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Genealogy FAN Club: What Is It? Plus What It Is Not.

image with text overlay do you know what cluster research is
If you got here because you Googled “genealogy FAN club,” you probably are embarking on a really fun stage of your genealogy research. At least I hope you are.
image of vintage fan with text overlay What is a Genealogy FAN Club?


A genealogy FAN club is not a “fan club” for people who are FANatical about genealogy. Although if you’re ready to learn about FAN clubs, you probably are a genealogy fanatic.

The FAN Acronym


So let’s start with the absolute basics. “FAN club” is an abbreviation coined by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CGSM to help genealogists remember this important concept. FAN is an abbreviation for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors. It’s probably such a popular term because it so adequately represents the concept. It’s an abbreviation but that group of people is also possibly your ancestor’s “fan club.”

This is not a new concept although the term FAN club isn’t an old term. So quickly, let me give you some synonyms in case you need to Google more information or if you come across other terms in (heaven forbid) printed books.

Other terms often used to mean the same as FAN club are “cluster research” and “collateral research.” Note that technically collateral research only refers to collateral relatives (as in researching the siblings) but the concept is the same if you just extend it outside the family.

So this post is about:
  • FAN clubs, not fan clubs,
  • cluster research, and
  • collateral research.
I will use the terms FAN club and cluster research interchangeably in this post so don't think there's some subtle meaning you're missing!

    The Genealogy Cluster

    I have always been partial to the term cluster research. For me, it really illustrates what I need to do. I focus on my paternal research and that (so far---after 20+ years) is still mainly in two adjoining counties in north Georgia. When I need to employ the cluster technique, I need to focus on the cluster of people around the ancestor in question.

    But that doesn’t mean that’s how the technique may work for you.

    So I actually want to start with one “what a genealogy FAN club is not” before explaining more about what it is.

    A genealogy FAN club is not, automatically, a physically close cluster of people. 

    Because of the characteristics of my ancestors, I am often researching people who live near my ancestor. When I do cluster research for clients, I’m often looking across states. I’m usually looking across a large geographic area, in fact. But that’s because of the type of projects I tend to take professionally. Your research could be anywhere in between.

    My point?
    Different projects will have different “profiles.” Your FAN club or cluster will look different for each.

    The Purpose of Cluster Research

    So let’s back it up and make sure the purpose of cluster research is clear. I’ve started with the “not” to help break any preconceived notions based on the words “cluster” and “fan club.”
    1. Cluster research is a technique used on “harder” problems.
    2. Cluster research requires you research people besides your direct ancestors and even people who are unrelated (you research the cluster or FANs).
    You need to understand the types of problems you’re trying to research in order to understand why you’d research non-relatives.

    The most common type of difficult problem where cluster research is used is when there’s no direct evidence of who the parents of a person are (or similarly, if there’s conflicting evidence).

    A FAN club can also help if you need to determine who’s who when there are two people of the same or similar names (an example, maybe you’ve found the name of the father but you don’t really know which man of that name is the father).

    Cluster research is often the only way to build biographical data about someone. For most people (not most people that researchers find interesting, for most human beings who lived), they only appear as a name in a few records. Rarely is it clear which person of that name the record refers to. Cluster research can be extremely effective in determining which records are about your research subject.

    As a note, once you are able to build some biographical data, you can then try profiling as a research technique. So, cluster research is a great technique on it’s own, but can also make other techniques possible.

    So you now know why you’d use cluster research or a FAN club.

    How to Create a Genealogy FAN Club

    How do you do cluster research?

    There’s nothing different in the actual research. It’s what you research and how you apply it that makes this a special technique. You may need more advanced research skills, but hey, this is for harder, more “advanced” problems, anyway.

    Needing a cluster and trying to build one is a great way to build your skill,s hands-on, while you build the cluster! But remember this...

    There is no magic formula for cluster research. 

    You have to formulate a research plan for your specific research question. Having a specific research question is perhaps more important when using cluster research than doing general research. Otherwise, you’re probably just flailing around, researching any name you see.

    But don’t fear! If you’ve figured out you need to use cluster research for a difficult problem, you’ve already started narrowing down to a specific question.

    Cluster Research is Not...

