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Focusing Your Family History Search

How to Keep Your Genealogy Research on Track


Have you ever begun an evening researching Great Grandma Emeline and found yourself browsing online census records for your spouse's family instead? Does a new message board post or other genealogical discovery distract you from what you were doing and send you off willy-nilly in a new direction? If your family history search has left you feeling like you're in the middle of a tornado with papers, files, clues, and theories flying around and around, you are not alone. For all of you family historians wandering aimlessly from clue to clue here are some tips for pulling everything together and keeping your research on track.

Take Small Bites & Chew Slowly
My biggest genealogical weakness is that I work on too many parts of my family tree at once. While this does keep things interesting, it usually results in my missing important details due to sensory overload. When undertaking a family history search it is best to focus on one small chunk at a time - a single family group, or a single surname in a particular locality.

Get it in Writing
Pull together all of the research and records you have already collected on your chosen family and use them to compile a discussion (with full source documentation) of your research thus far. Make notes on the sources you've consulted, people you've contacted, and records you've found, as well as your theories and conclusions. The more details the better. While you may have most of this information already included in your files or genealogy software, it is an important step in the process to get it all written down in one easy-to-refer-to summary.

Log Your Progress
Another important tool in my organizational toolbox is an adaptation of the basic genealogical research log. I begin by creating a timeline of the family group listing all events in chronological order. Then, for each event, I note down any supporting records, including the date and place the record was searched for and/or found, and details on the source. This keeps me from duplicating research I've already done, and helps me identify gaps in my research at a glance.

Success Starts With a Plan
To make the most effective use of your precious genealogy research time, you need to have a plan. Review your family summary and chronology to identify events for which you do not yet have supporting records and start a 'to do' list (some computer software programs provide a 'to do' list feature if you like to keep things computerized). Then use Internet catalogs, Web sites, and other resources (the Family History Library Catalog is one of the best options for this) to review what records are available for your family's locality. Add these lists to your research log to help you plan your research and document where you are going.

Avoid Distractions
Once you've chosen a family to research and identified your reearch goals, it is time to put all other genealogy research away, out of site. Wear blinders (figurative, of course) when you're at the library to keep from being distracted by any books or microfilm that catch your eye. If you're easily distracted you may even want to temporarily unsubscribe to all genealogy/surname mailing lists which pertain to other families (most RootsWeb-based mailing lists are archived so you can always go back later to catch up on what you missed).

Genealogy on Hold
One of the best things that I've done to organize my family history search is to create "pending" files for each of my family groups. I use these files to hold copies of outgoing and incoming correspondence and unrecorded genealogical discoveries. Pending files can be paper, computerized or a combination of both, and include everything from Web sites you'd like to explore further, to the family tree that arrived in today's mail from a distant cousin. Later, when you come to a good stopping point in your current research, you can go through your pending files and enter the information in your database, make notes on how this new information affects your research plan, and add the records to your filing system.

Put it All Together
If you've ever set aside your genealogy research for a while you know how hard it is to pick it back up without forgetting some of what you have already done. To avoid this, create a working notebook or binder for your chosen family group which includes a copy of your research plan, compiled family summary and chronology, research log, and correspondence log. This allows you to review your progress and goals for the family at a glance, and makes it easier to take a break and move on to a different family when an unexpected discovery is just too tempting to put aside.

While most people think that organizing your genealogy refers to filing papers and records, it is actually much more important to organize your overall family history search. Plan where you are going and keep track of where you have been, and your family history research will be much more fun and effective.

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