Learn Genealogy – Research Logs & Research Planning

Research Logs (as opposed to Research Notes) are often the most underutilized task in our research tool kit.  I myself am guilty of not documenting every place I’ve looked.  However, Research Logs are a vital part of our research and is a huge time saver.

What is it?  A Research Log is a list of places researchers have looked for evidence and facts to answer a specific research questions, including where and when the research was conducted, whether on location or online. 

Let’s face it, we love genealogy and we spend hours digging around for our ancestors, but how many times do we write down every record group, every book, every cemetery we’ve researched. So how do we keep a good Research Log and keep it handy when we need it?

I keep a Research Log for each ancestor or family group I’m investigating.  If you want a format of what you should have in your Research Log, you can find a free Research Log at FamilySearch.org or many other locations.  Just Google “Research Log for Genealogy” and find a variety of choices to fit your needs.

You should be documenting every place you’ve searched, to answer your research question, and when you did the research.  Why record when we did the research?  Because things change, records may have been added later, history may have been rewritten due to better evidence and conclusions.  Years later, you or your descendants may want to know when you did that research.

Free Research Log from FamilySearch.org

A side note: I have a confession to make… I’m addicted… to software… to saving time… to making my job easier.  I will take EXTRA TIME to learn software that will ultimately save me tons of time. I’m a huge believer in making the software do the work for me. Therefore, learn the basics of spreadsheets.  You don’t have to do math for this, I promise.

So here’s my… “kill-two-birds-with-one-stone” research tip.   Use your Research Planning in combination with your Research Log … by using spreadsheets Especially when researching on location, time always seems to be in short supply.

As long as you need to keep a Research Log… and you need to properly and strategically plan your research, why not do them both in one document.  This is especially helpful when planning for research trips.

Here’s how: Use your favorite spreadsheet (like Excel or Google Sheets) and create a Research Log and Research Plan on one page.  Next, develop a research question for a given ancestor or family group, then create a prioritized plan in your spreadsheet that looks like a Research Log except it doesn’t have the results yet.  However, with advanced planning, it should already have the item… say a book, the author, the location, etc. in the Research Plan/Log in advance of your actual research.  Then when you’re at the library, archive you can follow the prioritized plan and save valuable time, by not having to write down every detail when time is short.  You should do this at home too.

Research Plan and Research Log in One Document

By doing this, you can also embed web links to the source with one click, you’ll have the start of a source citations, and the results you found collectively in one place.

In this example, I used different tabs across the bottom for different counties, I was researching on a trip to Salt Lake City.

You can store the spreadsheet on your computer or use a cloud service like Google Sheets for easy access anywhere.

Keep in mind, that web links and cloud based documents will need access to the internet while researching on location.  Most libraries, archives and, public locations have free access to the internet.  I prefer to use my “Personal Hotspot” found in the Settings on my cell phone, because its private and I find it to be faster than most public wifi services. However, cell phone “Hotspots” are only as good as the cell service at the location.

With Research Logs, the results (positive or negative), the facts found, the source information, are all in one place.  From here you can cut and paste your positive finding and source information into your Research Notes.   All of this is a vital time saver, helps prevent repeating the same research, and will help you to accurately prove your lineage.

I’ve created a free Excel template you can download here. Research Log Template

I hope this helps you as much as it has for me. I was not a fan of keeping Research Logs in the past.  But when you’re out at the library or on a trip, time is always in short supply. Once I started really making good research plans in an effort to save time, I realized that I could keep the results on the same page. Then I started doing all of that on my little Surface Pro (which I absolutely love for genealogy), my research techniques drastically improved.  

Now, not only do I have a detailed research plan, and research log, I have the beginnings of my next step to write my research notes and source citations. Many times, if I write the positive findings clearly in my research log, I simply cut and paste them into my research notes.

Make sure you reference that you have a research log in your research notes, so you can continue on for the next trip.

Lastly, I file them just like I do for my research notes… SURNAME, First Name and Research Log.  I preface also preface it with a 2 so that that file rises to 2nd place in that person’s electronic folder.

Another tip: I’ve started using Google Drive, Docs and Sheets so that I can access these documents on any device. That may or may not be an option for you, but I’ve found the Google Docs and Google Sheets to be the most reliable of the cloud based document sharing.  

Sometimes, before a big trip to say… Salt Lake City… I’ll upload my family files to Google Docs so I can access and edit them from anywhere on any device (as long as you have your login).

If you found this helpful…

Comments are welcome at the bottom of the page.  How do you use research logs?

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Ruth Faison Shaw, the Originator of Finger Painting

Here’s a story produced by WRAL-TV about a Duplin County native, Ruth Faison Shaw… the originator of finger painting.

