Research Report Writing (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 ($).

Report Writing

An experienced genealogist is expected to be proficient in the art of writing a proper genealogical research report. Our clients and peers expect professionalism. However, a proper genealogical report is also an important part of the work done by a family historian who wishes his work to be as professional as possible. In either case, your worth as a genealogist is judged by others on the basis of how you report your research findings.

A research report reflects our knowledge of the sources we use, our research and analysis skills, and our ability to communicate them. In most cases, you can be sure that eventually your report will be widely circulated! Your reputation rests on this visible communication.

Preparing a report for your family website or for a family newsletter or reunion deserves the same attention to detail as a paying client would expect. If there are undocumented assertions, gaps in reasoning, or unresolved hypotheses, then your personal expertise as a genealogist may be questioned.

Remember the “multiple Cs” to be discussed as we go along:

  • clarity, coherence
  • comprehensiveness, consistency
  • competence

Familiarity with the Genealogical Proof Standard is recommended for all types of research assignments, especially when contradictory evidence or complex problems arise in the processes.

Why do we need a proper genealogical report?
Written reports are to be permanent accounts of each step of a genealogical investigation.

  • Librarians, reference archivists or volunteers for an organization who answer genealogical inquiries are regarded by the recipient of a letter or report as professional individuals. Usually they respond to a specific question which may not involve extensive research. An answer in letter form is considered a report, albeit a short one- or two-page reply. However, such letter reports should adhere to accepted genealogical standards, especially since they represent not only the individual who responds, but the institution or organization on the letterhead. This applies as well to the increasing frequency of email queries and responses. Service to the public is an important job in promoting confidence and good will with patrons or members.
  • Family historians spend many years developing a family history. We may have no interest in becoming hired genealogists, but still we owe it to living relatives and future generations to report our findings as accurately and professionally as possible. Sometimes this will involve merely a report to our files for our own continuing personal use; sometimes it will involve a report to our extended family (through such media as a family website, a family reunion, a family newsletter, and so on). Making these regular reports means that we, or our descendants, can more easily and conveniently pick up our research thread at a later date. If a family historian intends at some point to hire professional help, then passing to that person a complete and accurate informational report will have the most beneficial effect on furthering the work. The hired professional will base their work solely on the report(s) provided by you, the family historian.
  • For professional researchers who work for others, your written report to a client is the evidence of your abilities. It should clearly indicate your knowledge of the record sources, your analytical skills with information and problem-solving, and how you proceeded toward the stated objective(s). It is presented in a clean, pleasing format. A thorough, proper report should keep you from any possible misunderstandings with a client. Remember that first-time clients generally hire you on trust, and the report you send is the sole basis for how they judge their value received and their confidence in you. It will have a direct effect on whether the client contacts you for repeat business, and of course you will then have a complete summary of past work done for him.
  • Note of caution: Before you reach an agreement to work for this client, s/he should comprehend that noone can guarantee to make positive discoveries, fully solve a problem, or meet a certain objective.

Types Of Reports

There are four basic types of genealogical reports.

  1. A narrative, or family story type of report.
  2. A report formatted by a genealogical program.
  3. A letter format.
  4. A formal report.

Narrative Type Of Report

The narrative type of report is more commonly used to write all or parts of a family history. It tends to be expressed in a story format, chronological and biographical, rather than detailing the research procedures that underscore it. Sometimes narratives include the writer’s or story-teller’s interpretation of events without precise footnoting of all details, to its detriment. We may aspire to this type of report or family history, but hopefully we will not lose sight of the source material and will include the important footnotes or endnotes. On the other hand, a narrative style may be used to write an article for publication, or report to your files, describing a complex-evidence case study, which needs a procedural or problem-solving manner.

Software Program

A software program report, even if it contains footnote capability and a research report component, rarely allows for the necessary detail and analysis of specific individual projects. A computer program mechanically summarizes whatever words or information we have input to its data fields. Its parameters may not include the customization that sets you apart. A word processing program is more satisfying in that your own evaluation and analysis are built into it as you assemble your working notes, and even more convenient if you work at resource centers on a laptop. You can easily select and transfer the most pertinent explanations or descriptions. A software program can provide excellent supplements to your report, such as charts. But the product of that program alone is not an acceptable genealogical report to your client.

Letter Report

The letter report may be used to answer a simple genealogical query, possibly by a genealogical society volunteer, a librarian, or an archivist, to answer a client who asked for one or two very specific documents, such as the marriage and death registrations for one individual. Professional genealogists who specialize in rapid-turnaround, brief requests for searches in specific record groups will also find this format useful. Although it takes less time than the type of report needed for a more extensive research project, it still must follow the basic standards. This report is only advisable if the necessary information can be handled in one or two pages. It should include the following elements:

  • An introductory paragraph repeating the request, and/or naming the specific resource or record that was required. This will ensure that anyone reading the report will understand exactly what information was requested.
  • A brief report of the search undertaken, details of the (new) information found, naming the document copies or enclosures. Complete source citations must be included. These citations should provide enough information that anyone could go to the relevant repository and quickly locate the document in question. If there are gaps in the record, or possibly missing information, then this should be explained. Do not assume that everyone understands, for instance, that a published cemetery transcription may not list all individuals buried in that cemetery.
  • If you have the time and knowledge, especially if the search results were negative, you may wish to mention alternative sources.
  • A closing paragraph, confirming the work done as requested.
  • Note: It is clear to both professionals and institutions that the usage of email communications has increased dramatically. A report sent in this form still needs the proper formal tone. If your email program does not automatically indicate your name and address (as the person or institution responding), you must include a signature line. Some professionals do not take seriously an enquiry that omits the sender’s name.

Formal Report

The formal report is the format generally used for clients. It is first and foremost a business report and should be written in a consciously-developed professional manner. Even if you have a personal or social relationship with the recipient, always remember that your report represents your expertise and reputation. It is almost certain that someone, perhaps many people, will see your work at some future date. A casual tone of familiarity or chattiness has no place here.

For clients, the arrival of your report is the high point of their anticipation. The visual appearance or layout is their first impression (more about this in Technical and Other Hints). The next impression is your ability to express results clearly. The client should have an overall feeling that you did your best within the time restrictions to make a complete and comprehensive search, and that you competently analyzed and expressed it.

Depending on the client’s level of genealogical experience, your report may require explanations of sources and/or resource institutions. The time you spend on educating the client so they may have a clear understanding of the research details of your report is a subjective call that can be difficult at times to pre-estimate. From your communications with them, you may have a sense of their level of awareness of genealogical procedures, and their knowledge, if any, of the resources you are using.


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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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.