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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Can a Genealogy Checklist Help You?

Do you like the idea of a genealogy checklist? A handy little list you just follow and mark items off so you know where you are?

Can a Genealogy Checklist Help (or hurt) You?

I like that idea, too. It sounds much less intimidating than a research plan or doing analysis.

I still often yearn for a nice little checklist to walk me through my research.

But there's a problem. Using genealogy checklists are fraught with perils!

Yes, perils!!!

Don't get me wrong, you can use them, and use them successfully. But I want to warn you of the perils (because I know how much you want a simple checklist to hold your hand through the research process, because I want it, too).

Here's the gist of this post, all wrapped up for you right here at the beginning.

A genealogy checklist is a great organizational tool.

A genealogy checklist is not to be used instead of your brain!

Get a source checklist in our free Resource Library.

Genealogy Research Checklist vs. Genealogy To-Do List

Recently I wrote about a genealogy to-do list as the solution for Occasional Genealogists (checkout the Planner+Dashboard if you want a supercharged to-do list). The reason a checklist is helpful is for many of the same reasons (especially when you're short on time) but I'm talking about two different things when I talk about a genealogy checklist and a genealogy to-do list.

You could call both a checklist but usually genealogy checklists are source checklists (but good luck trying to find information about a "source checklist" online without using the word genealogy—I've just made it shorter by saying "genealogy checklist" instead of "genealogy source checklist").
Now that that is out of the way, let's talk about the...

PERILS of the Genealogy Checklist (insert scary music)

How NOT to Use Genealogy Checklists

The best reason NOT to use a genealogy checklist is how unique EVERY. SINGLE. PROJECT. is.

However, that's also why a checklist is so appealing. There's a point in everyone's genealogy journey where you really want something like a checklist.

You just want some surety that you've checked the sources "you know you should," but you're afraid you've overlooked something big. Sometimes you just have this feeling there's more to check but you can't put a name to it.

This is actually why we create research plans (short actionable plans, not huge-cover-every-scenario plans) and also why we track all research (such as keeping a research log). The research plan tells us what to do next and the research log tells us what we've done, regardless if it produced helpful results.

The reason I suggested a genealogy to-do list for the situation of being an Occasional Genealogist is it's really hard to keep track of your progress with a traditional research plan (the issue is how short your sessions might be and most importantly, the problem of getting interrupted. Your log shouldn't be a problem no matter how short your time frame or how infrequently you research.

A checklist may be part of this process.

I recommend this bite-size approach for Occasional Genealogists because it helps you keep track of what you actually did without requiring a lot of time once you finish (and should allow you to record your progress if you're interrupted by anything but a life-threatening emergency, you just need time to check a box or write a short sentence---if you kept track of your progress as you worked).

But checklists are appealing to many genealogists. Here's what to consider to make sure you aren't in perilous danger when using one.

Thinking Through the Research Process

You need to THINK whenever you are researching about the best sources that could give you an answer TO YOUR SPECIFIC RESEARCH QUESTION.

If you are using a checklist to help you generate ideas, great! It's a tool.

If you are happily checking off boxes and not thinking any further, bad. That's a crutch.

The Genealogy Skill a Checklist Circumvents

Genealogy requires analysis. There's no getting around it. We have to analyze our problem from the start. We don't just analyze complex findings (and only complex findings).

If you're intimidated by "analysis," don't be. You're probably already doing it. Your skills at analyzing should progress as your research does. It's really hard to improve your analytical skills by education alone, you need to practice (that means doing real research, you know, the reason you started genealogy).

So the big problem with using a checklist is skipping any analysis, usually planning stage analysis, and blindly following your checklist.

That can hamper your research progress and it will hamper the development of your analytical/planning skills.

Before I talk about good features in a checklist, I want to build a story in your mind to help you remember how to use a checklist appropriately. I'm not giving you a catchy phrase to remember, instead, I hope you'll have a concept that instantly reminds you of what you want to aim for, even if you can't remember fancy terms or special features.

Remember, you want a tool, not a crutch.

A crutch helps you when you aren't able. You don't want a crutch, you just don't have another choice.

A tool, on the other hand, helps you. You bring skills to the tool. A tool can hinder you if it's not good enough, but you can also hinder the tool.

When I bought my camera especially for photographing documents at the National Archives, I was upgrading the tool I used. I actually bought it because it connected to my laptop and had a pop-up screen so there was no reason I ever needed to be bending over the camera for a prolonged period to get images.

But to get the features I wanted, I also had to buy a better camera. It wasn't a DSLR but it had all those settings.

I brought some skills to the camera. It was worth getting a better tool. But then the camera expanded my understanding. The tool helped me, and not in ways I had intended.