She is buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, NC.  More about Oakdale Cemetery and Ruth Faison Shaw can also be found in this video I produced about Oakdale Cemetery for the NC Ancestry YouTube channel.

Learn Genealogy – Easy-Breezy Source Citations

Here’s a great way to remember how to write good quality source citations without stress.

If you want just get the information down without the formality of a proper source citation, think of the Five “W’s” of journalism… Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.  But I’ve got my own take on this, to help remember everything easily. I call it the Six W’s and How… Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!  It’s a play on words, get it?

Six W’s and How Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!

Ready? Here it is…  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  That’s right, two When’s!  Say that ten times and you’ll have it.  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  It’s a tongue twister, but you’ll remember it. Learn this technique and you’ll have the details of the source citations professionals use.

  • Who – (Who created this item, statement, book, document, photo, etc.? It might be a probate court, the state or federal government, a testimonial by a person, county recorder’s office, or an author of a book. Who created it?
  • What – (What is it? Description or title, in detail, of the document, object, photo, testimonial, and publisher information! )
  • Where – (Where did you find it? Archive, library, person’s full name, etc.) Be very specific so that a stranger can retrace your steps. This is a physical address, email, online repository with address. It could be all of the following…  place, room, shelf, book, chapter, page, paragraph and line… if that’s what it takes for an stranger to find it again.

A note about web addresses:  Use them, BUT ALSO give all information about it’s location again in written form, so that one can find it without a web address. This might be an online archive, with record group, section, image number, line number and persons name in the document or all of the above.  Over time, websites die or change and if you have a web address, it will be useless a few years from now.  We’ll talk more about that in other lessons.

  • When and When – (When this item was created? and When you located it?)  Make sense?  Two When’s!
  • Why – (Why does this matter, as it relates to your target question or ancestor?) Perhaps this evidence is the item that ties two brothers together, or proves someone bought some land, or directly or indirectly answers the question you’ve been researching.
  • How – (How can you access this again if needed? Is it online, only available at the archives, in grandma’s possession?)  You might have covered this in the “Where” question above, but give it some thought.  You may have found it in grandma’s attic, but brought it home and filed it in your own archives.  You’ll need to document both, where you found it and how can you find it again? Especially, if it’s location has changed.

You’ll need to do this exercise for everything you find. If you do, you’re well on your way to writing real proper “Elizabeth Shown Mills style” source citations like she teaches in her book Evidence Explained and on her website EvidenceExplained.com.  She and her methods are the gold standard of genealogical source citations.  These Six W’s and How… are an early stepping stone to understanding her artful source citation methods.

In the interest of full disclosure, this link for Mills book is an affiliate marketing link that helps support this website. However, using this link will not cost you anymore.  I will never-ever recommend a book I don’t believe in.  Please know that your trust in me is worth more than a small commission.  However, should you use this link, you’ll help support my efforts to bring quality genealogy education to you and others.  Thanks for your support.

At the end of the day, can anyone find your source again?  If so, kudos!  You’ve got this! I’m curious, please answer the poll below.

Comments are welcome below.

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Learn Genealogy – Research Notes


Here is another tip and a good habit to get into right from the beginning of your genealogical journey.  Keeping great research notes will prevent you from repeating your research and will keep you moving further faster to answering your research questions!  That’s worth repeating! Rinse and repeat.

Keep your Research Notes in chronological order, it will result in your ancestors timeline . This document is an ever changing and developing document while you research.  It will likely be the most important document in your files because it contains a person’s lifelong timeline, all the facts, and evidence found.  It is the culmination of all your hard work.

The Research Notes contain only the facts and sources of positive findings for a specific ancestor.  It is not all of the places you’ve looked.  That’s a Research Log.  For your Research Notes, as an example, it might start at the top with a title like…

John Doe, born 1 January 1889 – Research Notes”

Then continue on with vital statistics and information in chronological order… birth, christening, marriage, children born, land purchase…, newspaper articles, death, obituary, burial, etc. all starting with a date, then the event.  For example:

“1 January 1889, Birth – John James Doe was born in Any Town (city and county), Any State, USA.  This birth date was confirmed on his military pension file and the 1900 US Census.” (Add a footnote reference after each fact.)

Footnotes to Add Source at Bottom of Page

I use footnotes to cite my sources for every fact within my research notes.  This way, if I write a report for a client I can cut and paste most of the details from my research notes into my reports and the source citations will follow. The Source Citation is information about where the evidence was found for every fact, such as an interview, book, website etc.  You want all the details in a source citation, so much so, that someone else could find the exact information about that fact.

If you write in Word, source citations can be added as Footnotes by using the Reference tab on the top of the page.  This way, as you add to your research notes, the source citation numbers update automatically without you having to renumber your notes and citations to make sure they correspond.  This is done automatically for you no matter how many times you update or insert within your document.  In my opinion, this is a must-have item when writing research notes.  Without it, your sources will likely get lost or mixed up with other facts.

