You were just going to do a quick look up before going to bed. Before you know it, it’s 2:30am and not only did you not find what you were looking for, you feel frustrated that you didn’t make any progress. (Been there, done that.) Sometimes that feeling of frustration is because we didn’t have a good research plan.
A research plan is more than a to-do list. It’s a way of approaching a genealogy problem and working out a way to solve it. In the process, you’ll be less frustrated (because you won’t constantly be wondering what to do next) and more productive (because you won’t waste time spinning your wheels).
Let's look at how to build a genealogy research plan.
1. Set a Goal
If you want to build onto your house, you don’t tell the architect, “Just build something.” He might build a 3-season porch, when what you really wanted was a home office.
Have a goal in mind with your research — the more specific, the better. “I want to identify Susan’s maiden name” is a clearer goal than “I want to know everything about Susan’s family.”
2. Look at What You Have
The architect and the contractor aren’t going to just start drawing up the plans for your new home office. First, they’re going to see what they’re working with — where the office will attach to the house, the structure that they need to tie into, the ground where they will building upon. (Call before you dig!) If the ground isn’t suitable, they’re not going to be able to build that massive home office you envisioned.
It’s the same with our research. Without having a clear picture of what we already have — both in terms of quantity and quality of materials — it’s impractical to move further. You could be building on quicksand.
3. Shore Up Where Needed
After surveying, your architect and contractor might say, “We can build your awesome new home office, but first we need to build a retaining wall to prevent further erosion in the back.”
This is where we can start making a to-do list.
If you found holes in your research — like having great-grandma only in the 1930 census and the 1880 census — fill in those gaps first. (You might find that the answer you were looking for is found in there!)
4. Brainstorm and Design
The contractor isn’t going to take 2x4s and randomly nail them together. (At least, we hope not!) Instead, he’s going to work off of a set of blueprints based on the architect’s design. That design is also going to dictate what materials are used — brick, stucco, cedar, etc. You get to go to the home improvement store and pick out the finishing details.
This is where it gets fun.
You have a research goal and you’ve set a good foundation for more research. Here is where you compare your goal to what you have and brainstorm about new materials to explore. “The 1910 census says he was a Civil War veteran. I need to identify his unit and order his pension file.” “Great-grandma’s death certificate didn’t list the parents, but her obituary says she was survived by her sister Naomi Smith living in Yuma, Arizona. Maybe if I research Naomi Smith, her death certificate will list their parents.”
5. Adjust to the Conditions
Not everything goes according to plan. That fireplace you wanted in your new home office? Your local building code says a chimney can’t be close to a window — which is where it would be. So instead of a fireplace, you install a wood-burning stove, which you can vent in a way that meets code.
Same thing with our research. Maybe a courthouse fire destroyed the land records; this would be a time to dig deeper into tax records. The area you’re researching in didn’t keep birth records when your ancestor was born? What about baptism records of your ancestor’s church?
This is also where we can prioritize. It isn’t practical to search for everything at the same time. As we continue to evaluate what we have and compare to our goal, we can make better choices of what to look for next. If I’m trying to determine when a man died, I’m going to look for his Civil War pension file before digging through his early land records.
The Research Plan Builds the Framework
As you’re going through the five parts of building a plan, you’re engaging in the research process. What the plan does is give you a framework to build upon. It will help keep you on track and lessen your frustration. Even if you do stay up until 2:30am, you can rest assured that it was for a purpose.