I'd play with some of the settings to get a better shot, especially as the sun would change in the room. Then I started to get curious and I started playing with the same settings on my point and shoot when we'd be on trips. This was before children, the subjects of my photos were stationary so there was time to play with camera settings.

My everyday pictures got better. So for my first Mother's Day, I asked for a DSLR. Yeah, I didn't really bring any skills to that tool. I didn't have enough time to learn how to use it. I'd learn and then set it down for so long I'd forget---does that sound like your genealogy?

Finally, a few months ago, the information started to stick. I took one more online course, a short one, and I got a system down so I could get a decent shot. And I learned about a new lens, a way to upgrade my tool.

Someone should have told me about that lens five years ago when the camera was new, I might have used it enough to have taken great shots all along!

A source checklist works exactly the same way. You can have a point-and-shoot version. Anyone can use it but you aren't going to get professional results. You can have a hybrid, better than the basic checklist but still not the best. That's OK if you're still learning.

Then you start to get to something high-end. This is probably a checklist you've customized from your experience. You can upgrade it as you learn more (maybe it stops being a checklist and is a research plan template).

Through all of this, the checklist is not allowing you to do research. You bring your skills and you develop them as you use the checklist. You upgrade as you learn more.

I also want to point out that if you are rushing your genealogy, just as my children rushed my photography, you will miss opportunities to learn and improve. There are situations when you don't have full control over your genealogy time but imagine my analogy of photography with and without children. Don't treat your research like a photo session with wiggly kids if you can actually take your time. (Here's a hint: you can usually take your time if you have a specific goal, track your work, and have reasonable expectations.)

But back to our genealogy source checklist as a tool you can upgrade...

You might graduate to something different than a source checklist (the camera analogy doesn't really work at this point but if you start with a hammer and nails, you might graduate to that fancy screwdriver pros use to build a deck, it's not a hammer, it works much better and your deck stays together over time—just as your research should).

So what I want you to remember is you need a tool, not a crutch. You are an important part of the equation. You need to bring skills and know-how to use the tool (checklist) or it isn't really going to help, although you might think it does. Your skills should progress and your checklist should adapt or even turn into something different.

You are an important part of the equation. You need to bring skills and know how to use the checklist.

A Good Genealogy Source Checklist

So what does a good checklist look like?

First, you want to start with a checklist that is appropriate for your situation. A checklist aimed at U.S. researchers may be useless to someone not doing U.S. research. It depends if you have the skill to adapt the list or not. A colonial American source checklist is very different from a 20th-century source checklist.

If you are not a beginner, it gets very hard to find a pre-made checklist for subjects you are very familiar with. At some point, you HAVE to customize the checklist. You might find an amazing and comprehensive checklist but unless you are an absolute beginner, don't rely on it.

Remember, EVERY project is unique and different. No one can hand you a perfect checklist. You might get a checklist that covers what you have access to right now or covers the sources you have the skills to use right now. You will have to customize a checklist that will list every possible source for your specific project.

Also, most items on a (good) checklist probably don't exist for your project. You need to make sure you've considered them, though!

This is a big reason you have to think and have skills. You don't want to waste hours, weeks, months, or years looking for a record that doesn't exist, only because it was on your checklist. Sometimes we need to spend years looking for a source that it turns out doesn't exist. Most items on a checklist don't fall into that category.

As an example. All of my family is from Georgia. Almost every checklist will tell you to look for birth and death records. I haven't been working on generations that should have birth records in almost two decades (they start in 1918 for Georgia).

Most of the people I work on shouldn't have death records (that's still a source I have to double-check as you can't be sure where someone died unless you know where they died! It doesn't take long to double-check for most people, though). That is not how it works for most of my clients' projects.

If I went hunting for a death record for most people in my personal research, it would be a waste of time. I could determine that is not a source that should exist in most of MY cases. If I skipped that source for clients, well, they should fire me.

Basically, a good checklist is customized. Several years ago I created a checklist that included separate checkboxes for whether a source should exist versus whether you had checked it. This needed to be used appropriately within the research process, not as a shortcut, but what good is a checklist if you aren't sure how your progress is going?

Customizing a source checklist is a good way to help you work in small amounts of time. Remember, you have to think (do analysis) throughout the research process. Don't use a checklist as a crutch, bring your own skills to it and continue to develop those skills.

A checklist can be a valuable tool in your genealogy toolbox. You may customize it to fit your needs or you may adapt it into a research plan you can quickly use in the time you have available for genealogy.

Now that you know what to do and what not to do, using a checklist shouldn't be fraught with peril!

Sign up for our free Resource Library to get a free checklist and more.
Can a Genealogy Checklist Help You? | The Occasional Genealogist