How to Build a Research Plan

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Research can be defined as

a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/research

As family historians, we are constantly trying to discover new information and reach new understandings – it is inherent in what we do. But how should we go about uncovering new information if it isn’t easily available in the sources that we are familiar with and have to hand?

With so many possible sources to choose from, identifying the most relevant sources is no easy task. To climb this hill, you will need a research plan.

What is a Research Plan?

A research plan is a prioritised list of potential sources and locations which we intend to search for information relevant to our research objective. Here is how I go about writing one:

  1. Define the Research Objective
    Before we try to find an answer, we must first have a clear question. This should be as specific as possible. E.g. Find the marriage record of persons P and Q, probably in or near to location L, in the range of years YYYY – YYYZ.
  2. Build a Timeline of Known Information
    A basic rule of genealogy is to start from the known and work to the unknown. Summarising what you currently know about the target individual by year and location is an enormously important tool. It helps you to easily see how much (or perhaps how little!) you know about your target individual. It helps you to analyse which of your findings are built on appropriately solid foundations and which might require additional supporting details.
  3. Identify the Gap(s) in the Timeline
    Have you collected information on all of the vital events for this person (birth, baptism, marriage(s), births/baptisms of children, death/burial of spouse(s), death/burial of target)? If the research target lived during a period in which censuses are available, have they been traced in all available census years? If they lived before formal censuses, have you investigated possible census substitutes such as tax and militia records? To what level were they educated? Do you know their occupation? If male, did they undertake an apprenticeship or serve in the military? If female, did they practice a trade or craft before marriage? Etc.
  4. Refine Your Research Objective
    If there are substantial gaps, is the original research objective still a sensible and relevant question? Should we even attempt to address the original objective before filling in some of the other gaps in the timeline? It’s okay to draft other, smaller, simpler research questions and answer those before returning to the original objective – where the starting gaps are large it is best practice to do so.
  5. Brainstorm Sources (online AND in archives) which might help meet the objective
    Use card catalogues, A-Z record lists, archive catalogues, library catalogues, indexes, books, guides, online links, gazetteers and Internet searches to compile possible sources to search. This is perhaps the most difficult step. I have a general approach that I use for British research which I explain in detail in the worked example below…
  6. Organise the Source List by Priority and Physical Location
    Sort the list into online and physical searches, then sort each group so that sources with the highest probability of answering the question appear at the top.
  7. Write Your Plan
    Ensure that your plan is documented. A simple table will do, outlining the source name, it’s type, the URL or physical location at which it can be found, and, for archive searches, add the archive reference.

    Once you’ve listed all the sources you intend to search then you can share and discuss your list with others and ask for a second opinion – “Have I thought of all the right sources and locations to solve this problem? Is there anything else I could/should add?” In my experience, genealogists are a friendly and generous bunch, more than willing to pass on advice about sources they have used for similar problems.

    Also, if you have a nice table with all your planned searches then you can easily add an extra column and use it to log your findings – see my worked example!

Worked Example – Mary Harnett

One of my projects last year was to produce a complete five-generation pedigree for my wife. I had a beautiful A1 poster printed showing all of the findings, which was framed, wrapped and put under the Christmas tree to make a unique gift. The only challenge was that I had to research all 62 (2+4+8+16+32) of my wife’s immediate ancestors, leaving no gaps, and have everything finished in good time to get it printed and framed.

You can guess what happened. There was one ancestor – just one! – for whom I struggled to find a baptism record in time, meaning that I was unable to include her parents in the top layer of the tree. So, after weeks of work, there were two “Unknown” entries in the tree and I just didn’t have any time left to solve the problem before the deadline for printing and framing ahead of Christmas. Damn it!

My wife (and our children) loved the gift and it has taken pride of place in our home – but the presence of the two “unknown” entries has needled me ever since. So, for this example of a research plan, I have chosen Mary Harnett, she of the missing baptism.

