Logging your research

4 years ago

I took a recent webinar which stressed the importance of using a research log to track progress in your searches.  A research log allows you to list all sources and what you found or didn’t find. For example, you might list a book showing title/author/library/call number and indicate what you found.  Some of these logs allow you to state your purpose in researching such as “seeking parents of John Jones”.  

Keeping track of where you’ve searched saves you from unnecessary repetitions later. You can find samples of research logs free on websites such as FamilySearch.org or you can create your own with paper and a ruler, a spreadsheet, or a table  software program. If you’re obsessed with order you should use a research log.      

To be honest, I have problems with logs.  I find filling them in takes more time than I want to spend and I never seem to have enough space for what I want to enter.  I’m not a spreadsheet person and the logs aren’t spreadsheets, per se, but they are based on them. The “logs” I use tended to be entries in a notebook, one below the other — the exact opposite of most forms. (I think I just heard the webinar instructor scream.)  I do keep track of successes in my research in my genealogical software.

Now that I’ve confessed to my research log failure, I can admit my logs look more like timelines and only contain successful results.  I save the “looked here, nothing found” to a notebook. And, yes, I’ve been in a library and the notebook safely tucked in a drawer at home more than once and yes, I have re-researched a source already used, which is supposed to be a no-no.  

The thing is, I’ve often found material I missed the first time when I revisit a source.  This is because I sometimes wasn’t far enough along in my research to recognize a valuable clue or fact, or was at the end of a long day of researching and was too tired to do a thorough job.  This is completely the wrong way to go about researching, according to the experts, but I believe each person knows what works best for him or her. If the tight discipline and organization of a research log sounds like heaven to you, then by all means use one.  If a looser style is more “you,” remember there is no right or wrong method, no matter what the experts tell you. It’s strictly personal.  

But whatever you do, keep some sort of record of where you’ve researched and what you found.  The “a book with a red cover, can’t remember the library or its title” won’t be much help if the need to revisit it occurs.  

Now, some people believe my looser style of handling research is a sign of great creative genius.  Ahem, I’m too modest to agree, though it’s comforting. Right now I’m off to try to make a hole in the piles on my desk.  Wish me luck.  

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.