Planning and Tracking Your Research

Introduction

Many family historians recognise a need to plan and track their research activities, so that they:

  • don't forget something they plan to do
  • don't repeat something they've already done
  • don't lose track of progress in the middle of a protracted research activity

Family Historian (fh) supports various ways of planning and tracking Work in Progress or Research To Do Lists, each of which has its own advantages and pitfalls, and each of which will suit some individuals more than others – no two people's brains work in exactly the same way, and organising research is a prime example of that.

This section of the Knowledge Base set out the options available; and tries to help individuals identify which will suit them best and adapt it to their method of working.

The potential solutions fall into four groups:

Of course, you can adopt more than one solution, depending on what you want to achieve – for example: Notes for "I just realised I need to do this thing at some point but haven't thought it through" or "I've a bunch of stuff I need to scan – how can I remember it?", and Named Lists for "I have this complex research project that has been going on for ever", and Custom Attributes for "I just found new ancestor and need to research the usual stuff – BBMDB".

Notes

Notes are a key feature of Family Historian (fh), and are a very simple but flexible way to keep track of work-in-progress/to-do (which we'll refer to here as Research Notes from now on). They can:

  • include any text you want (un-formatted, except for paragraph breaks). Note: you cannot include images in the note directly.
  • be quickly and easily created.
  • be linked to:
    • one or more Individual, Family, Place, Source, Repository or Media records: Property Box > Notes tab > Add Note;
    • a specific fact: Property Box > Facts tab and then add text into a Fact Note;
  • or, be created as a Shared Note not linked to any Individual etc. using the fh menu: Add > Shared Note.

You can mix-and-match all these ways of working, as shown here, which includes three "Research Notes":

  • A Shared note linked to an individual (and possibly others as well)
  • A note attached to an individual's occupation fact
  • A note attached to a couple's marriage fact

You will find it easier to keep track of what you've done if you pay attention to the points in Using Notes To Track Your Research.

Some ways you might use Notes to track your research? These are just examples.

  • Create a Shared Note record called (e.g.) Quick To-do. Whenever you think of a task you need to do add it to that Note record – as if it were a jotter pad.
  • When you identify a new ancestor, link a collection of Local notes to that individual's record, one for Birth, one for Death etc. Track your thoughts and progress on each piece of research using those notes.
  • You've found the birth registration for an individual, but not ordered the certificate yet? Create a Birth fact citing the birth registration entry, and add research notes to the fact outlining what you still need to do.
  • You're planning a research trip? If necessary, create either a Place record or a Repository record (whichever suits your way of working best) and attach a series of Notes to it, one for each task you need to carry out on your trip. Or create a standalone Note and add details of all the tasks in that single note.

Named Lists

Named Lists are another simple fh feature that can be used to plan and track research (although they have many more uses than this). Essentially, they are a way of grouping records (of every kind) for any purpose that you choose, so that you can view or report on them as a collection of related items.

fh automatically creates 3 default Named Lists for every project (unless you've turned this off via Tools > Preferences> Named Lists); one of these default lists is called Work in Progress, but you can use as many Named Lists as you want to organise your research.

Some ways you might used Named Lists to track research? Again, these are just examples.

  • Create a Named List called Birth Certificates and add the records of Individuals for whom you plan to obtain a birth certificate. Remove them from the list when the certificate has been purchased.
  • Create a Named List called To-do at Worcester Archives. Add one or more Note records detailing what you plan to do when you get to Worcester, building up the list as things occur to you. You can also include Source records – maybe you want to go through the Kidderminster Parish Records for events for a set of individuals. Or add some Individual records and note what it is you want to achieve for each individual. (The same approach applies if you're building up a work-list prior to taking out a short-period subscription to a website.)
  • If you use Notes to record To-do items, you could create a set of Named Lists – High Priority, Medium Priority, Low Priority – and add your To-do Notes to the relevant priority list.
  • If you're undertaking a protracted and complex search – e.g. Find the Birth of Joe Smith circa 1865 in London – create a Named List called that (and use the List Note to document exactly what you're doing – or add a Shared Note to do the same job but more visibly). Add Joe's Individual record so it's easily to hand when you need to cross-check a detail that you already know. Create and add a Note Record that you will use to track the searches you have done – including the unsuccessful ones. Create and add a Media Record that points to the (e.g) spreadsheet in which you're recording the detail of your many search results. Now you have everything easily to hand to progress your search whenever you return to it. If your search relates to multiple Individuals (and/or Families), add their records to the Named List as well for east reference.

See Using Named Lists To Track Your Research for more detail on this approach.

Custom Attributes

Just as you can define a Custom Attribute to store information about an individual that fh does not support 'out of the box' (e.g. "Freeemason in the ZYX Lodge", or "Biographical note"), you can also define a Custom Attribute to document your research.

