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Using Research Logs Effectively In Genealogy

Genealogy is a growth process like any other pursuit or passion. The more I got into genealogy and researching my family tree, the more of a headache it became to remember all the information and work I did. Research logs saved the day for me, because I now had an effective method for keeping track of all my searches. I always considered myself a good note-taker during school. But research logs, to me, go a step beyond just notes. They are documents of every activity we undertake in a research project about our ancestors. This was something I had to adapt as part of my personal growth as a genealogist.

 Why does it matter to be so meticulous? Because it saves you time!

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Logging all of your searches and activities provides a great reference. Without a log of what websites and sources you’ve already checked, you might end up wasting time repeating searches. It’s easy for researchers to jump from one website to another, because we are in the zone of finding our ancestor. But consider slowing down a little bit and logging your searches. You might think you’ll remember, but these little details very rarely stay in our long-term memory and in a very short amount of time, we might forget!

When we take our work to a professional for a consultation, they often ask, “What have you checked already?" The researcher might say, “I’ve checked everything!,” but how are you able to back this up without evidence of the searches you’ve undertaken. While those involved in genealogy as a business consider research logs a necessity for client reports, those who are undertaking genealogy for personal enrichment should consider using the same tool. It will make you a better researcher and help with your desired genealogy goals. Logging the details of a particular search can help to easily demonstrate how you got that answer. What exactly did you enter into the search fields? Did you try a wildcard search or variation of the surname? These details really do matter.

Building and Using A Research Log

Creating a log is quite easy and you can create a template that works for you. My particular template was designed in Microsoft Word, which can be designed by clicking on the “Insert” Menu and scrolling down to “Table.” Alternatively, logging your research in a spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel works just as well.

I’ve seen all different kinds of logs, some with more columns for information than others, but what remains essential for a log is capturing all the details of a search. In my template, I have rows on the top to include the surname, residences, and my desired objective. The objective is important, because we might be pursuing specific research questions on an ancestor or family. In my personal template, I included five columns for recording details of a search: 

  • Date

  • Repository or Website
  • Title of Collection
  • Keyword Search
  • Results

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The date is important to log, especially for online research. Many times, a domain for a private family tree website will expire and the link could be broken when we access it at a later date.

The next column is where I write in the name of the website or database I am utilizing, or if I am are working on-site at the archives, the name of that facility. "Title of Collection" would be the name of the source and for example, if I’m trying a search from the homepage of Ancestry or Family Search, I would write in “main search engine.”

The most important columns are the next two because they capture the details of what I’m looking for and how I found or didn’t find the desire information. "Keyword Search" is where I would write in the names I’m looking for, but if there are multiple search fields for vitals, parents names, residences, etc., I am sure to include those details as well. Every site responds differently to the characters we type in or if we are using a search trick like the wildcard or search tools in Google.

In the results column, I indicate whether the search was negative or “No Matches.” When searching online, I like to include the number of results I get back with every search. It’s important data to record because I might be searching too broad or too narrow. It also might provide demographic information like how many families or individuals with that name are living in a particular jurisdiction. When we do get positive results, this is where I enter in my reference to that particular source, so I can build citations more easily. Once again, this saves considerable time. When we are creating our citation, we don’t have to backtrack to every website because it’s all right there in the research logs.

If electronic research logs are your preference, you can print blank research plan right from within the Legacy Family Tree software.

To print a Blank Research Log:

1. Choose Research Log from the Reports tab of the Ribbon bar.

2. Click either Print or Preview to view the report.

 You can also extend your use of research logs by watching the Legacy Family Tree webinar "Plan Your Way to Research Success!"

You might find that meticulously logging all this data is a bit obsessive and doesn’t apply to you necessarily. But I think we can all relate to wanting to save time and work more efficiently on our family trees, so consider using a research log as a tool for your genealogical pursuits. I’ve provided some other examples that are posted online and made available for re-use:

 

G. David Dilts. "Research Logs." FamilySearch Wiki, last modified 24 Feb 2016.  

Colleen Greene. "Evernote for Genealogy: Research Logs and Note Links." Posted 29 Jan 2014.

