Avoiding “Pinball Genealogy”

DearMYRT coined the phrase “pinball genealogy” in a recent post. When I first saw the title (and before reading the post) I came up with my own definition: not having any type of research plan in place and jumping from clue or clue, or document to document, with no thought of where I might go next.

DearMYRT’s definition goes in a slightly different direction. She writes that pinball genealogy is bouncing from document to document “without fully considering the info each contains.” (emphasis added).

Whether using my definition or hers, the problem is the same. Key clues about identities and relationships are missed, and the hit or miss approach leads to not fully searching and evaluating the relevant records. Research plans help avoid this mistake.

Research plans are critical to any type of research. They help identify research goals, clarify what is known, identify resources that need to be examined, and help keep track of additional sources we find in our research. They also help keep us focused and organized.

Key elements of a research plan include:

The objective: Objectives should be simple and focused. Good example of objectives include: Finding the marriage date and place of my paternal grandparents, or locating the birthplace of my maternal grandfather. Researching the entire life of my maternal grandmother is much too large of an objective. In order to bring this to fruition, a series of objectives and related research plans must be explored.

Summary of what is known: One of the first things told to beginning genealogists is to start with what you know. See what is around the house, or in the files of your great-aunt, who is the family historian. The same applies with research. Starting with what you know (even if it’s just family lore that has yet to be proved) can give you clues to start. For example, if you know that the first child was born in 1902, a likely date to search for a marriage would be 1900 or so.

Sources to examine: Once you have written what you know, it’s time to start thinking about which sources might be of help. Would a federal or state census provide information? Are church or vital records available online, in a repository, or on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City? Is a published genealogy available? Identify all sources, along with relevant call numbers or URLs and include them in your research plan.

Research Strategy: Come up with a plan to examine all the sources listed above. This plan could include dates by which a specific resource will be examined, or could group resources in like places (such as within the same county) together so that you can visit them all on the same day. Many people find it helpful to go to the online catalog of a library or other repository you are planning to visit and build a research plan from what is available there. This ensures that when you are at the repository that you can put your time to the best use, since you have already identified the resources to examine and written down the call numbers ahead of time.

As you go through the resources you have identified, accommodate new resources that you become aware of, and add them to your plan.

Additional reading about building a research plan with examples:

How have research plans helped you in the past?

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