This is the story of how I decided to record my genealogical research more deliberately and thoroughly.
Recently, I saw a “Quick Lesson” by Elizabeth Shown Mills on her website, “Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage” called Quick Lesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success. If you have not seen it, I can strongly recommend reading it.
This article made a major impression on me. My experience over the past year in building, using, successfully finishing and moving past my “Research Workbook” for my visit to the Family History Library has convinced me that I like to work with a notebook, and that I would like to combine computer/software documents with a paper notebook. My desire is to carefully prepare pages at home including, sometimes, snippets of text, pictures of documents, lists of microfilms, book citations from a card catalog, etc., which I can then write in while sitting in a repository. But until I read her article, I did not have a clear idea of how I could do that.
What’s with the software?
My problem really lies in the software, of which I use several. Any genealogy software constrains you to facts and sources, and arranges those facts person by person. Facts and sources are great, if you can get them, I suppose. But, what are facts and sources? If my ancestor Paul Darling reported in his 1850 census record that he was 52 years old, and I find a birth record in that town for Paul Darling in 1798, do I now know who his parents are? Of course not. I have evidence that may lead to a conclusion about who his parents were, after I have done a thorough search and analyzed all the evidence.
Beyond all that, I can’t be the only person who has computer folders filled with other stuff that is not a source – the pdf book that didn’t contain specific information, the map that didn’t show me where my ancestors lived, the list I found in a reference book and wanted to save, the military pension file for a cousin which might or might not contain helpful hints, the photos of nearby graves that I took just in case, the list of books I looked at the last time I was in the repository, or the hints I found on Rootsweb which make no sense. How do I manage these, and remember to come back to them at the right time?
While genealogy software is not meant to solve this problem, probably Evidentia2 comes the closest. It helps you pull all possible information out of sources and apply it to multiple people. I like Evidentia for tackling big problems. But I know that the real attraction for me of the research workbook I made in 2014 is that it was of my own construction. It made sense to ME. I got to decide what to include and how to include it. I got to decide what end product I needed, and what it should contain.
When I came back from the Family History Library this winter and carefully went through my workbook and images of documents, I realized that all I really had available to record my findings were the software products that didn’t cover enough, and the computer file folders. I was not happy adding data to traditional software, family-by-family “unsuccessful” search list documents and family-by-family research notes and to-dos. That seemed pretty lame.
That was my state of mind as I approached this “Quick Lesson 20“. Mrs. Mills gives an excellent layout for a working research report. She explains how the document will evolve over the course of the research – what you start with, and what you end with, and what to do next. The process she describes does not seem new to me – very simply: preparation, execution, reporting, and data entry – and yet, as I read the excellent suggestions, I realized that this process makes a perfect way to get research information under control. And she had excellent tips about limiting the scope of research projects to a manageable level, and keeping what I record separate from my own notes and my conclusions about what I found.
In my own research, I am usually working on more than one project at once, not because I think that’s a good idea, but because access to repositories, and time to access them, vary throughout the year. To approximate the style of research that she is recommending, with clear and limited goals, strategies, documentation of findings, citations and attachments, future work plan, and storage of the report, I could use one report for each current project.
I realized that I COULD manage the computer-to-paper-to-computer workflow that I am looking for by building a loose-leaf notebook of these plans, and taking it everywhere. Active plans could be produced electronically and printed for the notebook, and reprinted from time to time as I processed findings. Mrs. Mills recommends typing (and thinking) at the repository, and I will do that whenever possible (not always possible in Rhode Island’s tiny town halls). Research reports will be removed from the binder after completion but saved on the computer, ready for guidance on future work and plans.
And the recommended software? It’s Word. This is a revelation to me. Many times over the years I’ve heard well-known genealogists say that their favorite genealogical software is Word. Well, I thought, I don’t know, that sounds like a lot of typing. But somehow that essay by Mrs. Mills finally made me realize how much better and more helpful the product would be when I could control it. I finally get it – research in Word, write reports in Word, but also keep the data in other genealogical software if that helps you make a chart, visualize problems, share findings, etc. Because of the research “cycle” that Mrs. Mills describes, pieces typed in one report may be useful in the next working report. Copy and paste can help a lot.
Although I can’t share them here, because they are based directly on her work, I have built a template for the research report to help me start recording properly, and I have taught myself to insert custom “quick parts” in Word to easily add information from sources and not forget anything. It starts as a template and gradually gets filled in. Worksheets, so to speak. In a workbook. Just what I wanted.
I suspect once I get used to this, I will discard the paper altogether except in unusual circumstances and rely on the computer to show me my working report.
I already decided on my first project using this method – researching a reference to the death of an uncle at the Battle of Antietam, something that I had no idea of. Civil War research is new to me, so that will help me to slow down and strategize.
I hope this notebook, both the digital and paper versions, can help me make more conscious decisions about how many projects I consider myself to be working on at once, help me limit that number, and help me create projects that are manageable and bring them to some kind of conclusion.
The post I have been referring to is this:
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. “Quick Lesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success.” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage, 15 May 2015. https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-20-research-reports-research-success : 2015.
The post you are reading is located at: https://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2015/06/11/the-research-notebook/