Although searching for your ancestors shouldn't remind you too much of helping your third-grader with an extensive report on ladybugs, due the next day, there is a place for reporting in your research. And writing genealogical research reports isn't just for the paid professional. It can become fun, useful, and help you see connections or future sources to search in a different light.
While reports about ladybugs and land purchases are quite different from each other, some of the same principles apply to both styles of reports. And because you won't be graded on your genealogy reports, you can adapt them to fit your writing style, ability, research time, and needs. Since you may have less practice at those reports involving genealogy, we'll focus on those rather that the ladybugs.
Your style for writing a research report can be fitted to your preferences and time, but there are some basics to include in a research report. Research reports consist of three basic sections:
Start by writing about where you began your research. Did you already know Uncle John's birth date, or did you find it this month in a newspaper article?
Set some goals. Often goals are specific to an ancestor and geographic location. Was there a reason you decided to look for your great-grandfather's will in Chase County, Kansas? Goals do not have to be specific to family members, but maybe "extend more generations on the 'Miller' line in Philadelphia" is sufficient to help you remember and focus.
Also, remind yourself of any problems you may have encountered. Is your research fizzling out because the records of St. Mary's County, Maryland were destroyed by fire in 1831? Are you struggling because your sister lost the bundle of your grandparents' love letters written during the war? All of these topics summarized in just a paragraph (maybe two) will help you remember just why you started and why you're still stuck.
Continue writing by describing the research plan you followed on the particular family or problem. Did you stick to searching naturalization records to find out where in Germany your ancestor was born? Were you hand-searching indexes because your Irish "McCormick" family or German "Bahr" family never spelled their name the same way twice?
Talk about your results on the family or problem. Be sure to point out in your report that you found a particular event date within a certain source.
Again, remind yourself why a certain area of the research is troublesome. Were you not able to find a marriage date in the microfilmed marriage records because you didn't know the groom's last name or date of marriage? Writing about these struggles will help you gain perspective on the family or problem and develop a research strategy to continue with.
Summarize what you have found so far. Did you meet your goal? Is there more to do?
Take the opportunity to reevaluate the family or project to see if there are sources you have overlooked. Mention specific sources that you think could help you continue, such as "Check land records of neighboring Montgomery County, Kentucky to find additional land purchases of the John Ames family." You could even include book call numbers or library film numbers of specific sources so that you can pick up easily where you left off.
Report writing sounds intimidating, especially after so much time (years, right?) out of school. You may not have to write much, but following the basic format and including the above information in a short research report to yourself can save you a lot of precious research time. It can help you pick up where you ended—whether it be that the kids finally left for college, you're feeling better after giving a difficult research problem a rest, or you just end up without time to research for a few months, years, or decades. Another benefit of writing research reports is that you get better at it every time!
Sit down with your photocopies, printouts, or illegible notes today and make your research efforts unforgettable.