Thursday, April 9, 2015

Short Lesson on Research Reports

An article on the Ancestry blog makes a good lesson on research reports.I recently read “Branch Out Contest Winner: Alison Marcoff” on the Ancestry Blog. It is basically a research report created by a professional genealogist. It provides great insight into how a very experienced genealogist works. Understanding its form and parts would be a good lesson for product designers at FamilySearch,, or any other company wishing to help their customers solve difficult genealogical problems. For that matter, it’s a good lesson for all of us non-professional genealogists.

Why create a research report? Isn’t that overkill? Imagine you work a difficult problem for several months, then set it aside and work on something else. You come back to it in a couple of years later when more records are online or you can visit the Family History Library in Salt Lake, or you receive answers back from inquiries sent to record custodians

Begin your research—and your research report—with a question. Look at this article and find the research question.

Next, write down what you know. Look at the next paragraph of this article. The research question is followed by a paragraph of what you know at the start of the research project.

Reference or include information gathered from previous research. In the article, notice what records Alison provided.

Although it was too lengthy for to include in a blog article, keep a log of the sources searched and what was learned from each. Don’t forget to make your citations complete enough that when you come back to this thorny problem in the future, you can pick up the source again, or at least see from the citation what the quality of the source was.

What is the purpose of the two bulleted items in the article? You should do the same at the conclusion of your research report.

There is another lesson we can learn from this article: cluster research. Elizabeth Shown Mills uses the acronym FAN club, meaning Family, Associates, and Neighbors.1 After hitting a brick wall in records about James himself, the researchers in this example branched out to records about other people.

Thank you,, for this nice little tutorial on how to tackle a difficult genealogical problem.


     1.  Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 11: Identity Problems & the FAN Principle,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( : accessed 7 March 2015).


  1. However, read the blog's comments - including one from the contest "winner." The report format may useful but apparently the content was not.

  2. As a professional researcher, I can only hope all professional genealogists are not judged by this "report." Almost all of it is a repetition of information given to the researcher by the ?lucky? winner. Of course a statement of the research question and known facts belong in a report, but should only take a few minutes to type. Examining supplied documents takes time, but just that activity and examining census records shouldn't take 20 hours. Or is this not the complete report?

  3. I strongly agree that writing a research report on a difficult relative is very helpful, having just done that and it did help me to break through a brick wall by organizing my thoughts and looking at things differently. Mine took way more than 20 hours to do the work involved. The example shown in this blog is probably not the best one to use. The original question wasn't answered and the customer wasn't happy with the results.

  4. That can't possibly be a professional genealogist's report on 20 hours of research. Can it?

  5. I guess I should have specified that I thought this article appeared to be based upon a full client report. What can be shoehorned into a blog article is minimal. I like it as instructive in form. It contains the elements of a full report. I think many amateur genealogists never do reports and this simple example may inspire some to start. A report for oneself doesn't need to complex.

    There may also be a warning here. I'm Not a professional and am admittedly slow (I prefer "thorough" :-), but 20 hours is not a lot of time for a difficult problem. There is a certain amount of overhead that is the same regardless of project length and is a larger percentage of the time for a short project. Before engaging a professional let them set your expectations.

    Maybe some of you pros can weigh in here.


    1. I certainly agree about "overhead." Clients could help with this by listing (or better yet including) all the records they have already seen for the immediate family, and the research they have done themselves. By preparing their own "research report" to send to a professional genealogist, clients may see things they can do for themselves first. Also, clients should identify a clear, specific objective for any project they want a professional to undertake.

  6. Just a general comment: As a rule of thumb I usually allot half of the approved hours for research and half for analysis and writing. I believe this is standard for professional genealogists. Part of what a client is paying for is a researcher's ability to understand which records to search, but also for their analytical skills based on extensive experience. So keep in mind that the approved hours will not all be spent in research. Having said that, though, a client would expect the hours spent in research to be more productive than what they, themselves, could accomplish.


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