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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.
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What Is a Genealogy FAN Club?

image of typewriter and family photos

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.

[Synonyms for genealogy FANs or genealogy FAN club are "cluster research," "collateral research," "cluster genealogy," and "the FAN principle" or "FAN club principle." If that is what you're looking for, you're in the right place).]

This is the same idea as clustering DNA results but this is a MUCH older topic. It's a technique for traditional research, not genetic genealogy. This is actually one of the best ways to bust a genealogy brick wall, including if you pair it with genetic genealogy. But, if you're looking for information on auto-clustering DNA results, check out this post instead.

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.

[If you know what a FAN club is but need some help getting started, check out this post.]

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 for family history research. 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. As I've already mentioned, 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 to researching beyond family members.

So this post is about:

  • FAN clubs, not fan clubs, (or FAN research)
  • cluster research, and
  • collateral research.

In addition to telling you what a FAN club is, I'll also be covering what a genealogy FAN club is not. 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.

You want to focus on researching your ancestor's FAN club. Don't try and duplicate what someone else has done (i.e. learn from them, don't copy them).

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 like a genealogy brick wall or identity problems (an identity problem can be "which John Smith is my ancestor?").
  2. Cluster research requires you research people besides your direct ancestors and even people who are unrelated such as a business partner, fellow church members, etc.

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.

Cluster research is often the only way to build biographical data about someone. For most people (not most people that researchers find interesting, but 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. These are questions of identity but can also help with simpler problems like dealing with a common name.

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 its 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 who 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 skills, 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.

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.

Notes and Organization: Two Simple Keys

[Since originally writing this post, I've discovered MANY genealogists are not taking genealogy notes. Genealogy notes are ESSENTIAL for cluster research. You can start a cluster from your notes, if you took them! Some genealogists don't realize they need to take notes but others just don't know what to put in their notes. Check out these posts to learn why you need genealogy notes (not just for cluster research) and how to take genealogy notes. This is such a critical topic for your genealogy success that if these posts aren't enough, we offer a signature mini-course on this topic!]

Don't rely on a family group sheet or generic genealogy software to provide space to record the information you need as cluster research notes. Some genealogy software can help you track your FAN club research but you have to know how to use it! 

I've found some common genealogy software programs can record information about FANs, but then you can't get the information out in helpful reports or other outputs. Just keeping the information isn't enough, you have to be able to use it. The easiest way to get started is taking good digital notes (i.e. searchable notes). If you use paper, use research logs to replace the "search" ability of digital files.

I personally like to go beyond notes and use a spreadsheet I can sort and filter since you can get very large clusters/FAN clubs and sometimes lots of variant name spellings. There are so many 21st century options.

[Other options for an organization system include Evernote, paper notebooks, mind maps, index cards, etc. I don't recommend PDF files or spiral bound notebooks as they aren't flexible enough for genealogy research but unbound notebooks like a disc bound notebook or three-ring binder is flexible. Organizing is sort of a personal style issue---as long as it is functional! If you can imagine a paper system, there is probably a digital version that would searchable.]

Sometimes you don’t know what information you want or need until you’ve worked on the project a bit, so being organized makes it easier to rearrange everything. Remember, if you capture the information in your notes, you can always rearrange it when you need it. If you didn't capture it, you can't use it without redoing that research.

What Else Do You "Do" to Your Ancestor's FAN Club?

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.

That’s another “what it’s not.”

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

Anyone can collect the information needed for analysis. What you do with that information takes skill. You can develop those skills over time. 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 or whole family. It may seem very efficient to collect only your ancestors’ information. You don't know you'll need information on collateral lines or the FANs to solve a tough problem later but often you do.

It is actually most efficient to capture information about the whole family, or household, like on a census page, the first time you look at it. However, you might be trying to get an overview of the situation and just quickly looking at sources you can more carefully review (and will review) later.

We all 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.

