Journal Your Research, by Juliana Smith

This year our daughter began taking pre-Algebra in school and she didn’t really get off to a smooth start. Accustomed to figuring out problems in her head or on a separate piece of scrap paper, she turned in her first homework assignment only to get it back with points taken off because she didn’t show her work. She was crushed. I tried to explain the rationale behind the grade and the importance of showing her work. It was a tough lesson for her but something that she’ll need for years to come. And if she chooses to follow her mother’s footsteps (Hint!), showing her thought process will be a huge help when applied to family history.

When I started writing for the newsletter, the benefits of writing about my genealogical finds became immediately clear. I’m notorious for scribbling cryptic notes in the heat of the moment. Too often, I have made an exciting discovery only to go back to it weeks or months later scratching my head and wondering what the heck I meant. “Corn, fruit, Bkln. 1850?” Is that a grocery list or something to do with my family history? As it turned out, it was a note about a probate to remind me that there was a Cornelius Kelly who had a fruit stand in Brooklyn in 1850–but that’s a story for another day.

Fortunately, when I slip up I can sometimes find a paper trail in the form of an article I have written about the find. But that’s not always the case, so I’ve since expanded the process of “showing my work.” Now, when I dive into my family’s history I journal during the process. This gives me an extended research log, and I’ve also learned over the years that the best way to find holes in my theories is to try to write about them. (Unfortunately, some of my best theories seem to self-destruct when I’m up against a deadline.)

What to Include
Here are some of the items that I include in my research journal:

  • How and where did I find the information? What searches did I perform during online research? How was the name indexed? Were there any irregularities or discrepancies? I also record times where I’ve failed to find an ancestor. I document the various methods I used to search, and include why I think they should be included in that record collection. Sometimes this step is very revealing. It makes me look closely at descriptive materials and sometimes I realize that there’s a very good reason they aren’t included. 
  • What was the extent of my search? Did I just search the index? Did I go all the way to the end of the register or microfilmed or digitized collection to see whether there were more records at the end? Did I browse surrounding pages (and how many), looking for other family references? 
  • When possible, I like to include a transcription of the record. It makes for easy review and this can also be copied/pasted into my family history software, family timelines, and e-mails to family history buddies. 
  • Sometimes a record may not come right out and say something, but alone or in the context of other records, it may allow you to draw conclusions. This is a great place to spell out the rationale behind any conclusions you have drawn. For example, you have an 1860 census record that says that your eleven-year-old ancestor was born in Ireland. You also have a baptism record for his sister that says she was born in 1852 in New York. From these you can estimate that the family immigrated to the U.S. somewhere between 1849 and 1852. If you spell it out here, you won’t be scratching your head a year from now trying to figure out how you arrived at that estimate. 
  • Put yourself in your ancestors’ shoes. Has something in this record changed your perceptions about the family and what was going on in their lives? What part might history have played in what you’ve learned? Did they emigrate because of war, disease, or famine? Spell out your theories. 
  • Sort out conflicting facts. Did the information in the record conflict with what you had previously thought or with what you have found in other records? Is it possible you are looking at two separate individuals or families? How can you reconcile the conflicts? How credible is the record you are looking at? Document the conflicts and look for ways you can prove or disprove your findings.
  • Chart your course for follow-up. Look at what you’ve written and make a list of follow-up steps you can take to move your case forward.

Your Journal’s Format
My process is simple. I just have an open journal (a.k.a., Word document) for each person in his or her folder on my computer, and when I work on that line, I open it up, type in the date, and create my summary using some or all of the above criteria. Mine is free form, but if it’s more helpful to you, you could easily create a template to use each time, then go through and fill in the blanks.

There are other options available that would work well too. A blog is a perfect forum for this type of journal and allows you to share easily with the entire blogosphere. People with whom you are collaborating can easily be kept up-to-date, and you may even hear from a long-lost cousin who happens across your blog post. With a category set up for each person, it makes a great chronological research journal where you can easily review your research process over time. Hosting services like ( and ( make it simple to create your own blog. You don’t need a lot of technical expertise to get it up and running.

You could also use your genealogical software and use the notes section or task list to record your thought process.

What Else?
It’s a good idea to journal your findings right away–immediately after the happy dance if possible. You want the facts to be as fresh in your mind as possible. Try not to get sidetracked and immediately enter the follow-up frenzy. (I know–that’s a tall order for me too.) But if you haven’t written about previous finds, pull out your research and start your journal with a review. It’s a great way to jump-start research that you’ve been away from for a while.

With all that is available online, it’s really easy to get into the habit of just adding stuff to your tree without really looking at it. Take the time to really get into the record you have found and explore it by journaling it. In addition to the benefits above, it’s a great way to go back and see how far you’ve come!

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

7 thoughts on “Journal Your Research, by Juliana Smith

  1. Excellent article, Juliana! This is exactly why I started my blog 6 weeks ago–to journal or keep track and share my discovery stories and processes. I’ve kept track of the facts, but for the last 10 years I haven’t written down the exciting stories that come along with the research. Those things you’d like to tell someone, but can’t find anyone who wants to listen! Thank you for a great article.

  2. Thanks for another excellent article. I particularly appreciated the statement, “Take the time to really get into the record you have found.” You mention it in the context of journaling, but even if you don’t journal, it’s a good idea to explore records in detail. FTM 2009 makes it far too easy to add information to your tree from an online record without getting the most from it. Even if all the information listed for the person you’re researching were included in the index (which almost invariably isn’t), there’s a wealth of “halo-effect” information – neighbors, circumstances, etc. – that can lead to exciting new discoveries or additional color to the facts you’re recording. So if you’re adding a record through the Merge function, make sure you go back and open the record and read it thoroughly before declaring that bit of research finished. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

  3. Thanks for your words of wisdom. I too started a blog the beginning of Nov. Not just to keep track of my research, the great findings and how I felt about them. But to also keep those relatives interested in my family research up to date on what I have found. This eliminates a ton of emails I would otherwise send out. Also, the blog gives them the chance to reply about the findings.

  4. I thought keeping a research journal was useless until I began keeping one. I can trace things I request, ideas that need to be looked at, books to ILL from the library, and the list goes on and on. When there is something that needs to be done, I change from black to red so I can find it easier. When it is completed, place a checkmark in front of the entry. This way you have a journal and a to-do list in one place. When I fill a page, I print it out and put it in a notebook for that project. I have journals on so many projects but it sure helps focus me in that particular direction.

  5. For years I have tried to journal my research efforts, but have always been thwarted by not having a clue how to organize my notes.
    any suggestions?

  6. Pingback: Twigs and Branches » Blog Archive » Journals- how many do you have?

  7. Are blogs safe and secure to post family names and information? Several of my family members are extremely leery because of identity theft.

    Thanks for any feedback,

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