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!
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:
- Repository or Website
- Title of Collection
- Keyword Search
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.
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).