Research Logs: The Key to Organizing Your Family History
Are you ready to take your Family History efforts to the next level and actually get organized? Do you sometimes feel like you have spent the last hour of “research” mindlessly surfing the web looking for records of your family but you have no idea where you’ve been and what you’ve found? You might be ready to put some order into your research!
Family History work has come a long way in the last twelve years. When I first started research in 2003, I kept all of my documents in paper file folders, my family tree on PAF (Personal Ancestral File) and Ancestry.com was new.
Now we have the collaborative Family Tree on FamilySearch, record hinting, the ability to attach sources with a few clicks of our mouse, need I go on? Searching for our ancestors has never been easier, and organizing our research should be getting easier, right? Or do the many options available just paralyze us and we do nothing?
I’m continually looking for ways to make better use of my research time. Efficiency is key with a limited amount of hours in the day. I don’t want to spin my wheels looking for the same information over and over because I neglected to record searches.
When I work on the collaborative Family Tree attaching record hints and doing easy searches for sources, I don’t fill out a formal research log. Instead I like to use a simple research notebook to keep track of the family I’m working on and what I need to search.
But what about those more difficult research projects where I’m trying to break through some brick walls in my family history? That is where a research log comes in handy. If I’m searching land records on microfilm or browsing an entire county in a census, I don’t want to repeat that search and I want to record it somewhere safe. For more about the process of researching difficult problems in your family tree, check out my book, Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide.
What is a Research Log?
If you’re new to the world of family history research, a research log is where you simply record what you’re looking for, where you looked, and what you found.
Before the computer age, genealogists kept these logs by hand. Now we have multiple options, everything from a simple research notebook to complex computer programs.
Below is what a basic research log looks like, courtesy of FamilySearch.org. If this looks too complicated, don’t panic, I’m going to break it down for you and show you several different options so you can choose the best fit for you. I’ll give you some tips about each option. You can pick one or try them all. It takes time and experience to find the perfect fit so be patient with yourself and keep trying!
Most Research Logs have these features in common, some may be more simple and others more complex:
Ancestor’s name: Pretty self explanatory but this can be an individual, a couple, or a family, depending on your objective. On Family Tree, I’m currently researching the family of Jacob Cline. One of his sons has only “deceased” for his death information, and no spouse or children. Everett is a good candidate for a research project so I write:
Objective: This is your question. What do you want to find out? I have lots of questions about Everett, but I’m going to focus on just one!
When and where did Everett Cline die?
Locality: Where are you going to look for the information? You’ll be more efficient if you’ve narrowed down the place. Doing a global search for Everett Cline would bring up too many results and waste my time. The 1940 census record shows him living in Missouri, so I’m going to specify my locality as:
Date of Search: Enter the actual day your performed the search. Not too hard, right? You may think you’ll remember when you searched that microfilm, but you won’t. Online databases change and are updated, so it’s always possible that a record set will be updated and if you check back your record will be there.
November 24, 2015
Location / Call Number: Where is the source located? If it is a book or microfilm, enter the call number and the library: FHL 974.56 or FHL Film 80321. If it is a computer database, enter that information:
Description of Source: What is the title of the book, or the record set that is on the microfilm or the database.
Missouri cemeteries on Find A Grave
Comments: What variations of the name did you search, what years, is there anything more specific you need to remember about the search. What were your results? Eve* tells the system to search for all varieties of spellings, the search returned: Evea, Evelyn, Everett, and Evert. Unfortunately, none of them were right, so I write “NIL” meaning not in location.
Searched for all Clines in Missouri, born 1875; also Eve* Cline in Missouri, all years, NIL
Document Number: If you use a paper filing system, you would number the document, if you found one, and file it away. Your Research Log becomes your key to your files. I have no results from this source, so I leave it blank. Plus, I’m no longer using a paper filing system!!!
Some of the Research Log options you might want to try listed in order of simplicity:
Just starting your journey into family history? Try this simple method: get a spiral bound notebook. As you’re working in FamilySearch Family Tree and you have questions, write those questions in your notebook. Organize it any way that makes sense to you. As you look at the details of a family, notice what is missing: a marriage date? a birth place? the census for a particular year? death information? List your questions, leaving some space for your searches and results. Then choose one of your questions, think of what records would answer your question. In your notebook list those records.
In my notebook, I write “Everett Cline” at the top of the page. Below I list my question: When and were did Everette Cline die?
When I go to Everett’s person page, I see he has hints for census records but no hints for death records. I will need to search various record databases for this information.
What if I don’t have any idea where to search? I can go to the Family Search Wiki, search for Missouri, and get live links to databases to search.
Using the Wiki for help I list some possible sources for death information: findagrave.com; billion graves.com; the U.S Social Security Death index; Missouri death certificates, etc.
The next step is to actually perform the search. I go through each possible database, searching with several name variations. If I find the record, I write down where it is found, add it to Family Search Family Tree and I can move on to the next question. If I don’t find it, I write NIL, next to the list. NIL means “not in location”. I continue searching my sources, adding new possibilities as they arise. If I need to leave my research for a day or two, when I come back, I can pick up right where I left off!
Research Log Form
I could also make several copies of a Research Log form and fill it out by hand. Although we live in a computer age, you may be researching in a courthouse without your computer and need to take notes the old fashioned way. If you choose to just use paper Research Logs, they could be filed alphabetically in a binder or file folders. Again, when you came back to an individual or family, you could quickly locate your log and be reminded of your searches.
Electronic Research Log
If you want to go paperless, you can easily create an electronic Research Log using your favorite computer program. Going electronic lets you cut and paste from websites, quickly type in your notes, and save to your flash drive or computer files.
I recently started using a web based program, Research Ties, the ultimate in research logs. Brigham Young University professor, Jill Crandell, designed it to fit her needs as a professional researcher and she and her team continue to fine tune it. So many great features make this a wonderful tool for the serious researcher. I can enter objectives, searches, sources, and results. When I find a record, I can upload an image, add a url, and even share the source on Family Search Family Tree. Research Ties creates a new source for you! Subscription based, you can try the free trial, but at $30 a year, it is a good value.
Here is my search info entered into Research Ties. One of my favorite features is the ability to enter source info once, then reuse it multiple times. For example, once I’ve entered Find A Grave, I can use this source every time I search for an individual. I can create reports, lists, and just about anything I can think of to help me keep track of my research. Research Ties is hosted online, so I can access my information on any computer, anytime. I don’t need to worry about losing my flash drive or a hard drive failure.
Finally, have you thought about adding research notes to your ancestor’s person page on Family Tree? You could do this in “notes” or “discussions”. If you’ve gone to all of the work to search various sources, why not share your searches. Since Family Tree is collaborative, we can let others know what we’ve done so they don’t repeat the same searches.
I tend to mix it up a bit with my research logs. If I’m doing the easy searches on Family Search, I use my research notebook, but on my seriously difficult cases, I use Research Ties.
So what is the best Research Log for you? The one you will use!
If you don’t do anything else, get a notebook and start writing in your questions, what sources you can search to find the answers, and the results of your searches. I guarantee you’ll feel more organized and happy with your progress.
I have created a Research Log Template and Sample Research Log with 4 different sheets showing how I logged my research for a large report. I would love to share it with you. Just sign up for our email list, confirm your email, then you’ll receive an email with the excel file for you to download.
Best of luck finding your family!
Do you want to take your research to the next level and practice making research logs with a group of 5 others? You’ll do peer reviews of assignments and get feedback from a professional genealogist in our Research Like a Pro Study Group with Diana Elder AG®.