Southern California Genealogical Society

Back to Basics Using a Research Log
By Barbara McKinlay

Organization is the key to any successful genealogical research. Without it, we are all at sea. I can remember when I first started—after three months, I had accumulated bits and pieces on the McKinlays, the Wallaces, the Robbs, the Richmonds and the Curries.

As I started to fill out Family Group Sheets, there was a frantic search for the paper that had the notes that I needed. There and then, I knew that I had to get rid of those piles on the dining room table. Manila folders and a file were the answer. The more I worked, the more evident it became that doing the research was fun, but if I could find what I was looking for, it was a lot more fun!

It took me a while to find out about keeping a research log. It’s an organized way to keep track of your work. Talk about a breath of fresh air—suddenly, all those wonderful bits and pieces could be filed—and what’s more, they could be found!
I find it easiest to turn an 81/2- by 11-inch piece of paper sideways and make columns with these possible headings:

  1. Date
  2. Repository and address
  3. Search—surname or couple and specific goal of search, if needed, i.e., William and Mary Richmond, or William and Mary Richmond-marriage.
  4. Variations of name searched.
  5. Records searched (including call no.)
  6. Result

These headings are probably good ones to begin with. However, you may decide that you want them in different order, or different headings. Don’t be afraid to use your own ingenuity.

Once you have decided on the form that you like, then you can make several copies so that when you go to do research, you will be capable of keeping track of what you have done. Some records you will not need to consult again, but some you will use over and over again. You log will show you where to locate them.

Along with this general research log, you should make up a form for the actual research itself. This should show:

  1. Page number of your research
  2. Date
  3. Surname of person/couple
  4. Title of book, article, film, fiche
  5. Publisher
  6. Place, year of publication
  7. Volume and page number
  8. Repository

Below those items you can write any notes on what you have found. These individual sheets can then be filed in specific manila folders. If you have uncovered a gold mine and there are several pages of notes, be sure that you repeat enough of the information so that the pages can easily be identified as belonging together. If the research covers two families, then you can photocopy it and place a copy in another file.

There is an excellent publication that you may be interested in looking at, or purchasing: “Organizing Your Family History Search,” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, published in 1999 by Betterway Books in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is an excellent overview and has forms in the back that can be photocopied.

If you use a laptop computer as you research, you can set it up with some kind of forms that you can use easily. If you are a fairly good typist, it’s much faster than writing in longhand.

In Carmack’s book, there is a short article about a computer program called “Clooz,” which is a filing cabinet for genealogical records. The database is built on Microsoft Access. If this is something you might be interested in, you can get more information from, or you can write to Ancestor Detective, P.O. Box 1457, Drawer C., Woodbridge, VA 22193-1457.

In my own experience, I have found that you can go overboard with keeping forms. If you do, there will be loud gnashing of teeth, and some of them (the forms, not the teeth!) will have to be thrown overboard.

Generally, the simpler the better.

A lot depends on you as an individual. If you like keeping forms, then it won’t be a problem. I have always found that a general research log is a wonderful tool, as are individual research sheets.

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