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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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Free Genealogy Help: Goals for Genealogy Research Plans

Are you looking for free genealogy help to improve your genealogy skills?

This is one of my "mini-posts" to help you get some quick answers and then find what will really help you.

This post is for people trying to create a research plan and needing to craft a narrow research question for their plan.

Try this mini-post about the difference in research questions and goals if you need to start there.

Research Results, Result from Research Questions

To ask a narrow research question, one that helps you focus your genealogy research plan enough, you need a few elements.

First, I find it easiest to make this a very specific question. I have also seen this described as creating a hypothesis and that really resonated with me even though it was semantics.

Obviously "who is the father of John Smith?" is a question.

To create a hypothesis we'd ask, "is Bob Jones the father of John Smith?" That's something we can test.

Are you going, "whoa! I might answer that with one source that reveals Bob Jones can't be John's father."

Yup, that's the whole idea.

Your genealogical reason for being is working through every reasonable source and discarding everything that is wrong and only keeping what is right (OK, that's a huge generalization as we can have correct and incorrect information on the same document but it's a good general concept).

If you can look at one source and determine it's not reasonable to look at 10 others, you are 10 sources farther along!

It is OK if your research question results in a plan with just one source to check.

That starts to get into actual research planning and we're only covering asking the question here.

My hypothetical question actually wasn't very good. Research questions can be a paragraph and I just wanted you to get the idea (and quickly).

Let's look at the other aspects of a good, narrow question.

Focus Your Question

Your question should be full of constraints. You'll add dates and places for one thing. Yes, I know you know which John Smith and which Bob Jones you are referring to but their life span (b. 1852-d.1905) and places of birth and death or residence technically belong in your research question.

To keep this concept in your head, just imagine you come across a John Smith in the source you're checking and aren't sure it's your guy. Start with what is easy.

Does he fit what you know about your John Smith---that should be right there on your plan in the form of identifying information.

The most basic identifying information is the life span (tells you if he's alive at a certain date and of age to perform whatever action you've found). Places help you place them. A residence at a certain time might be better than birth and death place but it depends on the sources you're using (note: whatever identifying details you don't put in your question can go in your background information).

Also add date and place constraints for the "hypothesis" aspect. Just as identifying dates and places that don't go in your question go in your background information, date and place constraints for your hypothesis might end up in your chosen sources.

You have a bit of choice here. You might know for a general hypothesis that there are three books of records you could check, each for the same kind of records but distinct time frames (like court records often are). You could frame your hypothesis with date and place constraints where you only check one book for that hypothesis or expand the contraints of your question to check all three. Your call.

You might not know this when crafting your question so you'd include what makes sense.

Your hypothesis/question could follow this formula:

  • Did [couple with dates and place defining them] marry in [XYZ] County, [State] between 1850 and 1853?


  • Were [couple] married by [religious officiant] at [church name and place] between 1850 and 1853?

If all the details are included, these are both good but lead your plan in different ways.

With the second, you are actually asking who married them and where. Most of the marriage records I work with don't tell you where the marriage took place (most are civil records but even church records don't mean the marriage happened IN the church).

You might answer the first question but be unable to fully answer the second so think about your research questions and make sure you ask the question you intend to ask.

This gets into research planning, not just asking a question, but you want your plan to point you at the next most reasonable source. Sometimes that's one source and sometimes you have a choice of several equally likely sources. Craft your question to create smaller manageable plans but make sure you are asking the right question for what you want (or need) to know.

Can Your Research Question Be Too Narrow?

Essentially, no. As long as you aren't asking questions you already have the answer to, it's a valid research question.

There's a matter of efficiency related to how narrow your question is but it wouldn't be wrong for it to reach the maximum "narrowness."

I've already said a plan can have just one source to check and that's what a narrow question leads you to. You might discover that source doesn't exist and that's a valid and important outcome so your question still wasn't too narrow.

For efficiency, you might want to ask a question that includes three or five sources instead of just one but if there is one thing to check first and the result of that makes much difference in the next thing you do, ask a question that results in that one source.

You want to cross each research bridge when you come to it. Don't deal in supposition with your plan. Asking a narrow research question helps get rid of this temptation. You don't want to end up with a flow chart of "if this is found then I'll do this, but if that is found I'll do that." It's a plan, not a flow chart.

You want a yes/no answer to your question as much as possible (hence the hypothesis of who the father is instead of "who is the father of...").

Remember, you need to record this question for your future self. You will not remember the thought process going on that lead you to specific research. What seemed reasonable and comprehensive earlier in your research journey may appear in complete and flawed later when you know more.

By recording the exact question you researched, you will save yourself time when you later review what was done. You may decide to check the same sources for something slightly different or realize it is unnecessary to check those same sources because you were thorough the first time. Regardless of what you decide to do, you don't want to repeat research because you're unsure of what you did or what you were looking for the first time.

I usually refer people to this post to learn more about creating a good research question.
I've written about the "hypothesis" concept in this post.
Use the search bar to find more about "research plans" or "research planning" posts on this blog.

If you have questions about the suggestions in this mini-post, leave a comment. If you were looking for something slightly different, I'd also love to hear about it so I can improve this series of "Free Genealogy Help."

Find the full list of mini-posts, here.