    But this brings me to another “what it’s not.”
    Cluster research is not collecting names. 
    A bunch of collected names will not help you. For the situations where cluster research is essential, you aren’t even likely to have dates like beginners often collect (i.e. birth years or marriage years to go with the names collected). So really, if you collect names, that’s all you have.

    Getting Started with FAN Club Research

    So to do cluster research, you have a specific problem you want to solve. You may actually research multiple research questions in the process of solving your main problem (for example, you might be looking for X’s father but your individual research questions might be “is Y the father of X,” and “is Z the father of X,” and “are Y and Z actually different men,” etc.) See this article about asking good research questions.

    Once you have a main problem to solve, you need to get organized. You’ll likely have multiple research questions/hypotheses to test and you want your notes organized.

    You also need to decide if you want to use a specialized “cluster tracker” that you wouldn’t normally need. I personally like to use a spreadsheet I can sort and filter since you can get very large clusters/FAN clubs and sometimes lots of variant name spellings. This will depend on your problem and your personal preferences but organization is essential.

    Since you aren’t just collecting names, you’ll need to keep track of sources and relevant notes. Relevant notes for a cluster can be different than for standard research as they may address issues about the cluster. Don't rely on a family group sheet or generic genealogy software to provide space to record the information you need as notes. Customizable software is an option but you have to know how to use it!

    Sometimes you don’t know what you want or need until you’ve worked on the project a bit, so being organized makes it easier to rearrange everything.

    Once your cluster starts to form, you must do analysis. That’s pretty much the point of cluster research. At what point you do this can vary. Sometimes a problem is so difficult you have to collect data points, first. I’m using the term “data points” because this isn’t just collecting names. I'll explain.

    Collecting Data for Your Cluster

    A data point is one field in a database. Not helpful? If you’ve filled out a form online with boxes for individual pieces of information (title, first name, middle initial, last name, phone number, email, street address, city, state, zip, etc.) that is a database. A form where your street number went in one box and your street name in one box---those were individual data points ready to populate a database.

    Ideally, we’d all be able to create a custom database to deal with our cluster research. I’ve only ever met a few people, with amazing tech skills, who have successfully done this. But the concept is still the same.

    Normally when I talk about data points in genealogy I mean first name, last name, estimated year of birth, birthplace, etc. With cluster research, it might be (1)first name, (2)last name, (3)location the name came in contact with your person, (4)date the name came in contact with your person, and (5)source. There may be additional data points but usually, those five points are all you hope for from most members of a cluster.

    That’s also why I’ve said “name” instead of “person.” When you start, you may not be able to tell if the same names are the same person or ANYTHING about the person of that name other than the data points I’ve just mentioned.

    When you start to analyze all your data points, you may start to define people. You may not. It depends. Without the analysis, you’ve just collected data points. Some clusters help after just a few additions, some become massive clusters.

    That’s another “what it’s not.”

    Creating a FAN club is not easy. It’s also not too hard.

    Anyone can collect data points. What you do with them takes skill. If you have the foresight to collect (and organize) a cluster earlier in your research, you will be ahead when you need it. Knowing what to collect can be tricky, but if you think it might help, go ahead and start. It’s ok if you can’t fully utilize your cluster until later.

    Everyone Should Collect FANs

    In fact, everyone should be starting the most basic cluster, the extended family. It may seem very efficient to collect only your direct ancestors’ information. If you aren’t interested in creating a family history that includes all the siblings of your direct ancestors, you should still record what information you find about them.

    I will admit that as an Occasional Genealogist, I often don’t record everything about siblings in records that are easy to access again later (think online census records---I'll come back and give those another look once I know more).

    We have to make choices about how to best use our research time. If you have more time, you should record more information the first time around. I do make an extra effort, regardless of how much time I have, to record any information that seems like it might be for a relative when I’m using sources I can’t easily access again later. That also applies to sources that I’m unlikely to look at again once I file it away.

    This also comes back to being organized. Keeping digital notes and/or using something like Evernote makes every name you type searchable. When you know you often need to use cluster research, this is an easy way to collect data points you can find again WITHOUT spending a lot of your valuable time organizing information you might not need.

    Who's in Your Club?

    Do you understand who belongs in the cluster? Just as there’s no magic formula for creating a cluster, there’s no automatic inclusions. Who belongs in the cluster is related to your specific goal. A person (research subject) can have a generic cluster, their FFN club. That includes family, friends, and neighbors. These are the people who are most likely to be the fan club (or your ancestors' enemies, who are just as important as friends). It’s always handy to have this cluster organized and ready for use for any project.