  1. Research Objective

To find a birth/baptism record for Mary HARNETT and the names of her parents.

2. Build a Timeline of Known Information

Timeline of known information for Mary GIBBONS nee HARNETT

The census information for Mary is pleasingly consistent, indicating that she was born around 1795-6 at Monkton in Kent.

3. Identify Gaps in the Timeline

There are multiple gaps in this timeline that could, and ultimately should, be addressed:

  • Baptism of Mary in or near Monkton, Kent, c.1795-6.
  • Image of original marriage licence of 1817.
  • Image of original marriage register entry of 1817.
  • Baptisms of Mary’s siblings (if any)
  • Baptisms of Mary’s children:
    • Fanny c.1827
    • Jane c.1829
    • Sills Clifford c.1833
    • George c.1835
    • Elizabeth c.1837
  • Newspaper clippings referring to Mary and/or her husband John. Mary and John were middle class land owners, so newspapers could be a good source.
  • Directories. As a middle-class family there is a strong chance of finding directory entries for them.
  • Passenger records. Eldest son Sills Clifford lived for some years in Texas, USA, where he married his first wife and had two children. Did Mary ever visit her family in America?
  • GRO death index record
  • Death certificate
  • Probate record
  • Will

4. Refine Research Objective

While there are significant gaps in the details of Mary’s life from her marriage onwards, the consistency of the census details with respect to time and place of birth give me confidence that finding her baptism record is a viable research objective.

5. Brainstorm Sources (online AND in archives)

Kent is a county in which I’ve done little previous research as most of my ancestors are from the north of England, so I begin this search with no preconceived views of where best to find sources. I only know that in my rushed searches before my Christmas deadline, I failed to find Mary’s baptism.

When researching a new place in the UK, I generally start by consulting the following references:

GENUKI – This site has a section for each British county and then a page for each parish. The parish of Monkton has a page here: https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/KEN/Monkton
It shows a contemporary map of the area and reproduces an extract from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland 1868, which describes Monkton and tells me that the parish’s location is on the Isle of Thanet, 7 miles from Ramsgate, and that it is “wholly agricultural”. The embedded link for the church parish church of St Mary Magdalene, https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/KEN/Monkton/StMaryMagdalene, shows me a nice contemporary photograph but provides no details on the current location(s) of parish records. This is a little disappointing as I’ve previously come to rely on GENUKI as a good guide to record locations.

FamilySearch Research WIKI – Like GENUKI, the FamilySearch Research WIKI has a page dedicated to the county of Kent: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Kent,_England_Genealogy from which I can drill down to the parish of Monkton: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Monkton,_Kent_Genealogy. This page is more successful in summarising the known parish record survival and indicates that the best places to access the baptism records I’m seeking are at either FindMyPast or Kent Online Parish Clerks (KOPC):

Monkton Online Parish Baptisms
FamilySearch Research WIKI: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Monkton,_Kent_Genealogy

Having learnt this, I will add Find My Past and Kent Online Parish Clerks to my list of sites to check for sources.

Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers – On page 171 I find that the registers of Monkton parish from 1700-1991 are deposited at Canterbury Cathedral Archives. So, I now add Canterbury Cathedral Archives to my online search list.

Find My Past – I find the best way to research source locations on the large subscription sites is to interrogate their catalogues. At Ancestry, for example, this is known as the Card Catalogue. At Find My Past it is called the A-Z of Record Sets. Here I select England and then filter on “Kent”. It returns the following possible record sets:

  • Kent Baptisms
  • Kent Burials
  • Kent County Council Parish Register Browse
  • Kent Marriages and Banns
  • Kent Registers & Records
  • Kent Wills and Probate Indexes 1328-1890
  • Kent, Canterbury Archdeaconry Parish Registers Browse

Kent Online Parish Clerks – There are numerous Online Parish Clerk sites for counties in the UK, and I have been fortunate to have benefited from the use of several of them over the years. The Kent site can be found here: http://www.kent-opc.org/index.html. Navigating through their parish list, there is a page for Monkton here: http://www.kent-opc.org/Parishes/Thanet-Monkton2011.html. This includes a link to a transcript of Christenings 1700-1883.

