Keeping a family history research journal can help you track and organize your finds, uncover the clues you've overlooked—and share the story of your search.
A family history research journal is different from keeping an account of your life and activities for your descendants. While journaling your life story is extremely important, what I'm talking about here is a specialty journal that records your genealogical research discoveries.
A family history research journal is also different from what genealogists typically think of as a "research log" or "research calendar." In a log or calendar, you primarily record the facts of your research—the date of your search, a source citation for the records you've looked at, the results of the search—in columnar format or in a database. These logs serve a functional purpose in research, and I'm not suggesting substituting a specialty journal for them, either. But just as pure facts on a pedigree chart are sterile and unappealing to share with others—"Ah, so Grandpa Joe was born in 1906. How 'bout that."—sharing your data on a research log no doubt ranks a close tie with being in a coma. Research logs are worksheets, just like pedigree charts, and not something you'd expect to thrill and delight your family with around a cozy fireplace as you nibble from a big bowl of buttered popcorn.
In a special family history research journal, however, you show your joys, frustrations and feelings about your search for your ancestors. You might even include impressions you have about a particular ancestor from your research, such as: "I'm not sure I like Great-grandpa Andrew. I found a divorce record today in the county next to the one he and Great-grandma lived in, accusing him of beating his first wife. Wonder what Great-grandma saw in him. She must not have known about his past in the next county when she married him." Or: "Wow. I didn't know my third great-grandmother went to law school and had to hide being married so she wouldn't get thrown out. She must've been quite some woman!"
A journal like this gives so much more meaning to your family history search. We often lament not being privy to our ancestors' thoughts and feelings. Now you have an opportunity to let your descendants in on your thoughts about this hobby of collecting dead relatives that gives you so much pleasure. It also makes keeping a journal a lot more fun. And you don't have to be a wonderful writer: Mistakes don't matter. You're keeping it for yourself and for your descendants on a special topic.
Five perks of journaling
Still not convinced? Here are five ways you'll benefit from keeping a family history research journal:
Analyzing and organizing
Your journal enables you to sort out what you've uncovered, helping you ponder and analyze your findings and formulate a plan for the next step in your search.
Reviewing and planning
Unlike a research log, your journal has room for you to record why you think certain things and look at particular records. It will refresh your memory on what you'd been working on when you set it aside, and what leads you were planning to follow next. During your off-research time, you can make notes in your journal as ideas come to you for your next research trip. Now you never have to worry about losing your to-do list.
Recording and researching family stories
Through your journal, you'll also be recording those family stories you've heard a million times from Uncle Harry. You know, the ones you know you really should be recording somewhere, but you haven't figured out exactly where since there's no room on your charts and forms and the stories haven't been verified yet.
Sharing your search
Journaling is a good way to share your excitement over those discoveries that non-genealogists just don't understand and can't fully appreciate. Have you ever tried to share with family and friends your elation over a death certificate that just arrived in the mail? Non-family history sleuths don't treasure these special, happy moments in a genealogist's life.
Telling the whole story
By keeping a journal, you're telling the whole story of your search for your family history as it happens. The documents you gather, the names you add to the charts and those sterile research logs tell the only facts.