How a Research Log Can Improve Your Research

When I first started researching my family tree, I did not see the importance of using a research log. At the time I thought of it as an added/wasted step, resulting in less time spent actually researching. After all, I know the information that I am looking for, & I don’t need a piece of paper reminding me, Right? I am not ashamed to admit I was wrong, dead wrong.

In the earlier stages of researching, you may be able to slide by without one. However, as time goes on, I can guarantee you that you will wish you would have started using a research log from the beginning. Actually, using a research log will not waste your time, but instead, save you time & energy.

There have been several times in my researching that I have looked at a piece of information, and discarded it thinking this was not my family. Only to discover other information later, that may indicate that the original research was, in fact, my family. Especially since you are still building your tree, there are names/places you do not know yet that are connected. Before I started using a research log, I would spend alot of extra time trying to find that original record. If only I had been using a research log, I would have found the information in a matter of minutes.

Other Benefits Include:

  • Keep track of what you have already found, and/or looked at, avoiding re-researching records you have already searched
  • See the areas that you are lacking in, or have not searched at all.
  • It helps you stay focused on the question at hand, limiting distractions.
  • Organize the research you have already done, allowing you to see what information you are missing.
  • Help you stay focused on the question at hand. Avoiding getting derailed & give you a sense of accomplishment when you complete your goal.
  • Easier to evaluate the evidence, and draw better conclusions.
  • Lays the foundation for conducting reasonably sound research.

Create the Research Question

In order for you to know what you need to search, review the information you already have and decide on the question you want to answer. Make the question specific, do not make it to broad. A generalized question will result in to much information to review, and most likely cause you to get side-tracked, whereas a specific question will help you remain focused. Use was John Smith born in 1885 in Baltimore. vs When and where was John Smith born.

Using the question of John Smiths birth as an example. Determine what type of records exist that can help you find the information you are seeking. For example, When were births required to be registered in Baltimore? If so, where are the records located? What church records are available for that time?

Make a log of the records that could contain the information you are seeking & where they are located. Record the information in your research log and work your plan.

There is no right or wrong log for you to use. The only wrong one is the one that you don’t use. There are several different logs available, choose the one that works for you. Some people prefer the paper “hard” copy. Others use electronic means. Many genealogy software programs have them built in. Others use Evernote, One Note, Spreadsheet, or even MS Word.

Formulate the Record:

I use electronic over paper for various reasons. A few are that I can easily print it if needed. It is portable across devices (laptop, tablet & even my phone) as well as I am not limited on the amount of space I have to use. Best of all, I do not have to worry about getting it filed before something happens to it. It is always with me, and I know right where to go to retrieve it. Regardless of the type of log you use, it should include spaces to document the following for each source:

  1. Research objective / goal
  2.  Date of Search – I wait to record the date until I am doing the research. This was if I get called away from it, I know what I have completed, and won’t be wasting time trying to figure it out later.
  3.  Location / Call record of items to research – including websites, libraries, anywhere that you think the information may be, write it as if you were naming a source in a research paper, and include any contact information for a physical location
  4.  Description of the source, including title, author, and date. What type of source, is it an original or derivative; primary or secondary source; direct or indirect evidence? (about source description / types)
  5.  Comments / notes / findings such as names & years searched. include the keyword you used in search engines etc. Record enough information that you could find the document easily if you would need to at a later date.

    (This is also where I will add my “to do” list.) It is very common for me to see something that makes me think of another ancestor, or another record to check while researching, this is where I add that information to look at later.

Misc Information:

Even if you find information that you do not believe is your family, record it anyway. You never know what you may find later, and wish you could remember where that tidbit is.

It doesn’t matter if you have a simple research question to answer or a more complicated one. The research log/plan is designed to help you complete a reasonably exhaustive search. 

Be especially attentive to recording the source information. This will make things much easier when you write conclusions. If you are not sure what to include in source citations, go the extra mile. It is always better to include to much, than not to include enough. (there will also be more on source citations at a later date)

Where to find a research log

There are several sources online for obtaining a research log, a few are listed below:

How about you? Have you used a research log? What are your thoughts, tell us your story!

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