This approach is more complex to set up than Notes or Named Lists, but no more difficult to use once it is set up, and there are downloads available that will help you to configure it, as well as detailed instructions here.

In outline, you will:

  • Create a Custom Attribute (Fact) called e.g. To-do or Task.
  • Associate one or more of these custom Facts with each Individual for whom you have research to track, and use the Fact Note field to document your plans and progress.
  • Optionally, perform other configuration activities to make the approach easier to use.

The Fact can be linked to a single Individual; optionally to one or more Sources (and thence to Repositories); and optionally to one or more Media records. Some people choose to create a single To-do Fact per individual; others create a Task fact per research activity.

Some ways you might use a custom Fact to track your research? These are just examples.

  • The simplest way of working with a To-do Fact: Create a single To-do fact per Individual, and add paragraphs preceded by unique Labelled text (version 3 and above) to describe each piece of research you want to plan and track. If you choose to work this way, you will want to standardise on a set of labels to make querying and reporting yield consistent results.
  • Create a Task fact per Individual per research task. This approach allows you to include Labelled text (version 3 and above) such as e.g. Priority (High|Medium|Low) or Status (Planned|In progress|Pending|Complete). Again, if you choose to work this way, you will want to standardise on a set of labels to make querying and reporting yield consistent results.
  • Planning a research trip? Or anticipating time-limited access to an online resource? Create multiple Tasks facts per Individual, and link the relevant facts to a Source (and Repository); or add a Place or Website to the Facts (even if temporarily).
  • You're undertaking a protracted and complex search related to a single Individual – e.g. Find the Birth of Joe Smith circa 1865 in London – create a To-do fact called "Birth of Joe Smith circa 1865" (linked to Joe's Individual record) for the overarching search. Use the Fact Note field to track the component searches you have done – including the unsuccessful ones. Create and link a Media Record to the Fact that points to the (e.g) spreadsheet in which you're recording the detail of your many search results. Now you have everything easily to hand to progress your search whenever you return to it.

A Custom Attribute is not suitable for tracking research tasks that aren't linked to a single specified Individual. Use Notes or Named Lists for that.

Working with a Single To-do Fact per Individual

Using a Single To-do Fact per individual has the advantage of simplicity.There is a single place to record all the research you plan to do for an individual, and you can customise the Property Box to include a Tab to let you easily update your To-do list for an individual. A summary of these details for all Individuals can be created using Custom Queries or by Customise or Print Records Window Columns.

However, you're limited to a single labelled paragraph for To-do item and it can be hard to record and query/report on more granular detail.

See To-Do List Attribute for more detail on how to set up and use this approach.

Working with Multiple Research tasks per Individual

Using multiple research tasks per individual allows you to include more details for each task (e.g. Status, Priority etc.) with corresponding structured reporting. Tasks can be viewed and edited on the Property Box tab for each individual.

The Research Planner plugin and associated queries and reports help you to use this approach, or you can adapt the techniques described at To-Do List Attribute

Working with External Applications

Sometimes the facilities within (fh) just don't quite "do it"; this leads to an examination of external applications. Ideally any external application will somehow integrate with fh; unfortunately we don't see any such applications. (There are a fair number of "To Do" List or Task Management options that will integrate into other applications - usually email applications.)

This section is not intended to provide a list of "To Do List" or "Task Management" programs - that is what internet search is for! Rather it intends to highlight applications that may be of particular help to genealogists and which go beyond the task list features of many email systems.

As applications come to our notice the list below will be curated to try and include those of the most interest. To Do Lists / Work Management: What External Apps may people use?

  • To Do List Applications
    • The todo.txt family of todo list applications is worth examination if looking for a basic todo list. They all rely on a standard "one line per task" format and handle Priorities, Projects, and Contexts as well as a variety of dates. Any text editor (on any platform) which can sort lines is suitable, but there are a large number of applications or plugins that are designed especially to handle the todo.txt format. More Details
    • Simplenote is a cloud based note taking freemium application (available from the makers of Wordpress for Windows, Linux, Android, MacOS and iOS - and via web interface) which if you follow the todo.txt format enables you to have one line tasks - with attached narrative. More Details
  • Other applications
    • Zim a wiki type application (for Linux and Windows) with a tasklist addin. The prime use for this application is probably note taking with separate pages per project. To do tasks are inserted in the text (as they arise). More Details
    • Zotero A bibliographic tool (for Linux, Windows and Mac) to help collect, organize, cite, and share research. It majors on Sources, and can hold notes which through being searchable can act as a todo list for source focused research. More Details
    • OneNote A note taking application from Microsoft (for Windows)