There are also key records that can contain clues or hints of what research to try next, like death certificates, passenger lists, or probate records. Take good notes from these, including capturing the names mentioned beyond your ancestor or ancestor's family. There are all sorts of clues hidden in these types of records but if we don't take notes, we simply remember the bare bones (when and where they died, when they arrived, if the will named children). Taking notes helps us realize how much more is there and expands our cluster. We are then also more likely to look at these records again and pick up on new clues. It's a win-win situation.

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 information you can find again WITHOUT spending a lot of your valuable time organizing information you might not need.

Cluster Research in a Nutshell

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

  • Record information about more than just your direct ancestors, this can be collateral lines or non-relatives. Remember the FANs (friends, associates, neighbors).
  • 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.
  • The easiest way to get started is taking good genealogy notes, especially searchable (i.e. digital) notes.

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, how can you recognize possible solutions if you don't know the question?
  2. Get organized. Be prepared to adapt as you go, though.
  3. Don't forget to keep the source with the notes and then the cluster member.
  4. Analyze what you've found (you need to know the source to properly analyze).

These are the basics. There is no magic formula for exactly how this will work.

I've written a review about one of my favorite genealogy "QuickSheets" about the FAN club principal (The Historical Biographer's Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle).

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.

(I talk more about how to find a case study, what information to capture, like first and last name, and more in the follow-up post).

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.

What is cluster research? Why do you need this powerful genealogy technique and how do you do it? Learn more in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #familyhistory #genealogy
image with text overlay do you know what cluster research is


  1. Thank you for an interesting article. I haven't been able to figure out a system for organizing all of this material, sources, notes, etc. Have you any suggestions for me? Examples would be so helpful. I think a spreadsheet would be difficult for me to design.

    1. The system is one of the major hurdles. Honestly, I don't have a good system to start a FAN club, as I go, for every ancestor I research (I have different systems for some specific problems).
      If you aren't comfortable creating and using a spreadsheet, don't. FAN club research is hard enough without your "tool" being too complex.
      The top three suggestions I'd make other than a spreadsheet or database is using Word (I'm not sure Google Sheets could manage the bulk of information but I believe the free versions like OpenOffice can); using Evernote; or using a good software program like RootsMagic (and I believe Legacy will work just as well if that's your preference). I used to keep FANs in The Master Genealogist (which is no longer updated) and I know I can create similar customizations in RootsMagic (and I think RootsMagic might have some better reporting options).
      The hardest part of keeping FANs in genealogy software is you often have so little information on them and you are filling your software with sooooo many people. It can make your regular research problematic because you'd have too many choices when you searched for certain names. This is a bigger problem for Occasional Genealogists than people who can focus on a problem for several hours at a time.
      With software it's also vital to be able to generate reports that will help you. If you aren't good at that, it won't work.
      With Word or Evernote, you would essentially treat each page/note like a row in a spreadsheet, you'd record everything on that one page. You'd also want to list reasonable spelling variations so you'd find them in a search. Evernote would be better than Word because you could use custom searches to pull up just a list of notes related to the specific problem (and you could reuse notes for multiple problems thanks to tags) and with the specific surname and/or location. Once you did determine multiple datapoints were the same person, you could copy and paste the information onto one page/note.
      I think with Word, you'd really either need to know how to mark index entries and create an index or... You'd need to create a numbering system for each entry (if info for someone took more than one page, that would be a single number), print the pages as you go, keeping them in numerical order. Then you could search the Word doc and pull the printed pages so you could review them.
      It would be hard to review and compare information within Word, otherwise. Printing all from the start would save paper over printing your group of interest each time (and therefore reprinting certain pages over and over again). With Word or Evernote, you could copy and paste information to create a summary if you felt that was nessesary (especially if you used printed pages and wanted to refile them, in numerical order).
      You can create index cards with a similar system but you won't have the ability to search unless. (So while I've said "index cards" that means Trello would work but I won't go into details---if you love Trello, you can probably figure it out).
      The problem with organizing a FAN club is there isn't an inherent system. Often we pull people by surname (or standardized surname) but sometimes we need them by location, or date, or event. This is why electronic organization is ideal but the needs of a FAN club project vary so much, there isn't an obvious best choice (plus we all have different tech skills and budgets, not to mention free time!).


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