Saturday, August 4, 2012

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone complain to me that they have searched and searched (usually on-line) and have found nothing about their family, or how many times I’ve heard someone lament that they got lost or confused while doing their research.

Here’s a news flash that most of us don’t want to hear: effective research requires planning. Comments like those above generally come from people who have no established research objective other than simply wanting to find some about their ancestors. They mine the Internet or the library in haphazard fashion hoping to stumble across a nugget of information. I do that too, but I have a name for it:  it is called recreation, not research, and I engage in it without the expectation of finding anything. If I do find something, I rejoice. If I don’t find anything, I don’t become frustrated because I have no real expectation of doing so.


Research, to be effective, has to be planned, specific, and targeted. The vehicle we should use is the research plan. It requires effort before the actual research begins, and that is why many don’t use one. Remember the saying—if you don’t know where you are going, you won’t know when you get there.  Every trip needs a map, and if research is a trip, then the research plan is the map. It is meant to give you focus, reduce your search to bite-sized objectives, separate what you know from what you don’t know, and bring what to do know to bear on your objective. In other words it does what any plan should do for you; it increases your chances for success.
The research plan consists of five parts: the objective, known facts, working hypothesis, identified sources, and research strategy.
The objective is a statement of what it is you want to learn about your ancestor. You should limit this to a specific item such as a marriage date, a maiden name, etc. After getting all of the “easy” information about your ancestors, this focus on specific pieces of information is necessary for success.
Next identify all of the information you already know about the ancestor in question. Be sure to rate the accuracy of what you know. Is it credible information or is it speculation?
The working hypothesis is the possible/probable conclusion that you hope to prove or disprove through your research. Think of this as your best first estimate of what the answer might be based on what you know. The working hypothesis gives an idea of how to formulate the last two elements of your plan, the potential sources and the research strategy.
Next is a listing of the sources that are most likely to yield support for your hypothesis and achieve your objective. Consider such things as census records, deeds, probate records, military pension files, etc. Identify not only the possible sources, but also the repositories where those resources can be found and examined.
The research strategy is a product of putting the foregoing information together…it is your plan of attack. What resources should be researched first—perhaps information from one source is required to make best use of another source. Perhaps you need to solidify some of your “flakey” information before you can proceed.
Now, and only now, are ready to start actual research. The plan should be a guide; rely on it, but not so rabidly that you are not willing to revise it. Your research may reveal new sources to explore and new elements for your strategy. Be flexible, but not to a fault.
And what if you still come up dry? That is merely an indication that you need to redefine your objective and hypothesis to match the new information you have found. Perhaps you were too aggressive in your objective and there was other information you needed to focus on first.
This may sound like a lot of work, but the alternative is the often frustrating “shotgun” approach that we all have used. So aimlessly nose around in your research if you wish, and revel in the nuggets you find, but don’t be discouraged if you come up empty or become over whelmed. Backup and do a research plan.

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