By Jayne McGarvey
Whether you are about to search for a new ancestor or an undiscovered chapter in a known ancestor’s life, it is worth while taking time to compile a Research Plan.
- Start with your Objectives
Deciding what you want to find is the most important part of your research. Be realistic, – do not set an aspiration as a research objective – break the aspiration into smaller more realistic steps that work towards your aspiration.
A single, clearly defined research objective will—
Focus your efforts, one step at a time, on a single task (such as a name, event date, event place, relationship, etc.)
Improve your chances of locating a record that contains the information you seek.
Reduce the confusion or information overload of trying to work on several objectives simultaneously.
Help you succeed and enjoy your research experience.
- Collate Known Facts
These are the facts you have already conclusively proven are correct. Make out a chronological time sheet for the ancestor you are researching. It can also be helpful to have time sheets for known family members and even a household time sheet as this will reveal any inconsistencies very quickly.
- Prepare a Working Hypothesis
This is the starting point for your research. A hypothesis sets out your deductive reasoning for what you hope to find (i.e. a statement of expectation) and where you expect to find your information. Often this will identify, at a minimum, the type of source you will search and may be expanded to include the actual record collections you intend to research.
- Detail your Strategy
This is simply the order of what you are going to do. It includes the what, when and where, and points at which you may want to pause to review and, if necessary, revise your research plan.
- Compile Your Research Log
This can be a simple table, in word, or spreadsheet. In its most basic terms it identifies the Name and dates of Your Ancestor, the repository where records are held, the record call number, and why you intend to search each record. Leave space to fill in your search date, your name, source citations, information that you find, AND do not find (eg your negative returns), conclusions, and any document references for documents that you copy (both physically and digitally).
The reasons for keeping a Research Log are multiple:
You keep a record of where you have already searched and when. This is especially useful for digital collections that may be updated and enlarged from time to time so that you can easily and quickly identify if a collection has been added to since you last searched it.
You can tell your family or others what you have already searched. If you are working in collaboration with others, neither they nor you will need to search the same source again.
If you find conflicting information or records that may potentially refer to your ancestor, but you are not certain, it is easy to identify that you have placed them into “quarantine” until the conflict has been resolved or further evidence confirms or excludes them as referring to your ancestor. When you later return to do additional research, your log will remind you what you have already done, what you found, what else you still need to research and how you reached your conclusions.
Your family or others may want to look at the sources as you did.
By reviewing your research logs from time to time you can quickly identify any gaps in your research or use them for the basis of your next plan of research.
When you enter information into your family tree or family history book, you will have the correct citation work to hand.