Research Plan Example (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 ($).

Starting Point[edit | edit source]

Planning begins when you consider a research request from someone. You have certain known information to start with, and your goal is to find the unknown. Normally that starting information identifies a particular individual on a family tree by name, with an associated date and/or place name. Notice we use the word information rather than facts. The word “facts” implies truth to the statements or information. When a third party gives you some information to work with, you can’t be sure that the information is totally accurate.

Case Example: Starting Point Information

The oldest known ancestor in one family line is Susan Detweiler, wife of John Detweiler. Susan’s death certificate says her parents are Catharine and Daniel Munro. From her age at death, Susan was born in the mid-1850s. The client says that Susan is indeed the direct ancestor because of sources he has found regarding her children, but thus far only this one document names her parents.

Goals, Objectives[edit | edit source]

Stating a research goal is usually easy enough—it can be a broad reach (“find everything on Susan’s birth family”) or one concise step (“find the marriage record for Susan to John Detweiler”).

Some genealogists distinguish between the words goal and objective. For example, goal may refer to a long-term end result, and objective could be used for each desired intermediate step. For the purpose of our simple example, we will use the terms interchangeably.

Case Example: Objective

Let us make our objective: to learn or confirm the names of Mrs. Susan Detweiler’s parents.

Analysis of Information[edit | edit source]

Before we plunge ahead with research ideas, it’s necessary to examine the given information. This is where the questions begin! How accurate is all the information on Susan’s death document? Parts of it will have more reliable weight as true information than other parts. We take it apart, piece by piece.

We ask ourselves about the identifiers on her death certificate that place her as the direct ancestor, for instance—her married name; her age; the place of her death; if the informant was a recognized family member. Although some jurisdictions at certain times required the date and place of birth for the deceased, that was not the case here. Do these items correspond to information the client has already collected from records about her children? Apparently so.

When we are satisfied about Susan’s identity, we ask who was the informant? This is the person who filled in the names of her parents. Was Susan an old woman when she died, or much younger? That fact has some influence on the accuracy of the informant’s statement about her parents. If it was one of her siblings, the information carries more weight than if a doctor or mortician were reporting it. Even then, we can’t be certain that a third party did not consult with close family members. If it was one of her children, did he or she actually know the grandparents, or are they reporting from oral family tradition? If the informant was a third party, who is to say that he or she was not a family friend of the parents themselves?

Case Example: Analysis of Information

Does Susan’s age, place of death, or other data correspond to information the client has collected? i.e. is this the “right” Susan?
Does the certificate indicate whether Susan was married or widowed when she died? i.e. was her husband John still living when she died?
Was the informant a known relative? How close a relative?
Are there other clues in the document, for instance, her religious affiliation, a clergyman’s name, place of burial, funeral home?

Evaluation of Source(s)[edit | edit source]

First, do you have a photocopy of this death certificate, or the original? Or has the client sent the information as an abstract or a transcript? Whoever abstracted or transcribed from the original document may not have your expertise in deciphering handwriting or in extracting every morsel of information from the document. As one example of many potential mis-interpretations, are you aware of how often the written name Daniel can be mistaken for David? Or that Daniel and Donald often sounded the same in the ears of scribes unaccustomed to Gaelic-speakers? It’s best if you can see the document for yourself!

Sometimes the enquirer will present you with a great deal of background information from a variety of sources, each of which must be examined. If family charts have not been previously compiled, you can make a working draft. Constructing a timeline is another helpful and convenient visual aid.

Try to ensure that you will not be duplicating previous research, if you feel you have been given credible sources. However, it is not uncommon that you might need to obtain both original or derivative documentary sources for verification of information, if you were not given photocopies or printouts.

Working Hypothesis[edit | edit source]

We will base our research plan on the fact that (the married) Susan Detweiler had two parents. We will use the names Catharine and Daniel Munro as a working hypothesis. We may find ultimately that one or both of those parent’s names are not Catharine or Daniel. Our current information about Susan is only after she was a married woman.

Case Example: Working Hypothesis

The known ancestor Susan Detweiler may have had parents called Catharine and Daniel Munro. The parents were alive some time in the mid 1850s when Susan was born. But we don’t know where they were then residing.

Potential Sources to Search[edit | edit source]

Our ideal discovery would be a birth or baptismal record for Susan that names both her parents. Thus far we have an approximate range of birth years in the 1850s, without a place. What do we know about where Susan lived during her adult married life? Was her place of death perhaps her long-time residence, or maybe close to where she was born? Could her parents still have been alive in some as-yet unseen census returns? Most of all, are there other sources that might verify Susan’s parents, apart from her death certificate?

In other words, our preliminary work in this case should first address what is lacking in our knowledge about Susan Detweiler. Uncovering more information about her might meet our objective. We make a research plan that starts with the most likely sources—in this case working back in time from her death. We survey the necessary resources, keeping in mind the allotted time we were given. We may even want to query a colleague who has specialized knowledge or experience in a specific type of record or resource center.

