How to Create Your Genealogy Research Plan (& Why You Should!)
A genealogy research plan is crucial to finding your ancestors. Learn how to create a successful plan to grow your family tree.
I am a little embarrassed to admit this to you, my genea-friends.
Sometimes when I am researching my genealogy, I find myself wandering down rabbit trails.
Repeating previous research.
[Hopefully, you won’t judge me!]
When I find my research heading down rabbit trails, that indicates one thing:
I am researching without a plan, and that is NOT a good thing.
I’ve learned to stay off those “oh, so tempting” rabbit trails by creating a genealogy research plan BEFORE I began my research.
Why You Want to Create a Genealogy Research Plan
When I mention creating a research plan, your mind immediately went back to high school and those dreaded term papers and outlines. Let all that dread go, because a research plan will:
- Help you stay focused (and off the rabbit trails!🐇).
- Help you organize your genealogy research.
- Help you be efficient with your research time.
- Help ensure you do not miss potential clues in the research.
- BONUS: Using a genealogy research will save you money!
Think of your genealogy research plan as a framework or strategy for your search.
What Should Go Into Your Genealogy Research Plan?
All genealogy research plans have a few common components in them. Let’s take a look at 4 of those elements.
1. Your Research Question
You can also think of this as your research goal.
What is it you want to learn from your research? Are you looking for evidence your ancestor in a time and/or place? Are you attempting to solve a family history mystery? The more specific your goal, the more focused your research will be.
If you are not clear on what you are researching, I guarantee you will end up going down rabbit trails of distraction and have little to show for your research efforts.
Here are two examples of research questions:
- Who was the father of Emma D. [Thomas] Howard (b. 1858 in Moore County, NC)? or
- Is the John White of Surry County, NC (in the 1820’s) the same John White from Caswell County, NC (early 1800’s)?
The more specific you make your research question, the better.
In the first example above, researching for the parents of Emma Thomas Howard would be too broad. Focusing on one parent (her father), a time frame and a location brings the project into focus and increases the chances of success.
Likewise, in the second example, broadly researching John White of North Carolina would quickly turn into a quagmire of multiple men with the same name in the state.
Again, the more specific the research question, the better!
Writing your research question (or goal) on your research plan will keep you focused.
Genealogy Pro Tip: Keep your research question or goal where you can easily see it as you research. I personally, write the goal on a sticky note to put beside me each time I sit down. Physically writing the primary research question before each research session, helps me get focused quicker.
2. Types of Records to Search
Now that you have your research question and know what you want to know, what type of records do you need to research?
You may need to first research what records are available for the time period and location where your ancestor lived.
In the first example above concerning Emma Thomas Howard, the records needing to be searched include Emma Howard’s death certificate (Lee County, NC), census records for 1860 and 1870, and North Carolina marriage records.
In the second example of John White, records to be searched could include census records 1790-1830, land records of Surry and Caswell Counties, court records of both counties and will/probate records.
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3. The Location of Records
Where are the records you need to research located? How are you going to access those records?
Are the records online? Do you need a subscription to a genealogy database such as Ancestry.com or FindMyPast to access them? Can you access subscription based genealogy record databases from your public library?
If the records are not online, in what repository are they located? Do you need to order the record on microfilm?
If you need to research on-site at a repository to research the needed records, schedule the visit on your calendar. (Don’t forget to take your research plan when you go!)
Knowing the location of the records you need to research helps to further organize your genealogy research time. You will be able to plan your online research from home and your on-site research to fit your time.
4.Further Clues to Follow Up
This next part of your genealogy research plan will be completed at the end of your research session. When you are done researching for the day, take a moment to clearly note where in your plan you stopped. Write down on the plan where you need to resume the next time you sit down to research.
As you research you will likely find interesting information and clues to other ancestors to follow up on. Resist doing that in the moment!
Make a note of this information for later research, but stay focused on your current research plan. Yes, I know how tempting it is to follow that clue at the expense of your current plan! Resist!
Your genealogy research plan is your guide and does not have to be overly complicated. You may find your answers quickly or you may still be left with your original question. That’s okay. You will will be clear on the records you have already searched and what information those records hold (or don’t hold).
Go back and amend your genealogy research plan and begin again.
Other Posts To Help You Start Finding Your Ancestors!
- 14 of the BEST Genealogy Tips
- Your Guide To Cemetery Research – Are You Missing Important Genealogical Clues?
- Avoid Common Mistakes in Your Genealogy Research!
- 5 Websites Professional Genealogists Use To Research Ancestors for Free
- 11 Unique Genealogy Resources You May Have Missed in the Archives!
- Ancestors in Colonial America? Let’s Learn How To Find Them
Jo Ann Andrews
i belong to a genealogy club in my home town. we are always looking for new avenues to try. i came upon your website, liked the info i discovered there. so will share what i have learned at the next meeting.
Thanks for sharing with us.
Jo Ann Andrews
I am so glad you find the website helpful!Best of luck with your research.
Mary Lou Morris Gravatt
Hi Jo Ann, I laughed when you mentioned about going down a rabbit hole; I do that all the time and enjoy reading history from the area my ancestors lived which is where I have always lived. I have always lived within 20 miles of where my ancestors and my husband’s lived.
Mary Lou Morris Gravatt
Mary Lou, how fortunate to live and research in the area of your ancestors! In some ways that makes your research easier. Of course, it can lead to a lot of rabbit trails! 🙂
Do you recommend using one of the various software tools like ResearchTies or Clooz (or even Evernote) to record your research log, or just using a paper form?
This is a great question. Personally, I use a combination of paper and Trello. I’ve also used Evernote in the past and really liked it, too. I have not tried the two you mentioned, but am interested in trying one or both out.
Is John White of Surry County the same as John White of Caswell County? Is that a real question for you because it is for me. Are you related to the White family of Surry County?
I am planning a research trip to Surry County in September and reading your blog I was very surprised to read this question. I would very much like to know the source of the question as it relates to you.
Gail Moore Hedden
Gail, Yes, I am definitely related to the White family of Surry County! Watch for an email from me later this weekend.
I was wondering if you know who the man is in the cover photo you have with this article on developing a research plan. He is standing on what looks like a bridge and he has a hat. He looks like my great grandfather.
Lisa, that’s Percy Haley of Charlotte County, Va. The bridge is the Clarkton Bridge that crosses the Staunton River near Nathalie, VA. Let me know if you are a Haley descendant. I have more info on the Haleys.
Lisa: I plan to use the ideas that you posted concerning a Plan for researching in our Genealogy Group. I dealt with my memberships in Genealogical Societies by keeping the different families separate and organized. Otherwise, it would be a crazy time to locate and associate with those records when needed. Thank you.