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Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG, “Planning Effective Research,” OnBoard 21 (September 2015): 17–18, 23.
Genealogical researchers approach their work in one of several ways. “Sunday drivers” take to the road without any specific route in mind, enjoying the ride, sightseeing along the way, and ignoring schedules and details. Others have an idea of a destination or goal, but rely heavily on a navigation system. They key in the data, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. Still others plan ahead, carefully considering possible routes, accounting for potential difficulties, and addressing specific needs.
Genealogists who work to standards fall into this last category. They are route planners. They understand the value of preparation. They wisely map out schemes to address research questions. Planning ahead improves efficiency—an important consideration for those who conduct client work, as well as for those who focus on their own families. Genealogy Standards 9–18 address research planning.1 Applicants for BCG certification demonstrate their ability to meet standards for planning research as part of requirements 3E and 4E (document work), and the underlying plans for the remaining portfolio elements are evaluated for some of those standards.2
Many struggle with the idea of planning ahead. In some cases, the problem is lack of a specific objective. Without a clearly defined goal, there can be no plan. Thomas W. Jones addressed this topic in his 2011 OnBoard article entitled, “Focused Versus Diffuse Research,”3 and in chapter two of Mastering Genealogical Proof.4 Standard 10 discusses qualities of effective research questions. Useful research questions precisely identify the subject—whether a person, group of people, or event—as well as the information that is sought. Genealogical research investigations aim to resolve problems of “identity, relationship, events, and situations.” Answers to the questions must be assessable by the Genealogical Proof Standard.5
Non-existent or poorly designed plans can also result from inexperience. Planning effective, efficient research requires particular skills and background knowledge. Research planners must be able to
- formulate effective research questions,
- analyze and correlate data,
- design and implement strategies,
- identify and prioritize sources likely to offer relevant evidence,
- recognize the impact of newly discovered information on an existing plan, and
- determine when a plan should be modified or terminated.
There are few available published examples of research plans. Genealogical publications commonly focus on completed research rather than the steps taken to reach the goal. Plans vary from problem to problem in terms of sources and strategies, and most plans change as new information is uncovered. For one published example, see the work plan section of Elizabeth Shown Mills’s “Samuel Witter, 17th U.S. Infantry, War of 1812, Enlistment Record: An Analysis,” available on her website, Historic Pathways.6
First Things First
Unless already familiar with the geographic area and time period in which a research question falls, genealogists must spend time developing knowledge of the locale and the era. This includes learning about the history, culture, and legal system, as well as sources available for genealogical research. Those who omit this step and jump into easily accessible material not only may miss important sources but may misinterpret information they do find.
How can genealogists build the required knowledge?
- Seek out genealogical guide books and websites informing about potential sources.
- Attend lectures, classes, institutes, and webinars.
- Study sources cited in genealogical journal articles.
- Read local histories, paying attention to subjects such as settlement, boundary changes, and available records.
- Search catalogs of major genealogical libraries and use resources such as ArchiveGrid7 and the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)8 to identify manuscript holdings.
- Consult with reference librarians, historians, and other researchers.
Knowing about sources, local history, society, and culture is not enough to succeed in planning. Because research involves more than just identifying and examining sources, it is also important for genealogists to develop analytical skills and to study methods and strategies. Opportunities for growth in these areas include many of the same suggestions listed above—for example, attendance at conferences and institutes with a focus on developing critical thinking skills, and reading journal articles that demonstrate problem-solving techniques.
Once armed with the necessary background knowledge and skills, genealogists can effectively address specific research problems. They begin by conducting a critical review of all starting-point information and the reliability of the supporting sources; they address and resolve weaknesses, such as undocumented assertions and flawed reasoning. Only when the basis is sound will they devise strategies to move forward and begin to develop plans.
Genealogists start out by identifying sources that should or may provide evidence to answer the question based on the designated strategy. They sort the sources by order of planned examination, with sources likely to yield useful information given priority. Comparatively simple searches usually appear higher in a plan than more complicated and time-consuming tasks. Derivative sources and authored narratives (for example, published genealogies, journal articles, online trees, abstracts, and indexes) may be especially valuable during the early steps, but it is important to attempt to follow derivative and authored works back to original sources.
Research plans clearly and unambiguously identify sources, but complete citations are not necessarily required during planning, as they will be added during the data-collection phase. For each listed source, genealogists may identify the subject or search parameters, explain the reason for the search, make notes about expected or possible findings, and comment on access.
Plans usually are altered as work progresses, so lengthy source lists and excessive detail are not advised. Standard 16 states that “research plans may initially comprise only one or a few resources.”9 Those submitted as part of the document work in a certification application portfolio—required to be less than a page long and to include “the first steps for continuing research to resolve the problem”10—should comprise more than just one resource. An effective plan demonstrates awareness of strategies and relevant sources, specifically identifies those sources, and establishes a logical sequence for source examination. Ineffective plans, on the other hand, lack specificity, are poorly prioritized, and result in haphazard searches.
Modifying or Terminating a Plan
As plans are executed, genealogists analyze new findings and correlate them with available evidence. They must be able to recognize when new information affects the plan. For example, researchers may
- uncover clues that call for expanding the search to previously unconsidered sources, people, or locales;
- discover evidence that answers the question, requiring the plan be revised to test that answer’s accuracy; and
- encounter information that contradicts an earlier conclusion, prompting redesign of the plan.
Research plans are modified depending on the results of each step and the impact those results have on the existing body of evidence. Sources may be added or deleted. Plans may also be abandoned altogether. This can occur when no obvious strategy or resource is left for exploration, when client-imposed limits on time or expense have been reached, or when the genealogist feels as if the question has been adequately answered. For a discussion of the cyclical nature of research, see Val D. Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.11
Plan for Success
Leisurely exploration of sources, repositories, and websites can be useful to genealogists. Those “Sunday drives” can lead to discoveries or to better understanding of resources. But when genealogists are faced with specific research questions, genealogy standards require a more efficient and organized approach. Developing a strategy and designing a research plan are essential components of a successful, effective search.
Cited websites were viewed on 19 August 2015.
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Ancestry, 2014), 11–15.
- The BCG Application Guide (Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2015), 5; PDF, Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/brochures/BCGAppGuide2015.pdf). “Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification,” 1 January 2015; PDF, Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/brochures/BCGAppGuide2015.pdf).
- Thomas W. Jones, “Focused Versus Diffuse Research,” OnBoard 17 (September 2011): 17–18. This article is available on the Skillbuilding page of BCG website (
Skillbuilding: Focused Versus Diffuse Research).
- Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 7–8.
- Genealogy Standards, 1–3, 11–12.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Samuel Witter, 17th U.S. Infantry, War of 1812, Enlistment Record: An Analysis,” report to Witter Research Group, 15 December 2011, pp. 7–8; archived at Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways (http://www.HistoricPathways.com).
- ArchiveGrid (https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid).
- NUCMC, Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc). See the website for details of this collection, some of which is not searchable at this site.
- Genealogy Standards, 14.
- The BCG Application Guide, 5.
- Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000), 4–7.
Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG
This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.