Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Tuesday's Tip: Research Plan - An Explanation and a Template

Ever feel that solving a genealogy problem is like navigating a challenging game of chess? Here's how a research plan can help!

A number of people who are participating in the Genealogy Do-Over have asked about how to create research plans or find forms or templates to use. Whether or not you're participating, you may wish to know more about research plans, why and when to use them, and how to create them.

When I took the ProGen professional genealogy course, one of our early lessons was learning how to create research plans, based on Chapter 14: "Problem Analyses and Research Plans" of Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians. We used one of our own research problems to develop one. Here is an example of one I wrote to determine if my 2nd-great-grandmother is the same person as an orphaned girl I found in records in the Netherlands.


"Plan refers to the process of thinking through our purposes and procedures before research begins."
--Helen F. Leary 

First of all, what is a research plan, and what is its place in genealogy? According to Helen F. Leary, author of the aforementioned chapter, "Plan refers to the process of thinking through our purposes and procedures before research begins."

So what is our purpose? It can be to find the names of the parents of a brick wall ancestor. It can be to uncover the maiden surname of a married female ancestor. It can be to answer any of a thousand questions: "Why did my ancestor move West? Where is he buried? How many children did she have? Did he serve in the Civil War? Is my family legend true?"

What are our procedures? These are the process and systematic steps we take in our attempt to solve our problem.

There are four to six basic parts of a research plan:

1. Objective - This is our purpose (see above). It can be written as a statement or a question.

2. Known Facts - Obviously, this is what you already know about your research problem which you are attempting to solve. The information about the person should be placed in chronological order, citing the sources where each fact was found. This is where a timeline of the person's life can be really helpful.

3. Potential Conflicting Data - Very often, we hit a brick wall because of a Major Problem. One of my examples is that I have an ancestor listed on the 1890 Union Veterans Census. One problem--the conflicting data--is that the unit number he supposedly served from (101st New York Volunteers) did not muster from anywhere near his place of residence. I believe there's a simple explanation: the numbers got reversed. The 110th New York Volunteers did muster from his county. However, there is another problem: except for the veterans census, I cannot find any other evidence that this ancestor served in the Civil War. I have to explain this in the Potentially Conflicting Data part of my research plan.

By the way, not every plan will have this part. You may not have conflicting data at all. You may be simply stuck with not enough data!

4. Working Hypothesis - You may have an idea about what the answer could be to your problem. This is where that idea is stated. You should list your reasons as to why you believe this statement could be true.

When you first start your research plan, you may not have a hypothesis. As you start to research, one may form, and you can add this in at that time.

5. Identified Sources - These are the sources I've already looked at, which have given me my known facts, and--if I have conflicting data--be where I've found information that confuses the situation. These identified sources will be the same as the cited sources for my Known Facts, with possible additions, but are simply given in a source list entry or biographical form.

6. Research Strategy - Here is where we list the steps of what we're going to do, and where we're going to do it. Are we going to look at particular databases on Ancestry.com? Do we have a list of microfilm numbers at the Family History Center for records we believe will solve our problem? Is there a book in our local genealogical society's library that may have an answer?


Here is a link to your own free research plan template which you can download to your computer. You can open it with any word processing program (like Microsoft Word), edit it to fit your research objectives, and save it as another document in your genealogy research folder, or in the relevant notes section of your genealogy software.

And? Keep it simple. It doesn't have to look as complicated as the example of my 2nd-great-grandmother. But it covers all the bases: what you've done, the snags you've hit, and where you're going.

One thing to keep in mind: We don't always use a research plan in every search (I'll explain the exceptions in next Tuesday's Tip post). However, whenever you have a question about an ancestor or another person you are researching, you definitely should use one!

I hope this template is helpful, and I'd appreciate your feedback.

Happy Hunting!

Disclosure: I am an affiliate for Amazon.com, and as such, receive compensation for products advertised on and linked from this blog.

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