Formal Research Reports (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Essential Elements Of A Formal Report

There may be some style differences in a report written for the family and a report written for a client, but the essential elements of a good report remain the same. The following is phrased in language as if the report is directed to a client. Reports to your family or to your personal files can be adjusted and adapted accordingly.

A good report demonstrates:

  • Clarity of expression and language
  • Proper grammar and spelling, and a lack of typographical errors
  • Accurate citations to sources and enclosures
  • A complete description of the research, results and analysis of correlated information

Specific Components

The Working Background

While these items might seem repetitive because of your correspondence or interaction with the client, or whatever contractual arrangements you agreed to, remember that your research results and report are directly related to the original client request and the information he or she gave you. This material should be upfront at the beginning of your report so that there are no doubts about your initial starting point. With practice, you will be able to format this in an introductory paragraph or two, and it will become a standard part of your report methodology.

  • Always date your report—this requirement is self-evident.
  • Identify for whom it was prepared.
  • Opinion varies whether you include the client’s full name and address; considering the real possibility that your report will be circulated or viewed by others, this might open a privacy issue which could be decided with the client before the report preparation.
  • Your own name should be on it (it is your work).
  • Restate the client’s goal or request.
  • The goal may be simple or complex, with one or multiple objectives. Your research may be a one-time request, or the first segment of an extended project.
  • Briefly summarize the information given to you.
  • In order for your report to be fairly judged, it is important that the reader sees what you based your research plan on. You can only base your plan on the information you were given at that point in time. If it raised questions for you, presumably you sought clarification from the client before you began working. You do not want your work to be judged inadequate if the client failed to give you some information at the outset.
  • Confirm your authorized time limit.
  • Similarly, if time restrictions prohibited you from searching all possible and potential record sources, this should not reflect on your abilities as a researcher.

The Body of the Report

This is where you describe and list the work you did. How you put it together is part of your own style. Style is a flexible issue, something you grow comfortable with. Some professionals will outline their process in the order they proceeded, commenting on each source as they go; others prefer to make a straight calendar or list of the sources, along with an accompanying separate commentary on their research process. Examples of reports are available in some of the items in the Reference section. Whichever way suits you best, the sources in the body of the report must be clearly identified and keyed to any enclosures of photocopies.

  • Your research plan?
    You developed a research plan for the request or problem with a list of sources and places to find them. It is not necessary to include your plan as such, but in the assembling of your report you may wish to include some analysis of the initial information on which you based that plan. If the client was not able to clarify some of the information he provided, your plan might have required re-checking some sources.
  • List or calendar of each source item, with full citation.
    The client should be able to turn from the report to the enclosures and easily find each reference. The list includes everything you searched and viewed, whether relevant information was found or not. We must know which sources were consulted, to avoid unnecessary future duplication of effort, even if they produced no results (negative searches). The institution which created or holds the record(s) is important. Where you actually viewed it is not crucial if it was in microform. If an Internet database or website is consulted, the date you did so becomes important.
  • Explanations, descriptions or interpretation.
    Even if you are including photocopies of the documents you found, it is wise to include either an abstract or a transcription of them. Photocopies enclosed with your report may become separated from the report at some point in time. The value of your report might be misunderstood unless the gist of each document is in your text. Some documents may have illegible portions or reproduce poorly; your client needs your deciphering abilities as well as your comments on its overall meaning.

Any qualifying information about a particular source needs to be addressed—a client may seldom know the peculiarities or details of your local sources. A published cemetery transcript may be incomplete and is not the same as a burial register, or some series of marriage books fail to include entries from all religious denominations.

Discussion of the sources should include the time frame of your searches. If you cite the index to Ontario marriage registrations which currently runs from 1869 to 1923, you must indicate that your search was only from 1875 to 1885.

All of these kinds of comments need to be set off from the actual research findings to which they apply, if they are inserted on the list of sources. It must be clear that they are your comments or explanations, and not part of the source you are citing. Square brackets are one way to emphasize this, with a different size or italic font. Some researchers prefer to discuss such items in their summary, keyed to the list of sources.

  • Enclosures and photocopies must be labelled to key to the report.
    Photocopies and printouts of sources must not only be properly identified, the client should be able to see and understand which copy relates to any given source you are discussing. Full citations are necessary, of course, but some researchers like to add designations like “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit B” and so forth, especially if there are many copies of original documents. We strongly recommend that you never put your citation on the back of a document or photocopy. Unless the citation is on the face of the copy, no-one will know the source when it inevitably gets separated from your report. Subsequent photocopying rarely takes the back of a page into account. See more under Technical and Other Hints.
  • Summary of findings.
    This part is one of the most important components. It is where you demonstrate your abilities and experience. Your text includes evaluation of the sources and analysis of the results, whether you do it with each individual source or as a separate summary.

Was the research objective met, or the problem resolved? While you actually reach your own conclusions about it after your research process and analysis is finished, some professionals prefer to place this section at the beginning of the body of the report.


  • Recommendations.
    Your commission from this client might end successfully with this report. Otherwise you may have suggestions to offer for further research which could not be accomplished within the allotted time. Sometimes the research process itself has uncovered information that points to unforeseen new directions and sources. In some cases, you might want to recommend another researcher in a distant place with local knowledge. If so, is the situation a peripheral or principal concern of the client’s ultimate goal? Is the next phase beyond your area of expertise? Do you want to suggest a sub-contractor where you handle the results, or would the client prefer to deal directly with a new researcher?
  • Cover letter/invoice.
    A cover letter and/or invoice usually accompanies a formal report. Few researchers ever receive carte blanche to spend indefinite amounts of time or money. Whether you work by the hour, on a fee basis for certain services, or on partial or full retainer, your letter or invoice should be a separate page apart from the report—for financial confidentiality between you and the client.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.