Essential Research Tools – Research Logs and Research Reports

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Warning – this posting is most accurately described as a “do-as-I-say” not a “do-as-I do” article. While I may follow the methodologies described here for client research, I am woefully remiss in applying these techniques to my personal research. Perhaps between my writing and your reading, we will improve this imbalance.

It has been almost fifteen years since I attended the Federation of Genealogical Society’s Conference, “Unlock Your Heritage,” in 1997 in Dallas, Texas. During that conference, I attended a Saturday session presented by Elizabeth Shown Mills entitled “The Research Report.” Although I have attended many conference sessions since then, I can truthfully say that this session has had the most effect on my work as a genealogist, by providing me with an understanding of why research reports are important, what they should contain, and how they guide our process of analysis and planning for future work. As a compliment to this enlightening session, at some now unknown and undated conference, I heard Helen Leary talk about the usefulness of the research log. These two methodologies, when used together, establish skills that allow us to excel as researchers.

To begin my discussion of these two forms, I am going to assume (don’t disappoint me here) that you have completed a research plan and that you can state your research objective. This objective must specify clearly the one person or event that you wish to learn about during your research trip, as well as the information that is presumed or has been documented either by you or your client, about that person or event. In addition, I am going to assume that you have explored which institutions and resources will be most applicable to your research and that you have a list of resources or documents to search. (If you haven’t done this preparatory work, don’t wait any longer! Do it now!)

Once you have arrived at the courthouse, archives, library, or other research institution you will want to have a research log form, either a printed one which you fill in manually, or a form on your computer. Research log forms in PDF can be found in various online locations such as the site for PBS’s Ancestors: the first series; Ancestry.com, or Bailey’s Genealogical Forms, as well as from various other companies. PDFs – unless the form developer has created a PDF that can be filled in on the computer – must be printed and completed by hand. The only source for a “fill-in” PDF research log that I have found is included in Michael Hait’s CD, The Family History Research Toolkit, Forms & Charts for Genealogical Research (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), and I recommend it as a quick way of completing a research log on your computer or laptop. When I have the time, however, I prefer to create a personalized form using either a Word table or an Excel spreadsheet. By doing so, I can include the column headings that are most useful to me as I research.

I have found the following elements to be useful. At the top of the form provide lines/spaces for the date, a brief statement of your research objective, the institution in which you are researching, and client name if applicable. The body of the table or spreadsheet can include call number/document number; title; bibliographic citation. Refer to Evidence!, Evidence Explained or the two Quick Sheets by Elizabeth  Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.) for correct citation formats for the resources you use. In addition, include a column for comments such as “volume 6 missing from shelf,” “no index,” “pages 40-60 missing,” etc.  Also include in your comments the years and names included in your search – all information which may prove helpful during future research on the same person or event. Include a column in which to note the information found in each source (this information may be a referral to an attached photocopy or microfilm copy (make sure you number each attachment). Make sure that you include sources in which you found nothing, as well as sources which you were unable to search because you ran out of time, the records were being microfilmed, etc. Your attention to detail in completing the log will allow you to revisit a source if you later discover new information that invites a second look. Every time I go to the Family History Library, I have one title that I check just to see if it’s reappeared since my last visit. Log comments like these will prevent you from expending research time and energy repeating previous fruitless searches.

Now that you have completed your research and have returned home – or have returned to your hotel room – it is time to turn to the research report. Drafting this report is for EVERYONE, not just for those doing client research. You will quickly see how the work you have done previously in developing your research plan and completing your research log provides you with the basis for much of the report.

Based on what I learned in that 1997 conference session, here are my suggested elements for a research reports.

  • Date of the report
  • The person for whom the report is being written: you if the research is personal, or your client.
  • Research objective: insert information from your research plan that describes presumed or previously documented information about the one person and/or event that is the goal of the research.
  • Institution(s) where the research was conducted: insert from your research log.
  • Sources consulted and results: insert information from your research log. I list each source consulted, whether or not it provided useful information. I include accurate transcriptions or abstracts for each document and, when copies have been obtained, I append a numbered attachment to the research report. Please make sure that you provide a label on the attachment with its assigned number and full bibliographic citation to prevent their misplacement. Include the comments you may have noted in your research log concerning indexing, illegibility, missing pages, record copy/original, etc.
  • Analysis. This section is the heart of the report and the piece of work that many genealogical researchers fail to complete. In this section you will discuss what your findings mean with regard to your research objective. You may want to attach timelines that you have developed, pedigree charts, family group sheets, etc. if they illustrate significant findings. Make sure that each attachment is numbered clearly and referred to in the text by name and number. What finds were significant and why? What research failures did you encounter? Did you find documents containing information that conflicts with previous research or presumed knowledge? If so, which information did you verify with original source documentation? Were you able to satisfy the original research objective? Whether yes or no, explain how you satisfied or did not satisfy the objective.
  • Future research objective: Based on the analysis of your research, draft a research objective for continued research and include, if possible, repositories to be visited and resources to be consulted (check your research log for possible resources to include in this section). If you are writing the report for a client, you may want to include projected time and costs for the next stage in research.

Once you have completed your report and attached all pertinent documents (including your original research plan and log), file the report in a clearly marked folder, where you can retrieve it easily in the future. When research on this person or event again becomes possible, you will experience something miraculous – you will be able to find the report easily, will be able to review your previous work in detail, and will have a research plan already outlined to guide your future work. You will not have to riffle through piles of paper, you will not have to attempt to recapture your understanding of the problem, you and will not have to locate documentation that may be out of order or perhaps is unlabeled.

I hope that each of you will use these forms in your research on a regular basis. I know I will.

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