Additionally, by using footnotes, your research notes, it’s easier to read your notes fluidly, without having to wade through all the of source information. You can read the ancestors timeline logically to stay focused on the subject.

One last comment about footnotes. Footnotes will stay on the same page as your referenced notes, as opposed to Endnotes.  Endnotes will collectively be stacked at the end of document.  I don’t care for Endnotes in my, Research Notes, or any of my research reports, because if someone copies just one page of a multi-page document, then the source information is not included with the copied page. Instead it’s on the last pages of the document and thus the one copied page does not contain the source information. For genealogist, footnotes are what you want.  However, if in the future you wish to change all of your Footnotes to Endnotes, this can be done easily in Word without retyping everything.

To learn how to write proper source citations for scholarly works, you’ll want a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills book called “Evidence Explained”.  In it, she covers every type of source citation needed for genealogists.

Some additional comments:

Research Notes and Research Logs are filed similarly. The difference between these documents is the Research Notes contain the evidence and facts found and the Research Log contains all the places searched for the answer to the research questions, regardless of a positive or negative outcome of the search.  We’ll talk about Research Questions and Research Logs in later posts.

If you can, write your Research Notes at the time of your research findings (right there in the library, archive, etc.), then you’re likely to not repeat the same work over and over again.

I type my Research Notes in Microsoft Word.  Save them with the same filing system discussed in the post “Good Filing Habits from the Start!”  For example, save Research Notes for John James DOE, born 1889, in the top level DOE folder, “DOE\DOE John James b 1889”.  For the file name of the document add a “1” in front of it so it always is at the top of the list of documents (when sorted by name) within the folder.  Your research notes are the one document in each folder you’ll use the most, so you’ll want it handy.  For example,  ” 1 DOE John James b 1889 – Research Notes.”

By adding a birth year, separates him from another person with the same name (if known) and tells us these are Research Notes all in the file name. This also helps when searching for files.  I only keep one version of this document and constantly update it with new findings (although my back up system is keeping my documents backed up continuously).

Research Notes are the backbone of your research.  It is the one document you want clean, clear and up to date every time you work on an ancestor.  It is the chronology, the facts, the sources, the conclusions of what you’ve discovered.  In some cases, it may be the only culmination of a person’s life.  Honor your ancestors with great Research Notes about them.  They will become the basis for your next book.

If you found this helpful…

Comments are welcome below.  Tell us how you keep research notes in the reply area below.

I’m curious… Can you answer the poll below?

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Learn Genealogy – Fact or Fiction… Facts vs. Evidence vs. Sources

Let’s face facts! It’s Fact from Fiction.  Okay the puns are endless here.

Let’s get it straight… the terminology that is Fact from Fiction.

As genealogists we’re part reporter, part historian, and part detective.  So it’s logical that we use the same terms used in law enforcement, journalism and historical authors.


The Fact is information found within Evidence.  Like a birth date on a birth certificate.

The Evidence is the item found, such as the birth certificate itself.

The Source is where you found the Evidence.  For example, the birth certificate may have come from the county courthouse.  So you would want to detail where you found the Evidence to the point that another person could find it based on your Source Citation.

So without Evidence, do you have a Fact or is it Fiction?

Fact from Fiction

Be careful about what you call a “Fact.”  “Facts” need to be proven to truly call them factual.   Family lore is likely not fact, until proven. However, a person’s testimony is Evidence, but not always factual. Thus, if grandpa said something, you’ll need to support that with the Facts found in other Evidence.

So what do you do with the data you’ve found, that is not yet proven?  You can use language of probabilities in your reporting.  For example, “Jane Doe was likely born in West Virginia, possibly before 1800, as she was not listed with her parents in the xyz county of West Virginia in the 1800 census.”  Thus, you’re not stating her birth place or potential birth date as fact, but you are asserting your assessment of the Evidence you’ve found in the 1800 Census. Of course, you’re going to cite your Source (where you found that 1800 census).  From your assessment will lead to a good research question for your next task.  More on research questions in a later post.

Got it?

Facts are typically found in Evidence.  The Evidence is the item stating the Facts…  and the Source is where you found the Evidence.  You’ll want to ask yourself, is it Fact or Fiction?

To learn to write good source citations, you’ll need Elizabeth Shown Mills book Evidence Explained.

Full disclosure, this is an affiliate marketing link for which I could get a tiny commission.  However, I will never-ever recommend a book that I don’t believe in wholeheartedly. This link will not cost you any extra, but does help to support this website and the YouTube channels.  Thanks for your support.

Comments are welcome below.

Following this blog at the link above.

Subscribe to the NC Ancestry YouTube Channel.

Subscribe to my Genealogy TV YouTube Channel.

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