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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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You Don't Need a Research Log!

Did the title of this post get you excited, or mad, or just curious?


I've got you here, now I've got some helpful information.

This post is for you if...

  • you struggle to keep a research log.
  • you don't know what a research log is.
  • you're looking for an excuse to justify your lack of keeping a research log.
  • you are a research log zealot and you're making every genealogist you know miserable.
That might cover 99% of the genealogists out there (I hope not, I hope more than 1% are successful and happy with their research log but it's possible most people "struggle" even if they keep a log).

Now, I'm about to burst some bubbles or calm your fury, so get ready.

You don't just get to NOT keep a research log for your family history research. Tracking all research you do is a VITAL part of the genealogy process.

You don't have to use a "log," though.

A log was a must in the dark ages, when we did crazy things like use paper.

For those of you who don't know what a research log is, let me summarize. (see this post for a longer explanation)

A research log is a record of every source you check. That means every website you search, every online collection you browse, as well as every book you use, relative you talk to, record you order, etc.

Do you understand? Not every source where you find information. Everything you USE. If it provides bupkus (zero, zilch, 0, nothing, notta) you still track it.

Why? I mean, why track everything you do if you're not being paid or don't need to account for what you did to someone else?

There are several good reasons.

First, the easy one.

You don't want to check the same source again looking for the same information only to find nothing, again.

This was really obvious back when we used books and doing the same search in a book would produce the same results.

You might be a little confused if you're thinking of popping a name in the Ancestry.com search bar. You could get different results the same day if new records became available.

It's still relevant and if you take the purpose to heart, that should improve your genealogy, too.

You will need to pop the same name into the Ancestry.com search bar over and over again. So maybe you should try something more efficient, such as checking specific collections.

And that brings me to a more overlooked purpose of a research log.

Reviewing the totality of what you've done helps you consider what to do next.

Now this is where the dark ages of paper and the digital age start to diverge.
When you had nothing but paper, paper, and more paper, a research log was a very important item. It was your index, or hopefully, cross-reference, to everything.

Creating that cross-reference was a lot of work in a paper world. For most of us, the research log was the easiest thing to look at to make sure we got an overview of what we'd done and find relevant documents, notes, and reports.

Computers have changed the necessity of a "log."

Initially, everyone just started creating digital logs. Now that I've heard how some people track their research without a log, I realize we kinda just slapped an analog tool into a digital system without really thinking about it.

I know I did and I know I haven't had any education (as in lectures, courses, or articles) that slapped me over the head and said "duh, you're not using technology to its fullest." It seemed like an electronic index via an electronic log was good enough. 

(2023 note: Tracking without a log is finally starting to be a topic you hear about. I still haven't gotten back to my pre-COVID lecture attendance levels so I don't know how common a topic this is.)

Technology really improved research logs and people talked a lot about that. What wasn't talked about was how technology made an actual "log" obsolete.

That being said, you can still keep a log and it may be the best choice for you. That will be the point of the rest of this post.

Log vs.???

I hope we'll find a succinct phrase to replace "research log" when we list the important facets of the research process. A "log" implies a specific item or format and even a "research tracker" implies a separate thing. With technology, it's possible to essentially use a search to replace a log or tracker.

Not just any search will do, though.

There are a number of digital alternatives you could successfully use to replace a "log" as well as who knows how many digital versions of a log. What's important is you don't cheat the research process.

The topic of tracking research fits perfectly into the Family History Month Collection at this point (and that wasn't by design, it's a happy coincidence).

Last week I posted about the plan to notes to report template. If you use this method and it is completely digital, it is possible it will act as your research log if you use an efficient retrieval method

The reason is, the parts put into the template are essentially identical to a research log entry. IF (and this "if" is important) you can pull up everything that is relevant to a project for quick review. The "if" is your efficient retrieval method. Without it, you've cheated the system.

If you're new to the concept of tracking research and especially if you're new to the idea you need to do more than just enter names, dates, and places in your family tree, check-out our signature online mini-course Noting the Clues.  It includes a template you can use to not just note clues, but also track all your research (assuming you fill out the template for every sources you use). This is by design so you can get on the road to doing great genealogy as quickly and easily as possible!

Research Log Alternatives

In the Family History Month 2019 Collection, I've briefly talked about some digital log alternatives. One is still a log and that's my method of choice, using Exel to keep a log. I like reviewing everything in a table format and I love the ways I can sort and filter with Excel. I do NOT like reviewing a list of files instead of reviewing the table.

Many people don't like a table so a non-log will be great for them, as long as it pulls up what's relevant, even if you don't remember it exists (that was part of the point of a log with all research in it, you didn't need to remember what you had done, you consulted your log).

This means a tool like Evernote works great. FYI, I don't suggest keeping a log in a single note in Evernote. This is where you should be "searching" and your results create the alternative to a log.