"Research Trackers and Organizers.FamilyTree Magazine. 

 

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Jake Fletcher is a genealogist, lecturer, and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).




Comments

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It might be helpful to see an actual example of what you might use in each field; i.e. "Type of Collection"; keywords used, etc. And how do you set up your columns to allow for multiple lines.

Hi Cherie,

I provided a working example from my own research to better illustrate how I use research logs:

https://fletcherfamilytree.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/bartholomewoliverresearchlog-docx.pdf

I use MS Word 2011. When I select the table I'm working with, a new highlighted menu pops up called "Table Layout." When selected, there are icons in the menu that allow you to add columns in your table to the left or right.

Hopefully that helps,

Jake Fletcher

I'd really like to be able to use some sort of formatted research log within Legacy itself so I can keep my research information with the person. I know there is a research tab, but it's just not quite the same.

Great article! Thanks for the advice and I'm inspired to start keeping track of my search results which are negative as well as the positive. I don't usually keep track of those. I'm the Deputy Chairman for the Genealogy Panel of the Chandler Family Association and work on the inquiries that we receive. We're fast approaching over 600 of them since about 2009 or 2010. Often I'm in a hurry to find as much as I can find for the 'client' so I often don't mention the negative searches -- only the positive results. Thanks for suggesting to keep track of the negative searches. If, for no other reason -- it shows how much work we really did in trying to help them.

Instead of the outdated or expensive office suite that you mention, I would like to suggest Libre Office. It will use compatible files, is up to date and best of all, it is free and available for all operating systems. Many claim that is better than the Microsoft products for large files. I've been using Open Office then Libre Office for well over a decade.

I used paper research logs when I first started researching in the mid-1990s. They were great for when I would go to the Georgia Archives and the National Archives in Atlanta, because those records were finite. When I started surfing the web, the paper research logs became cumbersome, mainly because of my "down the rabbit hole"ADD like research method. Plus the fact that the information available on a website like Ancestry seemed to change daily.

I like the set up of your log, but think that it would better serve me on a spreadsheet, set up by family unit, with tabs for each member of the family. That way if I'm researching one family member and find info on other family members too good to resist, I can easily switch to the appropriate log and keep going down the rabbit hole.

Great tip about the spreadsheet Danni, it does make sense since you can use tabs to organize multiple surnames.

Thanks for the helpful tip Graig!

Thanks Barry, glad your inspired to do so!

I have used a paper log for many years and found it invaluable. My paper log originated before the widespread availability of online sources when most of my research was conducted by actual visits to archives and repositories and included information on more than one individual and or location on a page. I include much the same information as in the example described but found that once the log began to grow it became quite time consuming to go through it to find what information I had for any given individual. I added one further feature which I find extremely useful for reference and analysis purposes, namely, each page as it is created is assigned a sequential reference number in the form "RPN XXX". This can be used as a short form reference as to where the detailed information can be found and, by use of a spreadsheet or database program, can be used to produce lists of all pages which refer to a given individual, location, archive etc enabling quick access to the original source of any individual data.

I use the To-Do list within Legacy itself for my research logs. The "Category" is "Research Log" which I added to the Category list. "Locality" is the same as one would use for birth, death, etc. "Task needing to be done" is a short name for the source. "Task description" is what I'm looking for in the source.

The "Results" field is where I enter everything I've found in the source. If I'm doing census records, I pull all the facts from the record. If I have questions, I type those in. I also analyze the census with "what if" scenarios.

The real beauty of using the To-Do list is that the source may already be in your source list so you don't have to type in the entire citation. It's just like sourcing every other piece of information. "File ID" is the document number. Again, because you're right within Legacy, that file ID is in your source.

Another advantage to using the To-Do list within Legacy is that you can easily copy and attach the item to every person mentioned in the source.

I've been taking family history courses online and every instructor has accepted the To-Do list report as a valid research log. It would be nice, however, if the Legacy folks could format the To-Do list report so it looks more like a "regular" research log.

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