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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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What is a Genealogy Research Log?

  • What is a genealogy research log?
  • Do you need a genealogy research log?
  • Is a research log and a research calendar the same thing?
This post will cover the modern basics of a genealogy research log.

The genealogy research log is becoming a mythical item. Fewer and fewer genealogists know what they are and even those that have heard of them, usually don't know how to use them correctly.

blue surface with birch logs and text overlay what is a genealogy research log www dot theoccasionalgenealogist dot com

Let's start with direct answers. 

What Is a Research Log?

A genealogy research log is the same as a research calendar. It is a type of research tracker. 

Do You Need a Genealogy Research Log?

You need to keep the information traditionally kept in a research log but it is not necessary to use a separate log or calendar if you use appropriate digital options. You do not need a "log" but you do need to track the same information.

Most digital options genealogists try and use to save time are not appropriate, though. They are "cheats" instead of "shortcuts."

Genealogy Research Logs

A few years ago I wrote a possibly controversial post called "You Don't Need a Research Log!." It is aimed at genealogists that are familiar with why you keep a research log. Today's post is even more basic because so many genealogists haven't even heard the term "research log" or that's all they know, the term.

A genealogy research log is designed to keep track of your entire research journey. I've specifically said "research journey" because this is more than just recording every source you use. Most "cheats" for research logs happen because genealogists only focus on recording a "source" and not the additional information that is actually far more vital.

So let's add on to our basic information about logging genealogy research. Tackers or research logs document where you search. That is, the source you are using.

In genealogy we need more than that. If you learned to create a research log from a different field of study or from research guides for academic research, this likely didn't include all the different types of information you'll need for family history.

Logs for Family History Research Versus Other Fields

I want to quickly point out there is one significant difference in keeping a genealogy research log versus tracking research for a degree. There is also a small, but important, difference in genealogy logs versus logging research in a different field career (or hobby) field.

Before you use an academic site to learn about keeping a research log, you need to keep this in mind... Genealogy is an on-going, never-ending hobby. There are far more efficient ways to track short-term research. Trust me. I use them for client research. A quick (few month) client project is much easier to log than a several year client project. A project that spans a few years is much easier to track than one that goes for decades. Your personal genealogy is usually measured in decades.

There are two points you want to keep in mind if you find or are familiar with keeping a research log for career research (i.e. research that spans a career versus a college course or even a degree). Genealogy is inter-related. Well, duh. But recognize our own tree can be knotted instead of distinct branches. Even if there is not a blood relationship, we may want to find research done for a different branch. This is very common in genealogy.

It is much easier to log research that is distinct. Genealogy often is not distinct. It might appear to be, but you can waste a lot of time refinding the same thing you already found for a different branch (ask me how I know).

More importantly, we track some different information in genealogy. Skipping this information is usually why hobbyists do amateur work (and why some professionals get paid for amateur quality work). Genealogy research logs track very specific information. I don't know if other fields track this information.

To Create a Successful Research Log: Start with Using It

To understand the purpose of a research log, you start with how you will use it, not how you will create or keep it. Honestly, you can completely change how your create or keep it based on your personal preferences for using it, that was the whole idea with "You Don't Need a Research Log!."

Genealogists use a research log to see what research we've already done, at a glance. From the log, we should be able to find our notes and possibly copies of records.

Ideally you start with a report for a summary of what you've done. If you have questions then you take a look at your log. If you need more detail, you look at your notes which you can find from your log. If you still need more details, you look at the record copy again. In most cases, if you did quality work, you won't need to look at all these items.

"What you've done" is not just the sources you looked at but what you were trying to do or what you were thinking.

Let me repeat the very important and often overlooked part of that statement:

...what you were thinking.

Sometimes we need to research using the same source because we will use it a different way. This can be a mechanical difference---looking for a variation of a name, for examples. Sometimes we use it differently because our thoughts are different.

Reviewing our log should tell us "yes, you should use that source again, the way you used it on January 23rd did not cover what you are now thinking." Our log should also tell us "no, you don't need to use that source again. The way you used it on January 23rd was for a different purpose but you looked for [whatever you want to look for today] so you won't' find anything new."

Just recording a URL, or even a complete source citation, will not give you the information to determine if you should use a source again. The source or citation is just one part of a research log.

AVOID THIS CHEAT: I've seen people recommend creating a research log by copying your browser history. It shows the URLs you visited. It will (hopefully) never tell you what you were thinking!

There's no point in ever using your browser history to track research. Why? You have to record why you are using a source, so just grab the URL (and more) at the time. Why go to the browser history? That's an extra place to visit if you're following a sound research process. 

