Download the Updated Genealogy Research Log by genealogy expert Thomas MacEntee! Complete with source citation templates, evidence evaluation helper, and NEW research checklist!
Click below or HERE to download your FREE version of my Genealogy Research Log which I use EVERY DAY for my own family history research. And read below for tips on how to use this incredible resource!
Overwhelming Data and Genealogy – Work Smarter Not Harder
Do you feel more overwhelmed than ever when it comes to genealogy and all the data you have access to these days? Remember back 10, 20 or 30 years ago – did it also feel like this or was data just more manageable back then? Well the feeling is new and the reason? BIG DATA and the technologies that make more genealogy data available to us. With advances in technology genealogy (and even non-genealogy) vendors now have the ability to produce more data and make it available to researchers.
The problem of keeping up with data is not going away nor will it be easily solved. Part of the burden is on the providers to make access to data easier and quicker. The other part is on us as researchers: we need to work smarter with the data!
Genealogy Research Data
If you’re a beginning genealogist you want to research “the right way” and if you’re an intermediate one, you probably have learned from your early mistakes. While some would argue as to what is “correct” we would probably all agree on these points as to what a research log could and should do:
- Create an action plan. Many genealogists have some sort of research plan whether it is written down or in their heads. A research log can help you fine tune that research plan and convert it into an action plan. For many of us, that is the challenge . . . getting from “What I want to look for” to “Oh, look what I’ve found!”
- Keep you organized. Do you spend hours just bouncing around on Ancestry.com or another website? What about in-person at a repository . . . do you use your time wisely or just go from resource to resource? A research log can help you not only organize your research finds, but also identify areas where you need to do more research.
- Allow instant recall. Even if you are successful at finding the records and information you need in genealogy, what good is it if you can’t locate that information easily and quickly? Especially if you store your finds on a computer, it helps to have a “map” to where all that stuff is! Use links and entries in a research log to find items fast.
- Reduce “do-overs.” There’s nothing worse than spending time researching only to find out that you already had that particular record. A research log let’s you know where you’ve been and where you should be spending your time.
- Help analyze data. If you’ve located several different records related to an ancestor’s marriage, how can you really analyze all the information and come to a conclusion if you can’t see the details all at once? A research log lets you sort by fields or column headings and also search for specific keywords so you can easily analyze results.
Research Log Basics – What To Include
Here are some data points that you should consider tracking on a research log or any method you use for your genealogy research:
- Date: Enter the date you located the record. Not only will this show the evolution of your research process, but the information can be important for source citations. In addition, you can tell if a new record set available in-person or online was even available when you were researching a specific person or topic.
- Record Name: Each record should have a common yet distinct name, such as “Death Certificate for John Leehive.” For records that might have several iterations or versions such as an obituary in different newspapers, add qualifiers such as “Obituary of John Leehive, New York Times.”
- Repository: Identify where the record is physically located. For online records, you decide if you want to list the website, such as Ancestry.com, or drill-down to the actual originating repository such as NARA.
- Record Type: This is really a “field of convenience” since it simply gives you an easy way to sort and extract entries and group them by a category. Think “death record,” “marriage record,” etc.
- Transcript Extract: This can be a time consuming entry especially if you are working with a physical record. For online records, many times the item is already transcribed – simply copy and paste the text.
- Analysis: For me, this is where I take notes, formulate theories and really do my analytical work. Often I’ll enter comments or questions to myself such as “Which silk factory did John Vincent Slattery work at?” or statements such as “Proves Margaret Leehive was the daughter of John Leehive.”
- Link: Indispensible for online research since it saves time when having to go back to a record. Granted, URLs can change (that is why the source citation will always serve you as the best way to locate a record), but having a clickable link means not having to remember how you found the record.
- Record Number: An internal numbering system to reference entries in your research log. Use a simple number format or perhaps a surname + number format such as Austin01.
- Source Citation: While we can argue whether or not this should be an optional field, this is where you build your source citation. Stick to the basics such as the name of the record, the repository, date found, etc. The goal is to make it easier to find the record later on, especially if the record is located online and the URL has changed.
- Result: This is what I call my “thumbs up, thumbs down” or “plus or minus” column. Basically I use one word like “positive” or “negative” or a phrase like “proves theory” or “disproves theory.” Doing so is also important since certain theories can only be proven through negative evidence.
- File name/location: Enter the file name of a saved record image or photograph. Why? Most computer operating systems make it easy to search your hard drive contents so all you have to do is copy the text and paste it into your computer’s Search field to find the file.
Evidence Evaluation Fields
The following fields can be used to evaluate evidence. They offer an exellent way to help analyze research data.
- Source Type: A source is Original if it is the ﬁrst written statement, photograph, or recording of an event. Subsequent copies are Derivative and may be reproduced by hand, machine, camera or scanner; they may be reproduced on paper, in microform, as photographs or digital images, or in any other medium that records the image whether transcribed by hand or technology.
- Clarity: Use Clear If the information can easily be read. Use Marginal if information is not clear, is partially obscured and researcher must “guess” at words or letters.
- Information Type: Use Primary if a piece of information is recorded by a knowledgeable eyewitness or participant in that event, or by an ofﬁcial whose duties require him or her to make an accurate record of the event when it occurs. Use Secondary if information is supplied by someone who was not at the event and may include errors caused by memory loss or inﬂuenced by other parties who may have a bias or be under emotional stress.
- Evidence Type: Direct evidence is any fact that is explicitly stated. Indirect evidence is inferred from one or more pieces of evidence within the record.
Tips and Techniques
- Understand the “why” of using a research log. If you are using a research log only because other researchers are doing so, then you’re wasting your time. Understand the benefits of tracking your research journey on paper, in a digital document, or using an online application. You’ll have a better appreciation for the research log and the research process.
- Select a format that you will use. There’s no sense in taking the “square peg, round hole” approach and using a format such as an Excel spreadsheet if you don’t like using spreadsheets. You’ll only frustrate yourself and abandon all ideas of using any research log. Try different types and stick with what works for you.
- Spend time setting up headings or categories. When taking the spreadsheet approach which relies upon column headings, take time to consider which headings to use. And don’t be afraid to add or remove headings over time. It is only through constant use of the research log that you’ll determine the best headings for your research process.
- Shoot for a “one pass” goal. When you find a record or piece of information, note all the information as if you might never find that item again. This means noting the date you found it, location, type of record, etc. You’re only kidding yourself if you say, “Oh, I’ll come back to that later.” Later is often “never” or a time when you need the information right away and it isn’t available.
- Maintaining a research log is a discipline. A discipline is created through hard work, practice and repetition until it becomes habit. Realize that you’ll make mistakes the first few entries. Then you’ll become better at entering information accurately and quickly.
- Source citations matter – take a shortcut! Sounds like heresy, doesn’t it? “There are no shortcuts in source citations,” someone once told me. Nonsense. Create a cheat sheet for yourself – a document or a spreadsheet tab where you keep your most commonly used source citation formats. Then copy the format to your record entry and fill in the blanks. Easy peasy!
©2020, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.