16 February 2017

Recipe for Elephant ala Genealogy


a bite-sized approach to research planning
Today I'm going to give you a recipe for Elephant ala Genealogy. If you don't get it, it's that old joke about "how do you eat an elephant?" The answer is "one bite at a time." It's the same way you plan genealogy research.

This is a bit-sized approach to doing genealogy planning, followed by research, and then the extremely important "reporting" step. This is not a recipe a professional genealogist would use for a client (it's for Occasional Genealogists) so I've adjusted the reporting step to make it easier to get started.

I've laid out this recipe for 15-minute sessions because it's likely you can squeeze that amount of time in somewhere. Research planning of this type is easier if you do it frequently.

You can also do this once a week for a longer time, just try and avoid redoing work each week because you don't remember where you left off. Figure out what you need to do so you know what to do next. That is a super valuable skill to learn so make it part of your process.

Why a Recipe?


This is a "recipe" because it is very specific. I've imagined it for a lunch break where you're not at home. Obviously, it'll be simpler if you are doing this at home. You need to have a set-up if you want to accomplish something in just 15 minutes, though.

Create Your Own Set-up


Your set-up is the way you access your notes and create new ones. For paper, this is where you keep everything (if you're not at home), whether a file folder, or binder, etc. If you're going digital, your set-up needs to be equally organized. Be able to quickly access what you need.

I described an idea I'm working on for my personal research that is a "set-up" I'll use at home. You can read that post here to see what I included.

Also, you do need to be able to do research. In 15 minutes, that will have to be online and is probably a look-up. If what you need to do is more involved, you will need to adjust so you don't miss out on any clues or repeat work because of the short sessions.

If you can fit in a research trip (of any type---local or major travel) but just need to prepare a plan to justify it, it's simple to use this recipe until the research stage, make your trip, and then come back to complete the rest of the recipe.

Doing your planning and reporting frequently, in little bits of time, and your research in a chunk is a great idea. Just don't put off the reporting!!!!

The Recipe

If you will record your results on paper, you'll need to do the prep-day work, first. If you'll be fully digital, start with day one. I'm assuming you have access to the files you'll need if you know you'll work digitally, otherwise, prep before day one.

Prep-day (at home for paper prep)

Print any forms you need or have your papers ready. This includes forms for your...

  • plan, 
  • log, 
  • and notes. 
You can handle the "report" later or turn your plan into a report (this is recommended so you don't have as much to rewrite, you're obviously short on time if you're using 15-minutes sessions).

If you are only using paper because you have to (for example, because you are on your lunch break at work), bring your goal home after day one and put it on your digital forms and then print them to save yourself the writing. You'll be doing "print on demand" with this latter scenario.

Day one: 


  • Define your goal. 

This needs to be very specific, a "research question" not a broad goal.

  • Write it down somewhere you can access it every time you do research. 
Electronically, it can be anywhere so you can cut and paste it into different places, On paper, write it on your plan. You'll need your goal on your notes and log (cut and paste for digital, use a clear, concise summary if using paper).

Day two: 


  • Begin your plan. 

You should be able to get it half finished if you have multiple items you can get in 15-minute sessions. If you think it will take a lot longer, simplify. Your goal may be too broad.

A good way to try and break it down to work with your schedule is aim for a plan you should be able to do in five 15-minute sessions (or three or four if that's the number of sessions in a week for you, two is too few).

An actionable research plan is very short. You may have a broader research plan with a handful of research questions. It's the plan for each research question that is actionable.

Day three: 


  • Finish your plan. 
  • If you have time, begin prepping your log and notes. 

That means copying the first source you want to look at to your log and onto your notes. This is where you'll save time on the day you do the lookup, without cheating the research process.

Day four: 


  • Prep your log and note forms. 

Only include sources you will definitely look at. You might not look at some things based on your previous findings, don't waste time prepping for those.

  • Get any citation parts you can, without doing the actual lookup.


Day five: 


  • Do your first lookup. 
  • Record the citation parts, 
  • take notes, 
  • summarize your findings in your log and 
  • enter any cross-reference information so you can find copies of the item and/or your notes.


Repeat day five for each record.

First day after you're done: 


  • Review all your notes and make summary notes. 

This is the start of your report so write on your report form if using paper.

Add'l days

Each successive day, review multiple notes (and even documents) related to this goal and write your thoughts. If you already know how to report, that's what you're doing. If you don't, just go over everything for this goal and record your thoughts, compare information from different documents, etc. Don't forget to note any ideas about new sources to check (this will become your next plan).

Working on the reporting step will make the biggest difference in your research success. Don't get hung up on writing a "report." If you're working in 15 minutes (or even an hour), just focus on reviewing the documents you found for this goal. You can review previous plans if you wish but don't do more research, make notes about the additional research to do.

Once you complete the report/review days, you should essentially have your next plan. You may need to compile it onto one form for easy access (or you may have the makings of several plans for related research questions).

If you only have one obvious research question to answer, next, you're probably ready to start back at day three. Regardless, prepare your next actionable plan. If you can't do the research in 15-minute sessions (either because it's too long or isn't online), prepare a plan for what you need to do.


If you have more than 15 minutes, you can obviously do more in a day but the order is essentially the same.

You can adjust by coming back to your plan after finding (or not finding) a few key documents. Don't add to it constantly, though. You need to do the reporting step (and it is sooooooo hard to come back to it, better to write many short reports than one long one).

Describing the process using paper makes me scream in my head "no wonder only retirees did genealogy before computers!" Oh my goodness! All the rewriting you have to do. Reduce the amount of recopying by hand as much as possible. Be careful not to cheat, though. I know this can be hard.

Finally, make sure you keep everything you create organized. This schedule will create an actionable plan that you perform, a report/review of what you did, and your next plan (which you may not be able to use immediately). You'll need to be able to find your research log, notes, report/review, and unused (or incomplete) plans in the future. You may or may not need to keep your used plan.

So that's the recipe for Elephant ala Genealogy (a genealogy project). Not all research can be done in short sessions. Doing all the prep work you can as well as the research that is possible will make the most of your longer research sessions. You'll also find you're more motivated to do research when everything is ready to do. For me, that means I will try harder to find make the time for that research.

This recipe really flew through the research process. What questions do you have or pitfalls do you foresee doing this process in short-sessions? Leave a comment.



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