(If you accidentally forget to capture something, yes, use your browser history to recapture what you missed but don't make it part of your intentional process. In a good process, it is an extra step.).

This post isn't about exactly how to keep a research log and doesn't give you a research log template. That's a big topic with lots of options. I actually give very specific information about how I suggest you start tracking your research in my book Essential Skills for the Occasional Genealogist. If you've never kept a research log or been unsuccessful at it, the process described in the book (because it's more than just the single step of keeping a research log) is my recommended way to start.

I do want to briefly discuss modern options because this is a point of confusion for modern genealogy. This is a summary of what Essential Skills covers in more depth.

Shortcut: You Don't Need a Genealogy Research Log Template

Everything you need to put in your research log can also be captured in your genealogy notes. In fact, if you aren't keeping a research log, I advise starting by taking digital genealogy notes. Genealogy notes are even more vital than a research log.

If you take great notes, you can always recreate your log. You can't recreate notes from a log (I have taken notes in my log and there are ways to do it but that gets specific and tricky. Better to take notes you can use as a log than a log you can use as notes).

What's important to realize is your notes can only replace your log if they are searchable. That means they have to be digital. If you take paper notes (and store paper notes, as opposed to scanning them so they are searchable), you need a log as an index/cross-reference. You can create your log from your notes if you're using paper. Just make sure you do it.

There are some additional considerations when using your digital notes in place of a log but if you aren't keeping a log, just start taking notes. You can use this post which explains what to put in your notes so they can take the place of your log

Organize Your Log to Fit Your Preferences

There are actually always lots of considerations for a log, no matter the format you prefer. You can log/track your research with a paper log, a database, a spreadsheet, digital notes, software, and so much more. 

BUT, the first thing to focus on is capturing all the needed information. If you capture it, you can always put it into a different format once you decide what works best for you. If instead, you fight with formatting and consequently don't keep a log consistently, you can't change the formatting of information you didn't capture.

Lastly, you can also keep a log even if you use digital notes. I personally love my research log in Excel because of all the ways I can filter and sort. I actually can't even keep it in Google Sheets because I use some features Excel offers that Sheets doesn't. If you hate spreadsheets, don't try and keep your log in one!

If you don't keep a research log or struggle with consistency, try keeping notes that include all the parts needed for your log. If you take paper notes, you can recreate your log entry from your notes after your research session (leave time for this task. It's important!). For digital notes, you don't need to create a separate log unless that is your preference.

If you capture all the log data in your notes, you also have the freedom to keep a totally customized log.

Create Your Research Log Your Way

  • You can keep it in Evernote as a note linking to your research notes (or create saved searches to pull up notes instead of looking at a log to find those notes).
  • You can create a Word table with entries in chronological order by record date instead of research date.
  • You can enter links to notes containing the surnames you research. 

The above are all filter and sort options I use in Excel but they can also be achieved by searching your digital notes or creating lists of notes grouped by something of interest ("something" can be a person, surname, place, event, etc.).

Reminders for Your Family History Research Log or Tracker

I really encourage you to read the post about taking genealogy notes but in case you don't, there are a few quick points I want to make sure you understand when talking about this topic.

First, genealogy is on-going. You think you'll remember things but that's not likely. It could be years or decades before something from a past research session is important. Your log or other tracking option is instead of needing to remember. Your log will remind you of any important information---but only if you log the information!

Next, recognize your tracker or log is a comprehensive "list" of sources used. That means every source USED not every source that gave you the name, date, or place you were looking for. In genealogy you can even use negative evidence which is when not finding something provides evidence. It doesn't work unless you have a full record of everywhere you looked.

These are just quick points. You need to learn more about keeping a research log because it's a very powerful tool.

Don't Cheat the Research Process

Yes, you need to keep a research log but it doesn't need to be in a log format anymore.

A "log" or "calendar" was a format to make it easy to find what you needed in reams of paper. There are many options if you go digital. You can keep an electronic research log or use a different option.

No matter what, digital options can't think for you. You have to record the information traditionally kept in a log so you have a record of not just your sources but why you used them and how you used them. There's no shortcut to get around this but there are plenty of shortcuts for formatting that information.

Once again, here's the link to the post about how to keep genealogy research notes that capture all the information that traditionally went in your log. If you want to go more in-depth on the entire genealogy research process, check out Essential Skills for the Occasional Genealogist.

Related Content:

Information on using a paper research log form from FamilySearch Wiki

Learn our recommended process for busting brick wall in Essential Skills for the Occasional Genealogist.

Find free genealogy research forms in our Research Library