I’m not going to lie…I have not always seen the benefits of writing research reports. Not that I didn’t know better! Many years ago, my beginning genealogy teacher regularly required us to compose elements of reports for practice: Formulate a one-sentence research objective. Discuss the background information for this family, relevant to your research objective. List the resources you used with full source citations. Summarize today’s research session. Come up with a list of suggestions for further research.
Blah, blah, blah. You want me to stop in the middle of this research roll I’m on to summarize what I have found? You’re cramping my style! And by style I mean the tendancy to follow any notion that enters my head, pulling microfilm after microfilm, or book after book, off the shelf until I find something that causes me to head off in a different direction with a new notion. It was the 90s equivalent to clicking on every link that results from an Ancestry.com search.
Where did it get me? Buried in a pile of file folders with hundreds of copies made from microfilm and books, with some not infrequent tail-chasing and retracing of footsteps. I was doing the “two steps forward and one step back” dance.
Oh, I dutifully kept a research log with all the sources I checked, and those, too, made a nice little pile of their own. But I was not much closer to finding out where Jonas Gooch came from! I did not know the difference between genealogy research and genealogy hoarding.
Fast forward twenty-five years. Fifteen of those years were spent wandering aimlessly in the Genealogy Wilderness. I’m just glad it wasn’t forty! But after fifteen years I finally entered the Genealogy Promised Land. A new day dawned. I turned a corner. I saw the light. I woke up in a gutter under a pile of research logs and knew I needed help. Hello, I’m Dayna, and I don’t use research reports. I needed help. I really could not research another day like that.
Mixed metaphors aside, I finally learned the value of making report-writing an integral part of my routine, and I am a new woman. A new researcher, anyway. I could still stand to lose a few more pounds…
In looking at various samples of research reports, I found that many of them overwhelmed me. I knew I needed to design one that suited my needs. I came up with one that has worked for me through the years, and I tweak it here and there depending on the project. It contains elements found in most quality research reports:
- Descriptive title – mine always include a report number
- Researcher’s name
- Date of the report
- Research objective – limit yourself to one objective per session (A “session” can be one hour, one day, one week, or longer. Many smaller sessions are more effective than one large one, however.)
- Background information – research already done
- Summary of findings – a condensed version of your session, addressing your objective and highlighting conclusions
- Research steps taken – a detailed account of your thought process and analysis of discoveries, with document numbers inserted for reference
- Resources used – including repository and call number, source citation, comments, and document number assigned by me
- Nil or negative searches – negative evidence is just as important as positive
- Recommendations for further research – where the evidence, or lack thereof, suggests you search next
Here is what my report template looks like:
You can download this editable template here and adjust it to suit you:
So, I hear you say, what is the deal with research reports? Will they really change my life? Well, they won’t make you the life of the party, if that’s what you mean, but they will make you a more successful researcher. And that might make you the life of the party (if you hang out with other genealogists, anyway!)
Here are some of the benefits of research reports:
- Numbering your reports will help you track your research sessions, allowing you to document your thought process and see an orderly progression toward your objective.
- Stating a research objective will keep your research session focused
- Including background information will give you a foundation on which to begin a new session.
- As you summarize your findings, evidence falls together or holes appear. Sometimes both happens. You begin to understand your findings in the context of the bigger picture, and frequently this is when ideas for further research are formulated. A summary bundles up your research session and becomes the background information to build upon in your next session. It becomes a temporary stopping point which you can return to at any point in the future.
- By documenting the research steps taken, you record the thought process that led you to search each source, including an analysis of that source, and the conclusions made about it. When the report is picked up weeks, months, or years later, the reasoning and thinking are all there, and there is no need to rethink or retrace this segment of the research process–the support for your conclusions are all right there. This is the real “meat” of the report, and it can consist of pages and pages, depending on how many sources were searched. Here I should also mention that you should always include source copies with reports, or should at least abstract or extract portions into the “Research Steps” portion of the report.
- Besides helping you record your thought process, documenting the research steps taken also benefits others with an interest in the same objective. Sharing a report gives others a “leg up” and moves the research along, instead of swirling around in an eddy, never moving downstream. There I go again, mixing my metaphors!
- A research report allows you to educate future readers, who might not be experienced, as you explain your findings.
- The “Resources Used” section of the report is an old-fashioned research log, but used in the context of a research objective it is now a relevant exercise. Numbering each document searched allows you to insert a reference to the source within the narrative of the “Research Steps” portion of the report, much like a footnote. Thus, the reader of the report can easily see the basis for assertions and conclusions. Including a source citation here allows anyone to return to that source if needed. Many years down the road, when your descendants or cousins read the report, they will want to erect a special monument to your memory. This, alone, is worth your efforts in my estimation.
- A conscientious recording of nil or negative searches will pay dividends in time and effort saved later, but also might provide a basis for conclusions, as indirect, direct, and negative evidence is correlated. Do not overlook this important aspect of documentation.
- A quality report will always include recommendations for further research, because no conclusion in genealogy is ever final. Even if our objective has been met, it will always lead to more questions and ideas for further research. It is helpful to record these ideas at this point in the report.
Research reports are the key to quality genealogy research. If they are not part of your routine, you should seriously reconsider. You will find they do take time. I allot about one third to half my research time for report-writing, so for three hours in the library I will only be looking at records for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, and documenting the process for the balance of time. Most of it I do as I research, and I save the summary for the end of my session. I find it easier to track my thought process as it unfolds, rather than waiting until I am finished. Recording the research process as it happens also helps me to be methodical and deliberate in my record selections, rather than going off on tangents.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists has a “Skillbuilding” section that includes work samples and helpful articles on report writing and document analysis.
Download my editable Research Report Template here: Research Report Template from On Grannys Trail