How to Structure Your Research

Structuring your genealogical research is one of the biggest challenges that amateur genealogists face.

Anyone who has been doing research for an extended period knows that notes, records and other documents can quickly pile up.

Often times to the point that you can’t make sense of anything you’ve collected and you lose track of what you were trying to answer in the first place.

This is why good organizational habits and research fundamentals are so important in genealogy.

How can you find answers to your research questions if you’ve lost track of what the question was to begin with?

In a sea of post-it notes, how can you find the name of that reference book that is the basis for your entire conclusion? Bookshelves overload, binders take up an entire wall and books are everywhere in stacks as high as the Eiffel tower.

This is not an effective system.

Clearly defined goals, research questions, logs, citations, and good notes are the only way to be successful in genealogical research.

Whether you are entering this information into software or an online journal is up to you, but if you do decide to use the old paper method, be prepared to have an entire room filled with documents after just a short time.

This article will help you understand the fundamentals of organized genealogical research, and give you a simple process to follow for knocking down those stubborn brick walls.

Here is the basic 10 step process I use in my research:

  1. Identify your goals. Write them down. Pick one to start
  2. Identify and write down what you already know
  3. Develop specific research questions
  4. Identify possible sources to find information that provides evidence for your research question.
  5. Create research log
  6. Find sources and record findings in research log
  7. Create additional research questions and/or supporting questions based on findings of each source.
  8. Input all relevant sources and information into Evidentia
  9. Analyze evidence, resolve conflicts and write conclusions using Evidentia
  10. Add conclusions and proven research questions to your family tree software

Here is a fantastic illustration to help visualize this process (click here to enlarge):

Published with permission from Mark Tucker, the creator of this graphic.

Identify Your Goal

The first step in any project is always to identify your goal. What are you trying to accomplish and how do you plan to get there.

I think of goals in my research as a set of research questions about a specific family or branch of my family tree.

So a goal for me might be something like tracking my McDermott branch back to Ireland. There are a lot of research questions that need to be created to help achieve that goal.

While you will eventually have several goals, it’s important to keep focused on one at a time.

So figure out what your goal is, write it down, and move onto the next step of identifying what you already know.

Start with What You Know

If you are brand-new to genealogical research, then start with what you know about the goal you’re trying to achieve. Start with your parents and grandparents, and work your way back.

Write down everything.

It isn’t good enough to just type out everything you think you know; you need the records that support what you know.

Marriage licenses, birth records, and death certificates are a fundamental part of this. If you have the documents at your fingertips, scan them and enter the information into whatever note taking software you use.

Create Research Questions

Once you’ve established and documented what you know, then it’s time to come up with your research questions.

Research questions are just a query about the information you want to know, and they should be specific.

They typically are created to answer a question about a:

  • relationship (finding the parents of someone)
  • identity (separating two people of a common name, age, and location)
  • activity (learning about specific military service)

It is usually better to have something specific because this narrows the search and sets a specific endpoint. A few examples are:

  • Who were the parents of John McDermott (born ca. 1844) in County Leitrim Ireland and lived in Newark, NJ?
  • What was the maiden name of my 2x Great Grandmother Annie (born 1845) who was the wife of John McDermott and lived in Newark, NJ?
  • What service (if any) did John McDermott, born 1843 and lived in Newark NJ, give to his country during the Civil War?

Good research questions have specific, attainable goals with a clear endpoint. Once I find the maiden name of my 2x Great Grandmother Annie, I’ve reached that endpoint and answered the question.

Without a clear endpoint, you start asking questions like:

How many generations of McDermott’s lived in County Leitrim, Ireland?

This is not a good research question.

Specific research questions motivate us to find the answers that we are looking for. Breaking the research up into bits and pieces helps it become that much more achievable, and therefore rewarding.

Record Research Logs

A research log is a list of all the sources and records that you’ve already been through or a list of sources and documents that you intend to go through.

They should have a brief description of the findings, lack of findings, discrepancies, suggestions/inferences, comments, and next actions to take based on your findings.

Research logs are a master list of all the research you’ve already performed, and all the research that you intend to perform.

At a glance, you should be able to easily pick up where you’ve left off on any branch or family in your tree regardless of how much time has passed.

So ask yourself, are the notes you’re creating going to be meaningful to you a year from now?

Will they help you pick up on your research and let you instantly see where you left off and what your next steps are?

A good research log lends itself to a high-quality report when you are finished. It means easier citations, organization of documents, and reliable sources to support evidence.

Research logs take different forms and styles depending on what your preferences are. You should have a research log for each research question.

Example Research Log

The following is a basic list of the information that we can expect to see in a research log.

  • Ancestor(s) name, birth date, and death date
  • Researcher name, date of search or information entered (for sources not yet searched do not include a date), you should also include your contact details
  • Purpose of the research log
  • Source call numbers, film numbers and citations
  • Source descriptions
  • Comments, results, notes

This is not set in stone. Different research questions may require different information than what is listed.

