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How do I keep a genealogy research log?

image showing title genealogy research logs

Genealogy Research Logs

Find and Create the Right Research Log for YOU!

genealogy research calendars and logs

If you don't know what a research log is, I've answered that question on The Occasional Genealogist. This post focuses on keeping a research log once you've decided that's what you need to do.

Part 1: Advice for those who don't like their current research log or don't have one.

(If you're using a research log and need some tips, see part 2, below.)

When I lecture about keeping a spreadsheet research log, I always tell the audience there is one thing they can definitely do WRONG. That is not keeping and using a research log.

[NOTE: I've written a newer post over at this blog's sister blog, The Occasional Genealogist, that talks about not keeping a research log. It actually does not disagree with this post but approaches this subject in a different way, I recommend reading it as well as this post to get a fuller understanding of "research logs."]

There are many ways to correctly keep a "research log" and there's a lot of personal preference related to it. If you don't know what a research log (or research calendar) is, you need to learn. You need to understand why you should keep and use one before you can find one that works for you.

In a nutshell, a research log is a way to track ALL research you do. It's vital to record every single source you look at, even when you don't find something. This becomes really important when you inevitably get stuck.

I love my research log in Excel. I never did a good job keeping it or using it before I put it in Excel. I also love Evernote. So I tried keeping it there; it made perfect sense. It just didn't work for me. I don't love Microsoft so I tried keeping it in a different spreadsheet program (Open Office or Google Sheets). That didn't work for me either. I've given up; I'm keeping it in Excel. It works for me.

That does not mean it is necessarily the answer for you!

Here is a list of things you HAVE to consider.

  1. Will you actually KEEP the log (i.e. record your research/sources as you research)
  2. Will you USE the log (i.e. refer to it in future)
  3. Will you be able find the log when you need it
  4. Will you be able to read the entries and fit/find everything that should be in the log

As I mentioned, Evernote sounded perfect for me. It would always be with me, it was legible and searchable but it just didn't quite meet items 1 & 2. I didn't like the way it looked and I didn't like the way I had to find entries.

It didn't matter how perfect it sounded because I wouldn't keep and use a log in Evernote.

Why am I rambling on about this? Because one link to research log information is probably not going to be enough if this is your introduction to the concept of a research log. You need to keep learning about them until it clicks. Visit your local library and get some general "how-to" guides on genealogy and read about research logs.

I could write on and on about how to keep a log and what goes into a log but instead, I'll provide some links. These are just a sampling but are a good starting point.

Also try searching "Genealogy Research Logs" or "Genealogy Research Calendars," the Google image results may be helpful to see a variety of logs. You can also add the name of a program if you want to see if there is information specific to a program you are interested in. For example, I know there are many blog posts about keeping a log in Evernote.

Here's the link, again, to my Occasional Genealogist post about not keeping a genealogy research "log."

Part 2

Tips on Keeping a Research Log

Source Citations in Your Log

You don't have to record your source in footnote format. You can. It will save you time if you need footnotes later.
Don't let fear of footnotes stop you from keeping a good research log! 

What is important (in your log and notes) is to capture all the parts you will need for a formal citation PLUS any information you need to judge the quality and completeness of the source.

Unfortunately, it is hard to know if you have all the parts to judge the quality and completeness of a source until you become experienced. It is better to err on the side of recording too much information.

Just recording a formal citation won't capture all this information.

You can record the extra information in your notes but make sure you still capture this information if you have no notes, such as when you have "negative" results.

Completeness is obviously a major question with negative results. For example, did you not find a marriage because the book you used didn't include some years or because there is no record of that marriage for those years?

Are there any marriages recorded for the years you are interested in? Laws sometimes change and marriages don't have to be recorded for a few years. A partial book of marriages may have been destroyed so only a few years are gone. Some clerks aren't good at their job.

Wouldn't you like notes to yourself that indicate if the marriage didn't appear to take place in that location versus the chance the record doesn't exist (i.e. the marriage might have been recorded there and have been lost)?

Excluding notes about quality and completeness usually means you'll have to obtain that source again. No big deal if it's available online from home (but a waste of your time). A big deal if you have to travel or if the source is no longer online (that happens, too).

Don't worry about formatted citations. Worry about recording more than just what goes in a formatted citation.

Make Your Search Goal Clear

I still struggle with this. If you keep a paper log it is even harder because you are limited on space.

Part of the point of recording your goal is to know if you need to search a record again (what were you thinking and therefore what were you looking for). I find many notations of "no names of interest" in my old log entries. That's not very helpful five years from now when the names of interest have changed.

Once again, your notes can record additional information but negative results are often the issue.

Even with an electronic log, where space isn't such an issue, time is often the constraint. How much extra information do you want to record just to make your goal clear or make it clear if the record should be searched again later?

My rule, if it's easy to check again, save the time now. If it's unique, hard to access, or at risk of being lost/destroyed, spend the time now.

Another, and better, option is to prep your log and or notes documents ahead of time.

With electronic documents, you can easily cut and paste. Set-up a draft log entry with the information for the research you intend to do. Then cut and paste for each similar item you actually search. Tweak your goal as needed to specify exactly what you were looking for (for electronic searches I record my actual search in the body of the log entry).

If you are using paper, prepare your notes document, even if it's blank paper, and include a descriptive goal. You can enter a similar but more specific goal in each log entry. This will help you in the future and save you time now.

Techie option: A great way to record a clear goal is in your research plan which then becomes your notes. The trick related to research logs is making sure you understand your goal when you are simply reviewing the sources you have searched, rather than actually reviewing your previous research.  With my log in Excel, I link to my notes documents so if I have a question, I can easily open the plan->notes for a full explanation.

Using a database would work similarly--- which may be an option if you use your genealogy software correctly (or if you know how to create custom databases, I told you this was a techie option). If you are new to a software program, keep a separate log initially in case it doesn't work the way you think or you decide you don't like it. Having a log trapped in a software program is the same as having no log.

Beware of Too Many Logs

I keep one research log for all of my personal research. I could divide it out a little but I don't.

Here's how I ended up with one log.

For my first trip to the Family History Library (FHL), I prepared my logs ahead of time, while still at home, by surname and goal. This is pretty standard advice for keeping a paper log, which I was.

After I pulled the same roll of microfilm at the FHL for the third time, I realized separate logs for separate surnames didn't work for me. I have too many relatives in too few counties (yes, too many cousin marriages). I usually do USE my log by surname but I KEEP it by record and therefore usually by location.

Also, don't separate by online vs. offline research. Records are coming online too quickly to safely be able to search just one log or the other. It is easy to KEEP logs divided this way but not USE them.

I also roll my correspondence log into my research log. I can filter entries to access any variation of records I need and once the records arrive, I turn the correspondence entry into a log entry (with a note that the work was done by a contractor). A correspondence log is traditionally kept separately so it is up to you.

Remember items 1 & 2 above, you have to KEEP and USE your log. Use separate logs if it works for you but don't divide them up so much they are too hard to keep or too hard to use.

Did you like the tips and advice above? Learn more research logs at the sister blog, The Occasional Genealogist (click here).