    For really difficult problems, you will create a custom cluster that might not be useful for other goals. This kind of cluster tends to consist of a lot of associates. If the problem was easy, you’d probably have solved it from researching family/friends and close neighbors.

    Associates can be anyone that has interacted with your person. These can be the “names” you haven’t turned into people. You usually have no idea who will be helpful in solving your problem. That is why you collect data points, analyze them, and then research the people who seem relevant.

    Your skills help you develop a useful cluster and determine if you need to research the people in the cluster to learn more. It is possible your goal is so specific and limited that the members of that cluster don’t overlap into other parts of that person’s life.

    A common scenario is only having a small overlap that bridges the gap between separate phases of a person’s life. Sometimes there is no overlap and it’s necessary to identify the person at two different points and build a cluster to identify them in other records. Cluster research can even identify someone who has changed their name.

    I feel as if I’ve described every hypothetical situation I can. I’m sure I haven’t but there’s not much point in continuing with hypothetical examples. If you understand why you need cluster research, and at least the general concept of what it is an how to do it, it’s time to move to the next phase of learning.

    Case studies.

    How to Learn More When "How-to" Isn't Enough

    Cluster research will never really make sense unless you read case studies using it. Every problem is so unique it’s hard to gain full understanding without real-life specifics.

    As you’ve read this post, you might not have gotten ideas of how you could use cluster research. When you read a case study, you will. Even if the problem isn’t much like yours, you’ll see how another researcher thought outside the box. They didn’t just focus on their direct ancestors, they branched out to the cluster.

    The cluster is found in all sorts of records, some quite unique. Case studies will help you think of different types of sources.

    Reading case studies is always helpful in genealogy. Since cluster research is a more advanced technique, it’s more important to read case studies than when you were just starting. Some generic advice got you started as a beginner. It might not, now. If you have ideas to start a cluster, go do it! If you still aren't sure, find case studies.

    Where to Find Case Studies

    The best source for quality case studies are quality genealogy journals. These aren't "magazines" these are often "quarterlies" published by genealogy societies. In the US, two big names are the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the New England Historic Genealogic Register.

    There are a number of national journals (including specialty topics that aren't geographic). Many local societies also publish case studies in a newsletter, journal, or quarterly. Usually (but not always) you will find the more complex case studies in national level journals but it's worth reading what is easily available to you or is relevant to your research. Writing a case study for your local society is also a great exercise.

    You have so many choices in journals, I'm going to refer you to Cyndi's List to learn more. I also highly recommend you check out your local genealogy/local history room. Case studies from other decades are often still relevant (you will find it funny how the researchers used different sources since they didn't have online records but you will also learn about different sources because of this).

    Genealogy periodicals can rarely be checked out from your library but these are articles, not books, sit and read a few.

    Cluster Research in a Nutshell

    This has been a lot to take in so I'll sum up the steps.

    • Record information about more than just your direct ancestors. 
    • Everyone should keep information about the siblings of their direct ancestors but keeping information about all friends, associates, and neighbors can give you a head start later. 
    • You decide whether to do this and to what degree based on the best use of your research time (and that takes experience to do well).
    When you have a difficult problem where you want to use a FAN club you need to follow more specific steps.
    1. Ask a specific research question.
    2. Get organized. You will need to record information that doesn't fit into a family group sheet's limited information so have a system set-up. Be prepared to adapt as you go, though.
    3. Research and record data points including keeping sources with the data points and keeping relevant notes.
    4. Analyze what you've found.
    You will then repeat asking a specific question/testing a hypothesis for different questions/hypotheses as needed, doing more research and analysis, and repeating. You will need some of your "data points" to become "people" you can research.

    Determining the specifics of all of these steps takes experience to make the right choices. There is no magic formula for exactly how this will work.



    I hope you've learned enough about the FAN principal/cluster research/collateral research to point you in the right direction. This is a complex but powerful addition to your research skills. I can't cover it fully in one blog post and you really do need to try it and read case studies to really learn how to use it.

    This is one of my favorite techniques and I'd love to write more about it. Let me know what other questions you have by leaving a comment.

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