However you format it, it should be easy to read, and should contain all of the relevant details of the source.

Track Your Sources

No genealogical report in the history of man has ever been taken seriously if it didn’t have credible sources and citation of those sources.

No matter how dreary it can be copying down those citations, it is essential if you want to be taken seriously.

Not only that, it helps you and other researchers to locate the source quickly, and efficiently. A good working example of a thorough citation:

Author(s), Title (Place of publication: Publisher, year of publication), volume: page number(s), [book call number; microfilm call number]. Digitized by Repository at URL (accessed date). Comment.

Sources appear as footnotes in genealogical reports, but they also appear in the back matter of the report.

Every event should have a source citation, just as every ancestor and family relationship should have source citations for each record used to come to this determination.

Analyze and Resolve

Analyzing and evaluating the sources to document evidence sounds very daunting, but really it’s the entire point of genealogical research. It’s typically done in several stages and can take quite a while.

The first step is determining whether or not a document falls under the research you’re currently performing. You are determining its relevance and credibility.

While you continue evaluating the source, document or evidence, you create the citations for it and transfer it into your genealogical database.

You are determining the reliability of the source, but you’re also comparing it to proven sources to see if it contradicts or complements what you already know.

Look at the origins of each document, the events, and facts associated with each source, and considering the directness of the evidence.

Sometimes it is helpful to take a step back and return to the sources with fresh eyes later on.

Most of the resolution of errors and discrepancies are going to occur at this stage because you’ve already reexamined the sources, and documents with a much closer eye.

You are going to have to resolve these discrepancies to have a complete, accurate history.

In some cases, mentioning the discrepancy in the final report is an excellent way of taking care of minor issues.

Major issues will need to be addressed with a formal statement in the report. If there are controversies amongst other researchers, this should also be explored in the document, as well as which outcome you support.

Write Your Conclusions

You’ve put in the work; now it’s time to show it off in the form of a written conclusion.

It is important to point out that the conclusion will directly reflect the goal of the researcher. If it is a conclusion intended only for friends and family, then the tone and overall format may differ from a professional genealogical report.

Conclusions should always reflect the standards of the research. Sources, footnotes and citations should be correctly formatted, accurate, and true.

The work should focus on honesty, accuracy, and the clear proof of evidence. It should not contain assumptions, or any of the author’s speculations unless they are supported by documentation.

Citations, Analysis and Conclusions Made Easy

Because tracking your sources, creating citations, analyzing information and writing conclusions can be a difficult task, there’s an amazing piece of software that I like to use called Evidentia.

Evidentia is a light-weight desktop application that allows you effectively apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to your research in a way that doesn’t make your head spin.

It walks you through adding sources, classifying them, recording the information, classifying the information, creating evidence, classifying evidence, resolving conflicts, and writing conclusions.

And because it uses a simple database to record your input, you can quickly generate conclusion statements about any of your research questions.

So when my cousin Bill asks me how I know the McDermott’s are from County Leitrim, I can quickly generate a proof statement that includes all of my sources and citations. Really neat stuff.

Here’s a webinar that is a fantastic walk through of the software.

I really can’t recommend this software enough.

Collaborate with Others

If someone who has been researching longer than you offers you new or different information, then you should always be willing to at least give it some attention.

You’ll find yourself in this position when looking at other people’s family trees on sites like Ancestry.com, and when communicating with DNA matches.

As a general rule of thumb, you need to assume user-generated information like this is not accurate unless proven.

That is not to say this information is worthless. It provides a ton of clues for you to research and find credible sources.

If you’re looking at someone’s public tree or communicating with a DNA match, try to ask where they got certain information or how they arrived at a certain conclusion.

One thing that cannot be stressed enough is to be courteous and decent to all other researchers, records office employees, librarians, and anyone else that you might come into contact with during your research.

These are the folks that hold key pieces of information that you may need, treat them with respect and they may just help you fill in some major blanks. At the very least, you will make friends with folks who share similar interests with you.

Your research should be able to compel others that your conclusions are true and accurate.

If there is any flaw in your method that indicates to another researcher that you didn’t fully exhaust all available resources, then they won’t take you seriously, and neither will anyone else.

This is another excellent reason why breaking up genealogical research into specific people, or events is a good idea.

It is much easier to fully research one individual and exhaust all of those resources then it is to do that for the entire family tree all at once.

Most genealogists realize that their research is never fully complete.

You can spend the rest of your life researching an entire lineage, but later on there will always be new information, new sources discovered, and new reports by other genealogists that will impact your research.

Bringing it All Together

At the end of the day, success in genealogical research is all about knowing fundamentals. One you can master them, you’ll find your mind much less cluttered and you’ll have a much clearer path to knocking down those brick walls!

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