Essential Methods: Research Logs

Friday, December 13, 2019 - 3:45pm
Author: 
Frederick Wertz

A well-formed research log is one of the most powerful tools you can use to improve the results of your family history research. 

Genealogists use research logs to keep track of past work - a reliable record of each search allows you (or someone else) to look back and see exactly what you have done. 

The benefits are substantial - you will save a lot of time by avoiding repeat searches, and information about your prior searches can lead to discoveries down the road. 

If you’re not keeping a research log, now is an excellent time to start - if you are, it can't hurt to do a quick check to make sure you’re using your research log optimally. 

Read on to learn:

  • Why keeping a research log is crucial
  • What information your research log should contain
  • Tips for making your research log work for you 

Paper or Digital?

One of the first decisions to make is the medium for your research log. Personal preference is certainly important. If a physical notebook or handwritten sheet of paper is easiest for you, go for it - the vast majority of research logs produced throughout history have been on paper, and that's worked well for many researchers.

It's also worth considering a digital solution. Whether you use a program like Evernote, OneNote (both popular tools with genealogists), or go with a simple spreadsheet, the benefits of a digital document are similar. With a digital research log you will be able to:

  • Search instantly within the document for names, dates, or other keywords 
  • Sort and filter information contained in columns or rows (if using a table/spreadsheet)
  • Add information, make edits, or tinker with the structure of the research log

Ultimately the decision is yours - but think carefully about the benefits of each option. 

What to include in your research log

Research logs can vary but must contain certain information to be effective. At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself: "Will someone else (including your future self) be able to retrace my research steps based on the information I have put into this log?" 

Ancestor's Name and Years

Each of your searches should be focused on a specific individual. Make sure to note the full name of the ancestor you're searching for, as well as the approximate years associated with that individual's life.  

If you're using a digital spreadsheet for your research log, having a separate column for first name and last name can be helpful - your research log will eventually have many entries, and this will allow you to sort or filter your logs based on first or last name - a very handy trick if you're trying to review all of the work you have done over the years on a specific person or family. 

Date of your search

This one is important - genealogy changes! New records become available and existing databases get updated all the time. Knowing the date you searched will help you determine whether or not a recently-updated record set may hold new information. 

"In the digital world where online datasets change constantly, keeping a record of when you searched a collection becomes essential."

NYG&B President D. Joshua Taylor echoes this sentiment: "In the digital world where online datasets change constantly, keeping a record of when you searched a collection becomes essential. When I learn of updates to any online datasets, the first thing I check is my research log to see the last time I conducted a search in that dataset. My research log helps me prioritize my research and be as efficient as possible during my online search sessions."

Research Question

Every search you make should be related to a family history research question - make sure to note the exact research question you're trying to answer in your research log. 

An unfocused search is less likely to find the information you need and may even lead you down a wrong research path. Research questions help focus your searching - when you break up your overall quest to learn more about your ancestors into small, highly achievable research questions, things will be far more manageable. Read our article about research questions for more details and guidance. 

Place of Research

Make sure to log the entity that holds the source you're consulting. If you're researching online, this is usually the website name - if you're doing work in person, log the library, archives, or organization that maintains the records you're using. 

Source Description

Your research log must include complete information about the source you're consulting. 

It's a good idea to create a full citation and put it right in the research log. Doing so will keep you well-practiced at this important part of genealogy research, and citation is often tempting to skip over (and never return to) - the sooner you do it in your research process the better!

Scope of Search

This one is essential, and the quality of information here will often make or break how useful your research log is. Even though this may seem tedious, the more detail you include about exactly what you searched and what documents you reviewed the better. Record the exact details of the name (including variants) you searched and any filters or search options that affected the results.

This field is one where you will see a lot of variance in research logs - some professional genealogists and expert researchers will include exhaustive information and every tiny detail of every search they made. Others will find this too cumbersome and may include less specific descriptions of their searches. Just remember, the more work you put into creating your research log, the more time you will save in the future by avoiding repeat searches. 

Including details about the scope of your search can be especially helpful during a genealogy consultation - a professional genealogist may be able to spot something you missed or a flaw in your searches, and advise you on ways to redo your search that may produce better results. 

Results

You should also include the results of your search, regardless of whether they were positive or negative - in many ways, it's the recording of negative search results that really make the research log into a useful tool.

It may seem pointless to spend time logging a fruitless search, but it's even more pointless to repeat that search in the future because you didn't include it in the log! 

Recording negative results can help in other ways too - Joshua Taylor notes, "research logs show patterns in our results that can be quite beneficial. A chain of negative results can assist when developing certain theories and reaching conclusions in research." 

Document Identifier

If you wind up finding a document you want to save, you should make a copy of that document and assign it its own unique document ID in your collection of family history materials. This will allow you to refer back to it easily in the future, and it may be useful in the future to refer to what search yielded which documents. 

Notes, Thoughts, or Next Steps

Use this space to record any notes or thoughts that you may want to remember later. It could be an informal update to a hypothesis you're working to prove or disprove, or it could be an initial idea of where to search next.

Research Log: Final Tips

Fill out as much as you can before you search

Avoid the temptation to forgo logging a search (especially a search that came up empty) - make sure to begin the log before you even start searching. Fill out the ancestor's information, date of search, research question, location of search, and source description before you even make your first query. 

Customize as much as you need

While there are certainly a few items that must be included in your research log to make it worthwhile, make sure to customize your research log to fit your personal situation. Generally the more information you can enter the better, but take care not to get too ambitious if you know it will result in you skipping to log your searches altogether. 

The most important thing is to create a tool that you will actually use! If you know keeping things minimal is going to ultimately result in the most consistent logging, then go for that. 

We want to hear from you

Did we miss anything? Is there anything else about research logs we should include? The NYG&B community is full of expert researchers - and we want to hear from you!

If you use research logs and have some advice to offer other researchers, shoot us an email at webmaster@nygbs.org to share your tip - we may be able to add it to this article! 

 

More About Genealogy Methods

 

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