The other suggestion mentioned in the Collection is using genealogy software. This only works if you use your software appropriately.

Genealogy Research is Complex

Genealogy is not just a collection of dates and places with sources.

It includes sources you searched and did not find what you were looking for. Genealogy includes context for the dates and places. Genealogy includes ANALYSIS---thinking about how what you’ve found works together (correlation) and what that means (analysis).

Your research log tracks every source you’ve used so you can find what is relevant when you need to bring everything together.

Bringing everything together is when you reach a conclusion. It might be a simple conclusion like the date and place of a marriage (based on the official civil marriage record). It might be really complex, like who a father is when you found multiple different names for the father and multiple men of those names (who the father is, is more than just a name, later this week we’ll look at “identity” in the Collection).

You need to keep track of all of your genealogy research, including not finding what you were looking for. You don’t want to waste time checking again but sometimes, after analysis and correlation, you might realize not finding something actually has meaning. You can’t know that if you don’t keep track of your research.

In the days of paper, a research log was the way to do this.

Today, you can use technology instead of a log format. There are two “areas” you need to make sure you have covered.

What does a genealogy research log do?

First, there’s the cross-reference functions.

  • You need to be able to find relevant material from your past research. Technology is a great way to do this without a log.
  • You need to be able to quickly review what is relevant. Technology can actually make this much faster because you aren’t stuck reading an entire log. You can search or sort to only pull up what is relevant.

Next are the research functions.

  • You need to know when you did the research.
  • You will need to know why you checked that source, especially if you used any limitations.
  • You need to know what source you used. 
    • Part of “what source” is where you used it. 
  • You need to take notes on the condition of the source. 
  • The results of your search.

Complete details for why we record each of these items are included in the Collection. The method/template from Noting the Clues includes all of this because it is designed to be a digital (searchable) document. The research functions of a log are duplicated in your notes. With digital methods, this duplication is no longer needed (if you still use paper, you still need to keep a log and you will need to duplicate some information between your paper log and paper notes).

Technology is better at the cross-reference functions. If you choose to use a non-log format the research functions are often identical to the items you’d record somewhere between the plan and report stages.

Here's an example.

If I kept my log in Evernote, I would simply be keeping the research parts in the plan/notes/report Note for my research session. Evernote could efficiently pull up just what I need without needing a log or cross-reference. 

An option like Evernote allows you to pull up select items to replace your log instead of pulling up everything related to your project. Your log replacement should be your notes/summaries or other tracking information. It should not be copies of documents, support material, or other additional items. 

Those additional items are important to your research but should be summarized for your log or log replacement. If you have to go through a copy of the actual document, you are re-researching. That is very time consuming and likely to result in you missing something, again. Your notes are a quicker reference version of the document plus they contain your ideas (which obviously are not found in the copy of the document). Your summaries/reports are a quicker reference version of your notes.

In a paper world, your reports plus log should give you the quickest overview of what you've done on a project (the reports often didn't cover what you used but didn't find results in but unlike your log, did include your ideas. That's why the combo was so powerful). 

In a digital world, you can get the report+log feature by using the plan to notes to report concept. This method has you complete your notes with a "summary." This is quicker to review than reading your full notes and gives you the opportunity to include important tracking (i.e. log) information for future review.

If it is too time-consuming to review your past work, you won't' do it or you will only partially complete it. Tacking all research is key but so is reviewing what you've done. Make it easy to track your research AND review it.

We recommend the plan to notes to report method. You can get your most in-depth coverage of this method via Essential Skills for the Occasional Genealogist. If you're just starting to take notes and you want an audio explanation (instead of or in addition to the book), check out Noting the Clues.

If I used genealogy software to replace my log, I would need more than just the plan/notes/report. The specifics would depend on which software program I was using (note that not all could do this and any that can, you have to set it up correctly, just as you have to set up a paper filing system correctly).

It is possible to streamline to a technology method for cross-referencing where the primary research document you create is a plan/notes/report document and there is no actual “log.”

Although you may mainly create one document to replace three separate ones (plan, notes, report), you should also be creating documents to aid you in analysis and correlation. What you need is different in every case so I can’t say “you can create the one plan/notes/report plus documents A, B, and C.”

I hope you have some new understanding of why you need to keep a research log and also some ideas about technology alternatives from simply keeping a digital log, to not having a log at all but tracking your research by using technology to pull up a summary of everything you've done.

Technology means we don't need to recopy as many parts of our research as was necessary with paper. However, you still need to achieve the same goals. Not everyone uses technology the same so you may still want to keep a "log" or you might be ready to streamline with a digitally-optimized solution. Don't cheat the research process. You don't need a research "log" but you still need to keep track of all research you do.