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Overheard on the Message Boards: Need Help Focusing My Research
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on the message boards with the original message.

June 13, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I have hit the point where all the family feelers I have put out are paying off with information. I find I lack focus to follow each one through fully. Whenever I get a new piece of information (often from a different branch of the family), it completely distracts me from what I was doing. I have read the book Organizing Your Family History Search which helped and sections of several other basic genealogy books on organization and follow through. Any suggestions? -- Morgen

A: You are not alone in your current quandary. There are many others who are dashing about here and there either in a library or on the Internet or simply in their own mind. This is especially true when you are just beginning your research and are dealing with a lot of new information, especially from many different family sources.

Often, the problem is that the new information coming in is just too tempting to put aside. Instead you begin to work on it, even though your present project is not yet at a stopping point. Most books that deal with organization do not deal with the issue of incoming correspondence, other than how to file it after you have worked with it.

Organization and planning go hand in hand.

Creating Goals

While most books on organization talk about filing and arranging your records, few of them talk about setting research goals. To make the most effective use of your time, you need to have a plan. That plan should include the various steps you need to follow a given lineage and should include time to solicit information from family members and repositories. Trouble sometimes arises, though, when we begin to collect responses from those outgoing correspondence.

For each of your lines, you should have a similar plan. I suggest putting it down on paper. I use my computer since it makes it easier for me to change things and also I type much faster than I can write in cursive. While my research log details where I have been in my research, my research goals document where I am going.

Combining the two with a correspondence log allows me to keep track of where I am in my research on any given line. Since I break up my research by family line, I have pages of research goals, research logs, correspondence logs, and microfilm logs, for each surname I am presently working with. I also have a notebook of past research arranged by surname for those family lines I have put on the back burner for whatever reason.

Putting Them Together

Unlike my documents, photocopies and printouts which have a permanent home in the folder for the husband of whatever family the information applies to, these logs are kept close at hand.

So I have two notebooks. The first one contains logs of long ago and it allows me to refresh my memory as to how I came upon a given resource or record. For active research, however, I have another notebook with ongoing research goal sheets, research logs, correspondence logs, and microfilm logs. This allows me to look at a log and determine where I am in any research endeavor.

While I try to concentrate on just one or two lines at a time, there are times when a letter arrives out of the blue. Long assumed by me to have been lost or just unanswered, such a letter does spur me on with that research. The trick, though, is in knowing where I left off on the other research; this is where my research logs come in handy.

Create Pending Files

Another trick I have found useful is the creation of what I call my pending files. These include my outgoing correspondence (again organized by surname) and letters and documents that arrive in the mail. This keeps the information together, but helps me to keep better focused on what I was doing when the letter arrived.

The goal with the pending file is to not let them get too big or to sit too long. When you find a natural break in the research of the line you were working on when the letters arrived, then go through one surname pending file and see how the arrival of the letters and documents alters your future research goals for that family. Make your notes, enter the information in your database, and file the records using whatever filing system you have adopted, as it sounds like you have read up on many of them.

I think you will find that logs will help you know right where you are in any research or what you are waiting for. As a result, you will not feel so overwhelmed and won't feel that you must work on something as soon as it arrives. By the same token, should you wish to put aside the family you were working on, you will not be hopelessly lost when you return to it.

In Conclusion

Organizing of photocopies and documents is important. However, organization of your overall research is more important. Know where you are going and where you have been with each family you have or are researching. With logs, you can, at any given time, pick up where you left off.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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