Note: Country or overall jurisdiction naturally plays a part here. If this case took place in England or Scotland, for example, Susan’s birth may have taken place after mandatory civil registration began. We would want to check the birth indexes for a potential Susan Munro. What would we do with the inevitable, multiple entries for the name Susan Munro (Monroe, Munrow, etc) in the 1850s without a place name to distinguish “ours”? If this case was in a North American jurisdiction, there are few places which had civil requirements in place for births-marriages-deaths in the mid-1850s. However, this is jumping the gun a little, since we are working back from known to unknown. In the backward sequence, obtaining Susan’s marriage record is necessary after all possible death-type records have been sought.

Case Example: Research Plan I

  • Newspaper obituary regarding Susan’s death (does it state where she was born or who her parents were)? Location: State or Provincial Library.
  • Cemetery burial (if we find Susan, are there other Munros in the same cemetery?) Location: local genealogy society library or Internet site? Close enough for personal visit?
  • Marriage record for Susan (in the area where she is first seen as a married woman, in the census; are there indexes to these records?) Location: State or provincial registration agency, for several years before the birth of her first known child; possibly even less than nine months before, or a few months later.
  • Marriage and death records for Susan’s children (do they confirm her birth surname as Munro or something else?) Location: State or provincial registration agency.
  • Census returns for Susan and John (any Munros in the vicinity?); before she married, is Susan enumerated in the same place as the marriage location, with her birth family? Location: FamilySearch Center; local repository; library inter-loan, etc.
  • Explore records relating to the death of her husband: certificate; cemetery; probate (for date of death); newspaper (potential marriage/wife information) Locations: as above for Susan; county court house or provincial archives for probate.
  • Indexes to probate files for a Daniel Munro (naming a daughter Susan Detweiler?) Location: county court house or provincial archives.

Notice the variety of locations for the different record types (we are trying to be very generic here). Depending on your personal ability to access them, and whether they have restricted opening hours, you will want to schedule the visits conveniently for yourself. For example, visiting the court house once for several probate file searches is more time-efficient than going back repeatedly.

You may have to contact some institutions or agencies in writing—by email or letter, especially if a fee is involved. These might be tackled first, to reduce the waiting time for a response while you undertake what is locally available. The same applies to whenever it’s necessary to order microfilm through an inter-loan system. Preliminary exploration of finding aids and indexes will help solidify a research plan and its timing.

Your finalized research plan may look something like this:

Case Example: Research Plan II

  • Home Library: Consult for existence and location of newspapers when Susan died; any published indexes to newspaper marriage notices in 1870s? Any other published and indexed material relevant to the time period and general locale?
  • Internet Check: Any indexes or transcriptions for cemeteries where she died? Any online indexes to government civil marriage registrations? Indexes to wills or probates? Is there a pertinent genealogy society with a library catalogue?
  • Marriage: Necessary to make contact in writing? Send a fee in advance?
  • Public Library: Order any necessary microfilms for census and other material not available locally.
  • Local Court House: Find probate, death date for Susan’s husband; check index for Munro names; perhaps they have local historic records (or transcriptions of) 19th century marriages.
  • State/Provincial Library: Search newspapers around known dates of death (potential obituaries).
  • Genealogy Society materials? And so on!

Another Note About the Internet[edit | edit source]

It is clear from the above that the Internet can be considered a useful tool in the organizational aspect of a research plan. Hopefully the home library you are building will also have materials that provide some shortcuts to reaching the records you want. The Internet is most useful when you have access to library catalogues, finding aids to the original holdings of institutions and descriptions of their sources. If a library or archives has a collection of historic marriage records that look relevant to Susan’s area, they won’t help you if they only begin in the 1900s.

Where the Internet becomes a handicap is when you are tempted to use search engines for a certain name, like Susan Detweiler or Susan Munro. The results (“hits”) are often information coming from, or compiled by someone you’ve never met. This holds true for many results on large databases such as or, as well as all the personal web pages out there. It’s sometimes too easy to “Google” for a surname and get swamped with an overwhelming wave of choices to wade through. You can’t take someone else’s word for identity, events and relationships, and it’s not fair to your client to spend time on aimless searching. Just remember that Internet information must be considered only a clue to original sources, not a source in itself.

Reassessment[edit | edit source]

Once we have collected more information about Susan we need to re-assess everything we know. New information has to be correlated with our original knowledge. Did we meet the goal?

Perhaps Susan’s marriage or birth record, if found, gave her parents’ names as Daniel Munro and Catharine Grant. The specific objective has been met. The client may then wish to continue with new objectives for researching the parents.

After your research plan, and after the research period itself when you have consulted sources and collected new information, you enter a new phase where you report—to your files, to your family, or to a client—on the sources you searched, the information you found, and your analysis of it as applied to the objective and initially-provided information.


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.

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