Saturday, July 28, 2012

When to Start a Research Plan

I was lying on the beach the other day with my eyes closed trying to enjoy some much needed vacation time with my family. While I lay there my mind kicked into high gear and started to process some recent genealogical research I had been working on. With nothing else to aid me but my memory, I sorted through what I knew and what I needed to find out.

I have a certain process for starting a genealogy project. I wonder if your steps look anything like mine.

When I start a new research project typically the first thing I do is a quick fact finding mission. First, if the time period allows, I dive into the US Federal Census records.  That, at the very least, will give me minimal information between 1790 and 1940.

My goal with a quick fact finding tour is not actually to do genealogical research. Research, to me, is intentionally going forward to find facts that related to my research target, recording the source and then analyzing what I have found and seeing how it impacts what I already know.  The fact finding tour, on the other hand, is like browsing a book. I just want to get a sense of what is ahead of me.

Diving into the census records gives me a idea of how many records will be available for a particular person or family. I'll discover if they came from a large family or a small one. And I'll be able to tell if they moved around a lot or how recently they came over from the old country based on birth locations. It will also give me a sense of how many other people there are of that time frame with the same name in the same general location. Combined together these clues give me a sense of what direction I should focus my efforts.  If the information gathered is minimal and the effort looks particularly challenging then I might do a broad wide-open search on or

Next I process the clues that I have found.  I can do this anywhere - on the beach, in the shower, in the car.  This is the seed of my research plan. I think about what I have learned and what information is missing. If I have noticed large gaps I start to process in my mind alternate record sources that could provide me with the same information.  If I can't think of any then I will make a mental note to use some sort of research guidance such Ancestry's Red Book, the FamilySearch Wiki or the online card catalog of a repository local to the project.

When I am done with the mental process, the "thinking it through", is when I sit down and write a research plan.  I create a master research plan which is a "brain dump" of all the specific tasks I think will lead me to the answers that I need. I note the task, the source or sources of information and where I can find the information. Also, at this time I access the various forms of research guidance to get the specifics of where I can find the information I need if I don't know it already.  It all goes into my research plan.

Once I have finished my research plan, phase one anyway (it may change as I find new information) then I am ready to begin my research.

Does your process look anything like this? If not, how to do you go about starting a research project and when do you create your research plan?  My way isn't necessarily right. It's just what works for me.


  1. Marian, I found this extremely interesting because I proceed in a similar way. I always do a "fact finding mission" - together with a review of what sources are available where - for the particular research task ahead of me. These two things then feed into my research plan. I do this in my professional research as well as my personal family history. That way, when I go back to a client, suggesting x hours research in y source, I usually have a good idea of what is available for me to find. My fact finding preparation is unbilled work, and my husband thinks I am foolish to do it, so I was reassured to read that you adopt a similar approach.

  2. Marian, I call this my reconnaissance phase. But in order to expedite the reconnaissance, I try to do several things first.

    1. Confirm the starting point documentation. Check out what you think you know, either for your own research or what the client tells you and/or provides documentation for. Document any conflicts or questions right up front. I call this the baseline.

    2. Set goals and prioritize them based on the questions and conflicts. When a client says "I know XYZ, I want to know ABC," you can come back and say that "in order to get to ABC, we must resolve the problems with XYZ first."

    3. Bound the problem(s). Just as you would do the straight edges on a jig saw puzzle first, make it more likely you will not go on a wild goose chase into outer space. Begin with a timeline of "Who, What, When, Where, How and Why" to refine as you go for people, events, dates, places, sources and questions (including guesses) to refine as you go. I call this my cheat sheet for the top level view. I prefer to use spread sheets and color/font code the entries for easy scanning of characteristics such as central characters (bold), FAN club characters (italics), original source material (green), big questions or conflicts (red) - or anything that works for you. This is your cheat sheet for quick reference and refinement.

    Then you can aim your reconnaissance gun.

    Sharon Sergeant

  3. Marian, I really like how you let your readers into your thinking -- letting us "see" your analysis process. I always yearn for this when I watch "Finding Your Roots."

  4. How do I research? I have only been having fun at this since 1983. I must say, almost 30 years of jumping into something without any plan whatsoever. Which is why I have been more of a collector than a researcher. I am very much a detail person but the problem is I never knew where to start and HOW to plan. Til your Legacyfamilytree webinar the other day on Making A Research Plan. Finally, for the first time, I feel capable of going forward in some semblance of an organized way. Thank you! And thank you to the people who commented before me on this subject: more actual details on arranging my information and looking for more.

    Also, have to confess (this is good for the soul?) I discovered FindAGrave a couple of weeks ago and once again, dived in head first. There was so Much there for me.... My equally disorganized friend, when I showed her FindAGrave, discovered someone she knows in the research of her names and places, has added obituaries to many of the people she was looking up.

    Suddenly, I feel energized to go have more fun in this organized way, thanks again,

  5. The thing that amazes me after many years is how I instinctively ( without a computer on vacation ) formulate in my head where to start a new genealogical problem . Once I was stuck while camping in a tent in a rainstorm and spent the whole day examining a Hungarian paper map visualizing which village (and how many miles on foot or horse) would an ancestor travel to find and marry his bride . When vacation ended , I found the marriage ! Another thing I do is read history books that I would never touch at home but for some reason , I become engrossed reading them , make notes while on vacation .


  6. Hi Marian! Another thing I look for on what you call the "quick fact finding mission" is other people's research online (or offline, in genealogival periodicals). If I find it, and it's well sourced, all the better. If it isn't, but it holds detailed and specific information, I know there's stuff to look for, and by now, I'm experienced enough to figure out what kind of sources were used to obtain a certain type of information. If nothing can be found, or if it is the bare minimum, I might use it indicatively, but more often than not, I ignore that information altogether, and start from scratch, building a framework of possible relatives (and/or friend relations, as especially through the greater migrations, quite a lot of families stuck together for at least a generation or two), and start a proper research plan from there, using the tools available to me. Also, as I have to make do with online sources for most of my foreign research, I plough through the internet, looking for newly published sources or transcriptions, that could possibly help me with my current (and future) research.

  7. Thank you so much! This blog, your Action lists blog entry and Plan Your Way to Research Success webinar are all exactly what I have needed. Like Jane in Phoenix, I realize I have been collecting, not researching. Your lessons and advice have changed my outlook and goals. I had done my best to keep research logs but only entering the information AFTER researching or as I was researching. Duh! using them as a research PLAN, rather than a log, certainly makes sense and I am ashamed I did not figure that out earlier. Thanks for sharing and helping me change my outlook on my family history research.