And no matter where you are in your family history search, creating a report can help you, too. I’m confident that once you see how beneficial research reports are and how simple they can be to construct, you’ll be convinced they’re well worth your time.
It may seem counterproductive to use your limited research time writing about the work you’ve already done instead of searching for new records. But you’ll reap benefits that save you time in the long run. A research report chronicles the work you’ve done toward answering a particular question about your family history, identifying:
- the focus of your research problem
- the information with which you started
- the resources you used
- your research discoveries
- your thoughts and analysis
- your summary or conclusion
- your ideas for future research
Who, then, can benefit from writing a research report? In short, anyone who:
- is working on a problem of ancestor identity or kinship
- needs to pause and resume research at a later time
- is trying to summarize previous work and generate new ideas
- is planning a trip to a repository or ancestral locality
- is looking for help from someone else
- is offering help to someone else
1. Identify your focus.
Whether the report is for your own research or someone else’s, the first step is to note your name, the date, and what the subject is. To begin, open a blank document and type in the following lines:
- Prepared by: (your name and contact information)
- Prepared for: (“My Research Files,” or the name of relative or fellow researcher)
- Date finished: (leave blank for now)
- Research question or goal
Stating a research question or goal isn’t as hard as it might sound, because the two components fit together seamlessly to express your objective. Questions and statements like these might strike you as lengthy at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of writing them. Some examples of a research question or goal include:
- Who were the parents of Isaac Baker, 1840 resident of Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Mass.?
- Was Catherine Anderson, who married Thomas Smith on 20 April 1859 in Cass County, Mo., the daughter of Cass County resident William Anderson?
- This project will explore sources of information at the Family History Library about Baker families living in Berkshire County, Mass., about 1800-1860.
2. Show what you know.
3. List your resources.
If you have any limitations on your project, indicate them here as well. Perhaps you’re limited to five hours of work, or you’re focused solely on records created in Iowa, or you’re using online resources only. It may be important to know what those limiting factors were in the future, especially if you’re sharing your report with others.
4. Report your findings.
This section, typically called “Research Findings” or “Research Notes,” will comprise the body of your research report. It’s where you’ll record the nitty-gritty details of the information found in the sources you looked at, complete with source citations. It’s also the place where you’ll analyze and begin to compare the evidence. Every source in your Research Findings should receive a three-part treatment:
- Abstract or transcribe information from the record
- Write a source citation as a footnote or endnote
- Analyze what the record tells you or suggests
5. Sum it up.
6. Plan for the future
In the final section of your report, “Recommendations,” list any additional resources you’d like to look at in the future. These will be based on ideas that came to mind while you were researching or evaluating the evidence. Recommendations for future research might include:
- other records to explore, such as military or land records
- visiting a certain archives or repository
- digging into records of another city, county or state
- newly discovered relatives or associates to investigate
Investigative reporters know that focusing attention on a problem in writing is one of the best ways to spur action and generate solutions. Many genealogical problems can benefit from the same treatment. So next time you’re faced with an ancestral mystery, take the time to start a report for yourself. You may find the answer is right there in black and white.