeping track of your searches in a research log can prevent you from repeatedly searching for the same information. This Family Search wiki page discusses research logs.


Posted 2012-10-18T13:38:19.933

Reputation: 111

Thanks for your answer. A more complete/useful answer would maybe include an example of a research log, what information belongs in the log, and how to use it -- instead of just the link (which was helpful). – bstpierre – 2012-10-18T23:10:46.517

Jennifer, could you edit your answer to include some examples or perhaps your own personal experiences? We would love to hear more details from you. :-) – Lorraine W – 2012-10-19T02:07:43.737


I'm glad someone asked this. There's a tendency to think evidence comes from records, etc., so you simply record the evidence and cite the corresponding sources.

Negative evidence is just as important, though sometimes overlooked. As you've found yourself, it's more difficult because you don't have anything tangible to include such as a transcription or an image.

I'm not a Gramps user but I record an empty result as narrative that explains what I did, and cite the parameters of the search and where it was performed. The parameters have to include the names, places, dates, options, etc., but also the date of the search. If new material appears, or some transcription is later corrected, then you may find the original search is not reproducible.

By narrative, I mean free-form text. Many products have a simple 'Notes' feature which may do. My own concept of narrative goes beyond this, though, and can be used to express the associated reasoning and conclusions too.


Posted 2012-10-18T13:38:19.933

Reputation: 5 762


Calling an empty search result "evidence" should be avoided because usually in genealogy the term evidence normally refers to information that implies something about a person's life.

A negative result from a records search, however, can't be taken as information about the subject's life -- instead, it is information about the record source and the search. Say you search a database for the marriage of two people and no such marriage shows up. That does not mean those two people did not marry, nor is it realistic to think that it sort-of hints that they weren't married. It just says that either that collection of data doesn't have a record of the marriage, or the method of searching just didn't turn it up.

What you're talking about might be termed a "search result", and it can be helpful to keep track of those results (and not try to rely on fallible memory). Genealogists refer to a record of search results as a research log. This can be kept in simple text or in more structured form like a spreadsheet. Some genealogy programs have built-in support for research logs, often combined with a "to do list" feature; this can be handy since a to-do item can turn into a results log item by adding notes and marking it done.

What should you record in a research log? Obviously identification of the source and what was looked up in it; the date of search is also usually recorded. It's often good to record some search details like what names were searched for; this can prove useful if, for instance, you later learn about some additional name spellings are relevant. The FamilySearch wiki entry has details on research logs, and other pages are available, like this podcast/text page.


Posted 2012-10-18T13:38:19.933

Reputation: 3 808

As other comments have suggested, there's confusion here between negative-searches and negative-evidence. While I agree with you in the context of a specific search, there are cases where a lack of any corresonding record is valuable evidence in itself and can contribute to reasoned conclusions. There are also cases where a lack of records is essential information (rather than evidence) and still needs recording. For instance, those illusive people who just don't appear in a particular census. They may be there or they may not, but the fact you've tried and failed needs recording in the data. – ACProctor – 2012-10-18T21:43:56.290

I think you draw a useful distinction, but I think I can sometimes use an empty search result as evidence -- i.e. info that implies something about a person's life. Using the marriage example, if the NH index does not contain a record, but I'm confident that they were, in fact, married, the following conclusions are reasonable: (a) the records collection is incomplete -- their record should be there but is missing; (b) they were married in another jurisdiction; (c) it was recorded using different name(s) or spelling(s). If I exhaust (c), I might conclude (b) and try searching VT/Canada. – bstpierre – 2012-10-18T23:06:33.513

"Some genealogy programs have built-in support for research logs" -- can you name some that have this feature? – bstpierre – 2012-10-18T23:07:06.490

+1 by the way. This was helpful. – bstpierre – 2012-10-18T23:11:31.740

@bstpierre: Legacy has a to-do list feature that also functions as a research log as described here. Similarly, this talks of combining these two function in RootsMagic.

– RobertShaw – 2012-10-19T06:20:13.727

1@bstpierre, If you share your data with someone then you will want to represent the fact that someone was not found in a census, or no marriage was found. If a research-log is exported with your data then it achieves the same effect, but any private log like a to-do list is insufficient. This is why I incorporate such information along with my records-based information. I have had situations where missing records could later be correlated with newspaper reports or with shipping manifests to form reasoned conclusions. – ACProctor – 2012-10-19T12:57:17.153


When I search a dataset or anything else, I add the source to my program's list of sources.

If I didn't find anything (an unsuccessful search), then I add the date and details of my search (same as what others put into a research log) into the source description.

I find this much more useful than a research log which doesn't help me much. Seldom do I need to know what I searched on a given date, which is how a research log is organized.

Instead, since I record the search details with the source, then all my successful and unsuccessful searches for that source are together for easy inspection. Next time I want to recheck that same source, I'll have in front of me all the results from my previous searches.

This makes it easy to see for that particular source:

  1. What I have already searched (successfully or not),
  2. What I still need to search, and
  3. What I may want to search again.

In addition, if I name my sources appropriately, then all my online searches will be displayed one after another in the order I want.

Research logs don't naturally allow this. But storing the research results with your source does.


Posted 2012-10-18T13:38:19.933

Reputation: 16 148