What Are Research Logs and Why Should I Use Them?

What is the Difference Between To-Do Lists and Research Logs?

A to-do list is just that… a simple list of things you need to do. It might be writing a letter, making a phone call, looking up a date, or any number of other things.

A research log on the other hand is a list of all the sources you have looked at towards a single research goal. Your research log lets you easily trace back through the documents you have looked at, and if done properly, your research log can even lay out your research plan for that goal.

Creating a Research Log

Set a Goal

The first step in creating a research log is to define your research goal. That research goal might be very general, like “All sources I have looked at regarding James Brown.” But it might also be quite specific, like “All sources I have looked at to try and determine where James Brown was born.” Research logs are particularly useful for trying to knock down those brick walls, so be as specific about the particular problem as you can.

Log Your Research

Once you have a goal defined, you simply keep track of every source you look at towards that goal. Every time you do a search, record the following information:

  • The date of the search
  • What you were looking for
  • What source you looked at
  • Where the source was located
  • The results of your search

When should you record a search in your log? Here are 3 situations:

  1. You searched and found something you were looking for
    This is what most people think of when you mention a research log… a list of all the sources you looked at and found useful information in.
  2. You searched and didn’t find what you were looking for
    Why bother keeping track of sources that didn’t have what you were looking for? How about to remind you that you don’t need to keep checking that same document every year when it hasn’t changed for the last hundred years?
  3. You want to search a document but haven’t had a chance yet
    By adding sources that you want to look at to your research log, you are creating a plan of attack for your goal (also known as a research plan). Write down what you want to find and where you plan to look. When you finally get the chance to view that document you can add the search date and the results of your search.

Be Specific

When recording a search in your log, try to be as specific as possible about what you are looking for, where you looked, and what you found. It’s easy to get lazy and just put something like:

Searching for information about James Brown in the 1880 census and didn’t find anything.

You will find that as your genealogical skills improve (from taking classes, attending conferences, and just plain old practice), you will discover that there is usually more than one way to analyze a particular record. If your research logs are too general, you may not remember what specific information you looked for, which particular form you viewed, or even what it was that you didn’t find 😉

If you are looking for a birth date, say that you were looking for a birth date.  If you are later looking for christening information you will be able to see that you weren’t specifically looking for that at the time, so you may want to check the source again.  Of course if you recorded that you didn’t find that birth date but did find a christening date, you won’t have to go back and recheck it later.

If you are looking in the 1880 US Census Population Schedule for Podunk, NY, make sure to record that specifically.  If you happen to find it online, also record the link to the original.  One note though… do not skip recording the information just because you have the link… links can disappear!

Using RootsMagic 5’s New Research Logs

RootsMagic 5 added a full feature Research Manager which lets you create unlimited research logs using the techniques I’ve described above.  You can create research logs for people, families, events, places, or just plain old general research logs.  To see RootsMagic’s research logs in action, visit:


and watch the free webinar #32 “New Research Log and Manager in RootsMagic 5”.

5 thoughts to “What Are Research Logs and Why Should I Use Them?”

  1. Great information on how to do a Research Log, I have done much research but never put anything into a log to show what I have looked at to get the info I have. This will help much. I am going back to enter all the Sources I have looked into so I have a record of where I went and what I have found. I will have to relook at some to see if they have positive or negetive results. Thanks so much for all the work you do on these Webnars they have been very helpful to me a novice in genealogy.

  2. how to do a Research Log, I have done much research but never put anything into a log to show what I have looked at to get the info I have. This will help much.see example

  3. I have dial up. It takes too long to download. Very interested in webinars.
    Thank you for having them

  4. I haven’t done much as far as using a research log but plan on starting to use one from now on.

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