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The Research Log: An Organizing First Step

A research log can save you time and help organize your research.


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A faithfully kept research log can be a saving grace. I have been somewhat surprised in talking to active researchers in various places across the country that not everyone knows about research logs or uses them, so I thought it would be good to pass the word. My own research logs have kept me oriented in my research for many, many years.

A research log can go a long way toward organizing research, helping you to see clearly what you did and when, and saving you hours of time going back to resources you have already checked. It can also serve as a great ready-reference to your notes.

And it's never too late to start.

So what is a research log? Nothing difficult, just an ongoing record of what you have searched, when you searched it, and indication of what you found and where you keep that information in your files. Now, there are a lot of systems out there for recording and tracking your research, and I think a good system used consistently is a great idea, but this article assumes you don't have a formal system yet, aims at helping you get into the practice, and introduces a simple log you should be able to incorporate down the road, into any system of your choosing.

A Simple Process

1. Select your medium. You can keep a research log in a simple spiral notebook or three-ring binder with theme paper. You can also buy pre-printed forms from a genealogy supply or print forms from the Internet. If you use a laptop to record your research, you can create a log with tables in document file or with a spreadsheet. Use what's easiest and most comfortable to you. My only caution with putting it all on computer is to backup your files, even if you just print out your logs periodically and store them away.

2. Create four columns on a page. Columns make it easy for you to scan down the page and review what you have. Use one column to record the date; one to identify the source; one to summarize your findings' and one to reference your notes. There are, of course, variations on a theme and various pre-printed will vary in the number of columns and information recorded.


RESEARCH LOG                                                                         Childers/Childress VA





Ref. to Notes


The Childress Family, FHL US/CAN Film #1429853, Item 5

Published family history with good documentation on early lines—no ref.  to Curtis.


3. Make one entry for every source you research. Also, record each and every search—even when you don't find what you are looking for. It's important to know where you've been and what you've looked at so you don't go back and do it over, unnecessarily. It's also important to keep the log at hand as you do your research, making the entries as you go along. A good practice to avoid procrastination is to fill in the source information before you review the source. If you try to come back and fill everything in after a day of research, you may get discouraged. That's why it's important to pick a simple system—one that's easy to maintain. Your greatest challenge will come in trying to log what you've researched when you go online. But developing a simple practice for tracking your steps will save you time and frustration in the end.

4. Keep good source information. A good source reference enables you or anyone else to locate that source from what you have written. A good source reference indicates a) the place where you found the source, b) the title or name, c) the unique call number, volume number, etc., and d) a page number or other reference where the item can be found.

5. Keep your summaries brief. As you write things out, your source descriptions or summary of findings may spill over onto other lines or rows, and that's okay—take as many lines as you need, there's only so much space on an 81/2-inch page. Just be succinct in your summaries, and put the details in the notes that you file away.

6. Select a method for referencing notes. The final column of your research log provides a key to the notes, abstractions, photocopies, etc. collected during your search. You want to use create a simple reference number that is easy to interpret and remember. You could use a simple 1, 2, 3 numbering system and then file your notes away in numerical order. However, if you like to keep your notes in a family file, which may be more useful and practical, I like William Dollarhide's surname method.1

The idea is to organize all your documents by surname, sorting surname documents by location, and then numbering documents within a location, in the order they are received. Each document, then, is assigned a corresponding "name" such as the following:

Childers/TN/1; Childers/TN/2; Childers/TN/3
Childers/VA/1; Childers/VA/2; Childers/VA/3
Childers/TX/1; Childers/TX/2; Childers/TX/3

And if a surname is quite long, you could abbreviate, using the first three letters of the surname—or whatever it takes to distinguish one surname from another, when different surnames start with the same initial consonant: Chi/TN/1 or Camp/TX/2.

This system lets you add documents to your surname notebook or family file in the order they are received, rather than trying to place them in chronological order, which would inevitably play havoc with your numbering system.

The key — keep it simple, easy to interpret, easy to access.

Tips & Hints

  • Keep your entries legible, be prudent in use of abbreviations, and avoid using any kind of shorthand or "code." This is extremely important as time passes, when memories fade or when others attempt to work from your notes. It has happened that, over time, researchers are unable to decipher their own notes. Clarity is key.
  • Keep a consistent paper size, which makes it easier to keep your logs (and documents) together in a notebook or file and makes it easier to integrate them into a formal system down the road. My recommendation is to use 81/2 x 11 inch paper for all notes and documents; this is easy enough because this size is readily available in notebooks, theme paper, and printer paper.
  • Make photocopies of any original documents and store the originals, again, using the same filing order, but kept, perhaps, in a filing cabinet designated for originals.
  • A good practice is to keep your working notes and documents in sheet protectors, which not only protects them from wear, but also makes it easier to flip through them in a notebook.
  • And, if you don't want to write your document "name" directly on the document itself, you can write the name on inexpensive file folder labels, affixed to the outside of your sheet protector.
  • Now, a word on the kind of log you might keep.
  1. You can just keep a running log of everything you do, one page following another. The benefit  to this approach is it's easy to keep all your logs together in one place, preferably at the very front of your research notebook.
  2. Or you could create a separate research log based on a particular surname within a particular location; or for a particular family on your pedigree chart; or you could keep a separate research log for every ancestor you are researching. There are benefits to this approach, as well. If you choose one of the latter options, you will want to label the research log at the top of the page (see Item 2 example above).
  3. You may choose to store you logs together in alphabetical or numerical order a section of your research notebook, or you could store your logs at the front of each relevant section in your notebook.

Finally, the research log is simply a tool to aid you in your research. It can help you become better organized, it can save you time in doing work you've done before, and it can be an aid as you sit down at the computer to enter source information into your genealogy program. One of the greatest benefits of a research log is that it lets keep track of everything you have done, so you can see where you have been and, perhaps, better chart where you are going.

1 Dollarhide, William. Managing a Genealogical Project. 1999. Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. Baltimore.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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