Planning your research

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The Internet puts the world at your fingertips. Discovering all the wonderful online resources that exist makes you feel like a kid in a candy store. You click around from site to site with wide eyes, amazed by what you see, tempted to record everything for your genealogy — whether it relates to one of your family lines or not.

Because of the immense wealth of information available to you, putting together a research plan before going online is very important — it can save you a lot of time and frustration by keeping you focused. Tens of thousands of genealogical sites are on the Internet. If you don't have a good idea of exactly what you're looking for to fill in the blanks in your genealogy, you can get lost online. Getting lost is even easier when you see a name that looks familiar and start following its links, only to discover hours later (when you finally get around to pulling out the genealogical notes you already had) that you've been tracking the wrong person and family line.

Now that we've convinced you that you need a research plan, you're probably wondering exactly what a research plan is. Basically, a research plan is a common-sense approach to looking for information about your ancestors online. A research plan entails knowing what you're looking for and what your priorities are for finding information.

If you're the kind of person who likes detailed organization (like lists and steps that you can follow to the tee), you can map out your research plan in a spreadsheet or word processor on your computer or you can write it out on paper. If you're the kind of person who knows exactly what you want and need at all times, and you have an excellent memory of where you leave off when doing projects, your research plan can exist solely in your mind. In other words, your research plan can be as formal or informal as you like — as long as it helps you plot what you're looking for.

For example, say you're interested in finding some information on your great-grandmother. Here are some steps you can take to form a research plan:

1. Write down what you already know about the person you want to research — in this case, your great-grandmother.

Include details like the dates and places of birth, marriage, and death; spouse's name; children's names; and any other details you think may help you distinguish your ancestor from other individuals. Of course, it's possible that all you know at this time is great-grandma's name.

2. Conduct a search using a genealogically focused search engine to get an overview of what's available.

Visit sites like the TreEZy (www.treezy.com) to search for information by name and location. Using great-grandma's name and the names of some of the locations where she lived provides you with search results that give you an idea of what kind of resources are available. (Chapters 3 and 4 go into more detail about online trips and searching for this type of information.) You may want to make a list of the sites that you find in your word processor, spreadsheet, or on a piece of paper, or download the Web page for offline browsing.

3. Prioritize the resources that you want to use.

Your search on a genealogically focused search engine may turn up several different types of resources, such as newsgroups, mailing lists, and Web sites. We recommend that you prioritize which resources you plan to use first. You may want to visit a Web site that specifically names great-grandma prior to signing up for a mailing list for all researchers interested in great-grandma's surname.

4. Schedule time to use the various resources that you identify.

Genealogy is truly a lifelong pursuit — you can't download every bit of information and documentation that you need all at once. Because researching your genealogy requires time and effort on your part, we recommend that you schedule time to work on specific parts of your research. If you have a particular evening open every week, you can pencil in a research night on your calendar, setting aside 15-30 minutes at the beginning to review what you have and assess your goals, then spending a couple of hours researching, and ending your evening with another 15-30 minute review in which you organize what you found.

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