Professional Research Planning (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 ($).

Research Planning

In previous courses, and especially the Methodology series, you have been introduced to what a research plan is and how to construct one. As you realize now, research planning is a continually evolving process as each goal or objective is met, giving rise to a new goal. Strategy is another word that applies to research planning and procedures.

Look Ups

“Look ups” are not research. Which you all know by now! Look ups are popular requests and responses on email lists. After all, most people do want to share information. But receiving piecemeal information this way needs very careful examination. Does it really answer a question or fit the context? Is a credible source cited? How will you verify it?

Successful Research

Aimless research leads to random findings. A successful hunt for ancestors requires well-targeted research planning based on thorough, realistic analysis of the question it is designed to answer.
Helen F.M. Leary, “Getting Dorothy Home from Oz,” FGS Conference Syllabus 2004

A client or family member (or you, yourself) may ask for one very specific goal, such as “find the parents of ______” or “when and where was my ancestor born?” Other projects may be much more wide-ranging and inclusive, such as “trace all my ancestors.”

Even with a large and all-encompassing family research project, the process is inevitably broken down into smaller, manageable steps—one generation at a time, one ancestor at a time, one event at a time—until satisfactory proof naturally leads to the next step. Here we will review the elements of one step in detail.

As a good genealogist, you must recognize a goal (or each goal in a longer process) and know the most obvious and effective ways to reach it, starting with a well-organized and realistic plan. We also view the impending work as either an obviously stated goal, or it may be slightly more complex as a hypothesis. For example, the client/relative may say “Who are the parents of my ancestor James Wood?” On the other hand, the potential client may say something like, “Can you prove James Wood’s parents are Lawrence and Mary Wood?” The first is a clear question. The second is an hypothesis which implies some reason for belief by the client that the couple Lawrence and Mary are connected to James.

An hypothesis is also a working supposition you, the researcher, can develop after examining the initial information given to you. If you can develop such an hypothesis, you will be considering where it will lead you, for its verification or possible rejection. An hypothesis involves some conscious mental work with that first information; it can take the form of the simplest explanation of the given facts—in other words, an initial deduction. Either you, or the client before you, may have reached that point. It is normal to develop one or more hypotheses to explain to yourself why you will approach certain record sources to help answer the questions or confirm or defeat an hypothesis.

Do not confuse the concept hypothesis with the word assumption. We often apply these words in genealogical research, but they are not the same in scientific terms. An assumption is a rather unconscious acceptance of some “conventional wisdom” or an unreasoned assertion (something we assume to be true) that may or may not be true. If we know there was a certain ancestral birth, we tend to assume that a husband and wife were involved. The truth is that a man and a woman were involved in the conception, but they may not have been married. If your father has saved an envelope full of old photographs, you might assume that they are all unidentified family relations. The truth is that some, many, or all of them could be old forgotten family friends, or the whole works could have been picked up in a flea market.

Suggested Steps in Research Planning

Once you have been hired and authorized, you study in-depth the information that accompanies the genealogical request, question or problem you have been given, including additional information you may have asked for. You will want to develop your preliminary research proposal into a working research plan. Which sources and strategies will work for a particular problem?

  • Define the goal or objective (there may be more than one). Identify the principal person or persons around whom the project revolves.
  • Analyze the information. Does it suggest an hypothesis to you? Has the client already deduced an hypothesis? If so, do you agree with it? Be sure to distinguish between information and any deductions, hypotheses or conclusions you make about it.
  • Evaluate the sources that provide the information you were given. How reliable are they in terms of who, what, when, where, why, and how? Do you feel you must yourself confirm some of that information from the original sources? Are you unclear about whether certain sources were consulted? If your planning phase raises more questions about the information or the sources, you must clarify with the person who requested your assistance. A professional researcher learns to ensure that the client did not overlook passing on some information he had, or that his interpretation of some information is not off-base.
  • With your own satisfaction about the information given to you, make a list of sources you will investigate to reach the goal(s), answer the question(s), or solve the problem(s). They can be prioritized in order from most likely to least likely.
  • Note: The sources you want may not all be in one repository or institution. This can affect your goal priorities in the sense that you will not want to run constantly back and forth from one physical location to another. In real-life cases, you will want to add where—in which resource centers—you can consult the sources, so you can accomplish your tasks in each location, one at a time, and your research period moves along efficiently without wasting time. This could mean that your priority list of sources and records to be searched will become somewhat “disordered” in timing. It also means that your eventual analysis after the entire research period is more important than ever.
  • When different repositories are involved, you must do your advance homework to ascertain if each place does have the sources you want, and how to access them. If catalogues or finding aids or other institutional tools have been published (in print or on the Internet) then they will greatly assist you before you get there. You may be able to itemize call numbers, catalogue titles, archival fonds numbers or specific collection references, or microfilm roll numbers.

After each research period or major discovery your research plan must be revised accordingly. New information may lead to new and different sources. If the new information changes the objective or focus, then a completely new research plan may be called for. In such a case, the client should be informed even if the authorized research period has not been completed.

Note: Research plans are a little different for a longer-term project in which the client has no specific idea where the ancestors were born, lived or died—just that it was somewhere in your region or country (although this is not our case in the example below since we at least know where the subject died). Such a plan frequently begins with a preliminary survey that looks for the surname(s) to see which place names are associated with them. The survey of handily-accessible, published material (this includes literature in book and journal form, Internet, finding aids, indexes) gives a general idea of where the surname occurs in the region or country. Good genealogists will not ignore surname spelling variations.


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.