Here is a hint to help you to make sense of your research logs and piles of documents created while researching an ancestor or visiting a repository: Write a research report to yourself. After all, this is what professional genealogists do for their clients. It takes time, yes, but it saves time in the long run.
There are as many ways to do this as there are individual researchers. My own reports vary depending on the circumstances. Once I spent a few hours visiting as many repositories as I could in Butler County, Pennsylvania. That report included my initial plans, the different places that I visited, what I looked for, why I changed research strategies, why I stopped short of my plan (I simply ran out of steam!), and how I might follow up.
Here are some tips:
- Faithfully draft a report after every block of research (maybe three to four hours).
- Give it a heading. At least include the date and research problem or repository.
- Write the report as you are researching, or within a few hours.
- Record details about the records (e.g. indexed alphabetically by first letter of surname; only contains one unrelated record for the time period of interest; pages aren’t numbered, etc.).
- Capture your reasoning and analysis as you research (e.g. why you searched that record, what surprises were found, where this record might lead you, variant names and spellings to consider, etc.).
- Include suggestions for the next steps.
- Copy and paste citations from your research log directly into your report.
- Create a sample report and use it as a template for the future.
Our evaluation of the evidence is an important part of the report. What does this record tell us? What’s different than expected? Is this an original or derivative record? Are there conflicts that need resolved? Does this offer direct or indirect evidence to answer the research question? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the record?
We might share our research with other family members. These reports not only help others know our reasoning, they can refresh our own imperfect memories.
Improve the effectiveness of your family history research by writing yourself a report. Do it faithfully and in a timely manner. Then enjoy the benefits!