Worlds frequently collide for genealogists. Non-genealogical endeavors often hint at genealogy. Our non-genealogy worlds push and pull us back to that beloved discipline.
And so it happened for me. I’m training my dogs to do nose work. They are learning to locate a specifically-scented object. It gives them something to do, to think about.
What does this have to do with genealogy?
The trainer mentioned training plans. Like that, my brain went from dogs to genealogy. In a training plan, a desired behavior is identified, steps needed to teach it are considered, and the training plan is activated. It is adjusted according to results. I train to build to a desired behavior, but I had not called it a training plan. Sometimes giving a name to what we do helps bring clarity to it.
My dogs need a research plan.
So do genealogists.
One-armed bandit research is a blast, especially when a new database rolls out. Plug in a few names and hope for a jackpot. There is no planning. Little consideration is given to location, record type, or if a specific genealogical research problem has been identified. Is it lousy research?
Well, no. It’s often how we find surprises. Our ancestors did not always behave as predicted and sometimes pop up in the strangest of places. So, the one-armed bandit method has its merits, but we should never believe that it is the only way to conduct research.
We need a research plan.
Like me with the dogs, you may believe that you have had a research plan when you have not. I thought I had been planning my training, but I was winging it, often relying on trainers to tell me my next step. Not thinking about the desired result, how to build to that result, and then putting a plan into action.
There will be homework.
To create a research plan we must first identify the research problem.
What do you want to learn? What should your genealogical dog to be doing in the end? Keep the research problem or goal doable. Break larger problems into smaller segments, each with a plan.
Next consider ways to potentially solve that problem. Steps to take.
Identify the records and resources most likely to hold needed evidence. Research the locations, available records, relevant topics, and applicable laws. Determine how to teach that genealogical dog a desired behavior.
A research plan is put into motion. Scour identified items for evidence. Evaluate found information and track progress. Is the plan working? Will revisiting a step help? Adjust the plan as needed. Is the genealogical dog getting it?
Perhaps you prefer to plan in your head. That works for simple problems. If your problem isn’t simple, because you have solved the easy ones, get out your stone tablet and chisel. Laptop. Pencil. Tablet. A purple crayon, if that is your thing.
Write the research plan down. The research problem and known data. Sources potentially containing needed evidence, and how to access them. Put the plan into motion. Adjust it as needed.
What does a research plan provide to a genealogist?
A written research plan helps us to visualize a research problem, consolidates known data, illuminates gaps in past research (add neglected sources to the plan), and delineates steps to take in an effort to solve the problem. It allows for adjustment if the original plan does not bring results. That hound of a genealogical problem will progress, and so will its master.
Pick a problem. Start writing.