Last week I attended the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference in Mason, Ohio and there was one topic that was repeated no matter what the subject of the class was… FamilySearch, Ohio Archives, Finding Females, Newspapers, British Roots, Bright Shiny Objects… and that was you should always have a research plan.
Why Should You Follow a Research Plan?
I’ll confess, the closest I come to having a plan when it comes to my own genealogical journey is beginning each day with an “I think I’ll work on my great-great-great-grandfather, George Henry Fesler” today and I proceed to enter into my program all the information I have and search for the documents that I don’t.
But having a research plan can keep you focused. It can help you from getting distracted by the beforementioned bright shiny objects (I’m sure you have come into contact with those – a document that you find or information on another ancestor that you stumble upon that you just HAVE to follow up on RIGHT NOW).
The Steps of a Research Plan
Depending on the website you seek your information from, recommended research plans seem to fall between 5 and 7 steps. Most that were gone over in my classes seemed to go with 5-steps.
1. What is Your Objective?
It’s always best to know what it is you want to know before you sit down and begin randomly searching for information. Even I when I just decide “I’m going to work on researching my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather George Henry Fesler”, I have identified who I want to research. I’m in the process of still adding many family members to the software that I use, or sometimes I have the basic information down (to fill in a fan chart or such) but I need to add documents, events, and sources.
2. What Information Do You Already Have?
It’s always best to double check the information that you have already acquired for a person because you may already have the answer that you seek. And by finding out what information you have, narrows down the information you still need to seek. Sometimes it’s helpful to even look at other close relatives such as father’s because you may be missing a census in one file but have it in another (assuming you file by the head of household).
Going back to my example of George Henry Fesler, I had a number of files that I had downloaded, and when I was adding them to my software I often don’t have the information for the citations handy and will either re-find the document on FamilySearch or Ancestry.com for this. Here on my personal family tree on Ancestry.com I saw where I had attached George’s death certificate, but I never downloaded the file. Lucky for me my husband had a 14-day free trial of Ancestry that hadn’t been used and I was able to instantly download the death certificate (don’t worry, if this was not a possibility I would have gone to the library and used the free Ancestry Library Edition).
3. Create a Hypothesis on What You Believe to be True?
Hypothesis is such a big word. It makes me think of tenth grade when I had to write a term paper for my Expository Writing Class. I’m sure I learned about it in science too, but the term paper really seems to strike a chord.
According to Wikipedia, a hypothesis is “a proposed explanation for phenomenon”. Basically, it’s the information you think you will find.
For example, I think George Henry Fesler, my great-great-great grandfather, died in Wells Tannery, Pennsylvania.
Until I re-discovered his death certificate attached to my tree on Ancestry.com, I wasn’t 100% certain where George passed.
4. What Records Will Prove Your Hypothesis?
To prove or disprove your hypothesis you will need to find records that will either support or discredit what you believe. These are often government documents such as census records, death certificates, pension files, or published records such as city directories, or an obituary in the paper.
What records will I need to prove that George Henry Fesler died in Wells Tannery, Pennsylvania? I know that his death certificate will be helpful, possibly his grave, census records could assist with letting me know precise locations of where he lived every ten years before his death. Where he is buried helps, but a person can die anywhere (my great-great-grandmother’s 2nd husband died on a trip visiting family in Illinois and he lived in Akron, Ohio), often they live in the vicinity of where they are buried or reside.
5. Do Your Research!
Now you find those documents I mentioned above that you don’t have. I was lucky enough to discover my great-great-great-grandfather’s death certificate was somewhat in my possession. George actually lived in Wells Township in Fulton County, Pennsylvania pretty much his entire life. He is buried at Wells Valley Methodist Cemetery in Wells Tannery. He was born in Bedford County, but all the census’ from 1850-1910 have him living in Wells Township.
A Way to Stay Focused
Researching with a plan is going to be my new motto. It’s one thing to attend maybe one or two classes where it was mentioned – but I attended 6 classes each day at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference (and I went to 6 classes each day – despite recommendations to possibly sit out a time to mingle with others – there was too much to learn) and I would say at least 3 classes each day began with how important research plans are.
Research plans help you stay focused. Sure you’re going to come across bright shiny objects but as Lisa Louise Cooke stated – “embrace them, save them for later” and keep your focus on your task at hand. You can always spend time another day just following up on those unexpected gems.
So the next time you decide to sit down for a spell of working on your family history, trying creating a research plan and let me know if you find it to be helpful or a hindrance.