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Why it is so important to document and organize family history research as you go, a brief explanation of the tools needed, and how to do it.
One of the most fundamental and important principles of family history research is to organize and document AS YOU GO!1 Good documentation includes:
- Research logs—Fill in the purpose of each search, and source data on logs before looking at the source. After success, list where you file the copy. Log strategies.2
- Family group records—Keep up-to-date with source footnotes for every event. Add all events like census, military service, and migrations to the family group record.
- Photocopies of most sources—If the repository will allow it, ALWAYS make a photocopy.
- Well-organized files—Stay organized by completing paperwork and filing before starting another search.
Value of documenting AS YOU GO!
Organizing and documenting AS YOU GO is smart because it keeps the best information at your fingertips. It saves time. Good documentation lays the groundwork for easier correlation and evaluation of sources.
If you put off documentation until later, you may never do it. This results in information clog-ups. Failure to document starts a chain of confusion, redundant searches, missing or overlooked evidence, and uninformed linkage decisions.
Value of AS YOU GO Logs. Good research logs serve as a guide to all the sources on a family researched successfully or unsuccessfully. They help avoid repeated searches of the same unproductive sources. Good logs help you pick up research after a pause. They assist in evaluation by starting your thinking about a source as you describe it on the log.
Value of AS YOU GO Family Groups. Well-documented and up-to-date family group records are the best source of ideas about where to search next. They show all the clues and background information needed to guess name variations, guess dates and places of events, and guess the most likely sources to document those events.
What it means to document AS YOU GO
Before you lay your head on the pillow, do nine things after a successful search:
1. Photocopy the new source document.3
2. Identify the source (type a footnote citation) on the front margin of the photocopy.
3. Write your own document filing number on the back of each photocopy.
4. Log the document number, and summarize events-people you found on all appropriate research logs.4
5. Transfer every piece of new data from the source to the appropriate family groups.
6. Enter new source footnotes for every piece of data on the source, even if that event already has a footnote on the family group.
7. Add a preliminary assessment of the data’s reliability in the footnote comment field.5
8. Print the updated family group.
9. File the updated family group, and source photocopy.
Document AS YOU GO means you never start another search until you have finished the paperwork, and finished filing the previous search results.
There are two advantages to listing the source on your research log BEFORE you see the source (documenting as you go). First, it helps overcome the temptation to skip writing down sources after an unsuccessful search. It is important to know the sources without your ancestors in order to avoid repeatedly going back to such sources. But it also helps to keep track of unsuccessful searches (negative evidence) as a way of warning this is not working—time to change tactics.
The second reason for filling out research logs before looking at the source is because repository catalogs often describe the source better than the source itself. Also, if you use the same description of the source as the repository, other researchers will be able to repeat your search more easily.
Documenting as you go also means you explain the purpose of each search BEFORE the search. Write the name of the person you seek, and the event in that person’s life that you want to document. Then it will make sense to return to that source only for other family members.
After an unsuccessful search write nil or Ø to show you did the search but did not find anything useful. Negative evidence needs to be considered from time to time. Seeing too many nils is a warning it is time to do something different. Documenting as you go after a successful search means you describe on your research log the people and events you found in the source, and list the place where you have filed the photocopy. This turns your log into a table of contents of your sources.
Research logs are also the best place to document your thinking and research strategies. Write lots of comments to yourself about your search strategies, suggestions, questions, and discrepancies you have noticed.
Family Group Records
Compile a good family group record right at the start. Cite ALL the known sources for that family in footnotes tied to the events they document. Have at least one source footnote for every event mentioned on the family group record. Many sources include information about several events—link a footnote to every event mentioned in such sources. Use the footnote comments field to write a brief preliminary evaluation of the source.
Add more than just birth, marriage, and death events on the family group record. Add ALL the events including each census for each family member throughout their lives. Also include joining or leaving churches, confirmations, acquiring or sale of land, migrations, citizenship changes, jury duty, law suits, will probated, paid taxes, obituaries, mentioned in newspaper articles, new job, draft registration, military service, serving as a witness, bondsman, or godparent, working on the county road crew, jail, and warnings out. For all such events enter the date, place, cite your source, and give a brief preliminary evaluation of that source on the family group record.
Documenting as you go means adding new events and source footnotes as you research. Print the up-dated family group record frequently.
For some family situations it may also be good to summarize your findings and conclusions. Explain your reasoning and make a case for what you believe happened. For example, make a proof summary statement linking an immigrant ancestor’s records in the old and new worlds.
Photocopies of Sources
Photocopies are better than handwritten copies because photocopies show ALL the clues, including things you would ignore if you copied by hand.
Cite the footnote information in the margin on the front of the copy. This starts your thinking about and evaluation of the source.
On the back of the copy write the name of the file and file number where you will store this copy. (Also write the same file information on your research log.) Then file the copy.
Get started well organized and stay that way. Start research on a family by preparing a new research log for the family and a well-footnoted family group record.
Start each individual search by filling in part of your research log BEFORE the search. Give the date of the search, repository, purpose of the search (person and event you seek), and the source you will search.
If the source does not have useful information put nil on the research log. If the source has family information, immediately do the nine things listed previously.
Keep everything up-to-date. Don’t start more research before doing all the paperwork and filing from the previous search—before you lay your head on the pillow. Print updated copies of the family group frequently.
One file for each family (parents and children) is recommended. Log and file documents prior to marriage with the father, and after marriage with the husband. Keep the contents of each family’s file in good order. Keep the files themselves in alphabetical order by the name of the head of the family.
Footnote Style Guides
Universityof ChicagoPress. The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Silicon Valley PAF Users Group. Family History Documentation Guidelines, 2nd ed. San Jose, Calif.: SVPUG, 2000-2003.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2007.
ProGenealogists. “Internet Citation Guide for Genealogists,” in ProGenealogists Internet site, 1998-2007, at , accessed 17 November 2007.
1. Silicon Valley PAF Users Group, “Rules for Good Documentation,” in Family History Documentation Guidelines, 2nd ed. (San Jose, Calif.: SVPUG, 2000-2003), 7.
2. G. David Dilts, “Research Logs: The Most Important Tool for Organizing Your Family History,” Genealogical Journal 30, no. 1 & 2 (2002): 3-13.
3. G. David Dilts, "Organizing the Evidence Using Research Logs and PAF Source Notes," (outline for class taught at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, 19 June 2006), 1.
4. Elizabeth Shown Mills, concept taught by during Course 4 Advanced Methodology & Evidence, Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., 12-17 June 2005.
5. Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Genealogical Mindset & Principles of Scholarship" (lecture in Course 4 Advanced Methodology & Evidence, Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., 13 June 2005), 4M2.