Basic Genealogical Research Plans (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Just like any adventure you begin, you need a plan. You need to know what your destination is and how to reach it. A good genealogical research project is no different—you must start with a well-organized and realistic plan.

A good research plan helps you organize your preparations. You must go through this process if you expect to meet your objective(s) effectively and efficiently. A good genealogical research plan includes an orderly sequence of logical steps.

Evaluating Initial Information

Research planning is all about evaluating the initial information we have to begin with, and having enough knowledge of the sources that will potentially reveal more information about an ancestor’s identity, vital events or relationships. After each research period or major “discovery” your research plan must be revised accordingly. New information may lead to new and different sources. If the new information changes the objective or focus, then a completely new research plan may be called for.


Upon evaluating the initial information you found, you normally develop one or more hypotheses to explain to yourself why you will approach certain record sources to help answer the questions or confirm or defeat a hypothesis. As a simple example, if your grandmother would not tell you her age, but once told you she was born during the Depression in an American place you never heard of, you have a few options for beginning a search for the objective: her birth certificate. A priority would be a map or gazetteer to find that place name.

We are making a distinction between the words/concepts assumption and hypothesis which are not the same in scientific work, and which we often apply to genealogical research.

An assumption is a rather unconscious acceptance of some “conventional wisdom” or an unreasoned assertion (something we assume to be true) that may or may not be true. If we know there was a certain ancestral birth, we tend to assume that a husband and wife were involved. The truth is that a man and a woman were involved in the conception, but they may not have been married. If your father has saved an envelope full of old photographs, you might assume that they are all unidentified family relations. The truth is that some, many, or all of them could be old family friends, or the whole works could have been picked up in a flea market.

A hypothesis* is a supposition you develop after examining some information and considering where it will lead you, for its verification or possibly rejection. A hypothesis involves some conscious mental work with that first information; it can take the form of the simplest explanation of the given facts-in other words, an initial deduction.

With your grandmother’s “question” or “problem”, your assumption might be that she had a birth father who lived in that unknown town. And it is his surname you will search for because you assume that is grandma’s birth surname. You should try to recognize any such assumptions you make, because if grandma’s coyness was the result of being born out of wedlock, her birth certificate (if there is one) might be in her mother’s birth surname. So a hypothesis for finding her birth certificate is that she had two parents with two different birth surnames. Thus part of your research plan will be to add a second surname to your research list. With your father’s “problem” i.e. unidentified photographs, your hypothesis is that the people in them are unknown until or unless you can spot family resemblances or consult living family relatives.

Suggested Steps in Research Planning

Research plans can be lengthy and more complex when they involve multiple parts or complicated problems.

1. Study the preliminary information that accompanies the genealogical request, question or problem you have been given. Evaluate the types of sources that provided the information. How reliable is the information you were given? Does it immediately bring to mind some sources that you must consult? Or does it indicate that you must confirm some of that information from original sources? Do you need to clarify questions or assumptions with the person who provided the information?

2. Define the goal or objective (there may be more than one). Identify the principal person or persons the project revolves around.

3. Make a list of sources you will investigate to reach the goal(s), answer the question(s), or solve the problem(s). They should be prioritized in order from “most likely” to “least likely.”

4. When different repositories are involved, you must do your advance homework to ascertain if each place does have the sources you want, and how to access them. If catalogs or finding aids or other institutional tools have been published (in print or on the Internet) then they will greatly assist you before you get there. You may be able to itemize call numbers, catalogs titles, archival fonds numbers or specific collection references, and/or microfilm roll numbers.

After your research plan, and after the research period itself when you have consulted sources and collected new information, you enter a new phase where you report—to your files, to your family, or to a client—on the sources you searched, the information you found, and your analysis of it as applied to the objective and initially-provided information.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studie. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at [

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

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