Canterbury Cathedral Archive – The main archive site can be found here: https://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/heritage/archives-library/collections/, where I find a link to a guide produced by Kent History and Library Centre called “Where to find Parish Registers”: https://www.kent.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/53190/Where-to-find-parish-registers.pdf. This guide tells me that for St Mary Magdalene, Monkton:

  • Parish Registers are at Canterbury Cathedral Archive
  • Bishop’s Transcripts are at Kent History and Library Centre
  • Transcripts are at Kent History and Library Centre
  • “Many of the parish registers for Canterbury diocese are now available at Find My Past”.

I’m now ready to list all the possible sources I have found which may reference the baptism of Mary Harnett c.1795-96 in Monkton, Kent :

Identified sources for Baptisms at St Mary Magdalene, Monkton, Kent

6. Organise the Source List by Priority and Physical Location

Considering what I’ve discovered about Monkton and its baptismal registers, I will check the transcripts at Kent OPC first, then proceed to Find My Past. I know that Monkton falls under the Archdiocese of Canterbury, so I will prioritise those records higher than Kent County Council’s holdings. If I fail to find the records online then I will need to consult the physical archives, first at Canterbury Cathedral and then at Kent History and Library Centre. So, my prioritised list will be:

Prioritised Research Plan

Executing the Research Plan

I always try to perform a complete set of online searches before resorting to the time and expense of an archive visit. To execute the plan, all I must do is select the rows for online searches and add an extra column for search outcomes:

Empty research log for online searches of Monkton parish baptisms

At Kent OPC I was quickly able to find a transcript for Mary’s baptism, which it states took place on 25th November 1795 and gives her parents’ names as Thomas and Elizabeth. This is a great result, but I’ve learnt that while transcripts are useful, they should always be backed up by sight of the original record.

I continued the search in the Kent Baptisms collection at Find My Past but was unable to find the baptism for Mary – or any other Harnett children in Monkton – confirming the failure I experienced during my project last year. From there, I proceeded to the Canterbury Archdeaconry Parish Registers, a set of unindexed images of the original registers, where I was successful in finding the original record:

My research log for the baptism of Mary Harnett

It seems that Find My Past have not yet indexed the baptisms & burials register for 1792-1812. I could never have discovered this from the indexed records alone as the details of which registers have and have not yet been indexed is not easily available (or at least I failed to find it).

So, here at last, is the image of the baptism of Mary Harnett, which I’m confident took place on 26th November 1795, not 25th as stated in the transcript at Kent OPC.

Baptisms (PR), England. Monkton, Kent. 26 Nov 1795. HARNETT, Mary. Collection: Kent, Canterbury Archdeaconry Parish Registers Browse 1538-1939. https://www.findmypast.co.uk.

Conclusion

Using source-finding tools, catalogues and reference works to build a research plan exercises an important skill for family historians. Identifying sources in this way will:

  • save time by focusing efforts onto a small number of the most likely sources;
  • stop you going down rabbit holes, chasing the “bright shiny objects” pushed at you by the large subscription sites;
  • improve your chances of success.

The more that we plan and structure our research, the more familiar we will become with the most useful source-finding tools and techniques and the more successful we become at finding those more elusive ancestors.

Let me know your favourite source finding tools and techniques in the comments below.

Published by Phil Isherwood

Phil has studied genealogy with Pharos Tutors and the Society of Genealogists, completing their year-long intermediate programme with a distinction. He is a Family History Advisor for the Oxfordshire Family History Society and enjoys working on the knotty genealogy problems brought to him by the general public. He has a special interest in genealogical methodology, military ancestors and sources for north-west England. Twitter: @isherwood_phil

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