Research plans and BSOs

Research?  Really?  That’s what I’m doing when I’m ‘doing genealogy’?  Answer:  Yes.  The term ‘research’ often brings up images of laboratories, white coats, and persons with no interests beyond that laboratory.  As an amateur genealogist, my family sometimes wonders if I have any other interests.  Housework versus searching census records for an elusive ancestor?  The census record search will win every time!  At least, until the laundry hamper is overflowing and my stomach is growling! Then, the census record search is only deferred for a few hours.

research dictionary.jpg

As promised,  in this blog, I explore more of my not-so-wonderful research practices, specifically “going wherever the research leads me” and “following rabbit trails (aka BSOs or bright shining obects)”.  At first glance, these look like similar items.  And, in some ways, they are similar.  Both practices are inefficient and waste time and resources.   Here’s an example:

Current practice Improved practice
Going wherever the research leads me Tracking census records for one family back from 1920s.  1900 census listed 3 children living with parents.  I click on each child’s name and trace them , and their children, as far as I can.    Sometimes,  I go to other sources but not on a regular basis.  Child #2 is my direct ancestor.   Write basic information on piece of paper (only source notation is 1900 census).   Make mental note of what additional info is needed and/or questions.  Follow BSO for other children. Before ending session:

  • Enter names of spouses, marriage date & location, death date & location on Family Group Sheet for parents.  Use pencil if still needs to be verified.
  • Enter information to genealogy program on personal computer.
  • Add information to research log, including complete citation.
  • Create  item, with note, on To-do list, as needed.
  • End session.  If time permits, begin another item on To-do list or go to another person’s To-do list.
Following rabbit trails (aka BSOs) Two of the 3 children are not my direct ancestor.   Spent about 2 hours (after midnight) clicking on every hint.  Finally ended session when I was going after the parents of mother-in-law  of  Child #3’s son.  Did not meet that session’s goal of tracking my family before 1900. Ask:  Is this information relevant to my current line of research?  If not,  STOP!  If potentially relevant, enter on research log and  to-do list. Include questions to be answered.   Continue with current plan.

Note:  I like tables to compare information.  Creating a table helps me to put things in perspective rather than slogging through several paragraphs.  My co-workers often rolled their eyes when I presented them with another table of data!  But, I learned to accept the fact that not everyone sees the world in the same way.

Genealogy research is a process.  Most of us (including me)  probably just have a mental plan when we do genealogy.   If you have problems staying focused, write out a plan at the beginning of each session.  A research log can be the place to document your actions and findings.

  • Goal/ expected outcome/ proof point: What are you looking for or trying to prove ? What questions do you have about the person or family?
  • Assessment: What information do you already have?
  • Plan of action: What specific items are you looking for?  Where will you look ?  How much time do you have?  If you have a long list of items,  set priorities.
  • Actions taken: Check off each item as you locate and review it.  Be sure to write out complete citations or transcribe immediately to your computer-based research log.
  • Effectiveness of actions/ analysis:  Write down what you discovered.  Analyze your findings.  Were  your questions answered?  If not,  what are your next steps?  Add  next steps to To-Do list.

Here’s an example:

Goal/ expected outcome/ proof point:    Prove parents of James D. Posten.

Assessment:    Typewritten lineage from great-aunt (now deceased), courtesy of cousin [1]

typed Posten lineage.jpg

James D. Posten, born 1829 and died 1914, buried in Pittston City Cemetery, Pittston, Luzerne county, Pennsylvania.[2].  1850 census, Monroe county, PA:  James Portons, 19, with Thomas Portons, age 68 (as transcribed).[3]

Plan of action:  Obtain death certificate for James D. Posten.

Actions taken:   Requested death certificate from Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Effectiveness/ analysis:   Received copy of death certificate[4] about a month after making request.    Names of parents reported as Thomas Postens and Esther Brown.   James’s birthplace recorded as Monroe county, Pennsylvania.  Goal met.  James’ birth date recorded as Aug. 11, 1829.  From 1850 census, James’ birth year about 1831. Could still be same person.   Next steps:   Search 1830/ 1840/ 1850/ 1860 census records for Thomas and Esther.  Focus on Monroe county.  Continue search of census records from 1860 to 1900 for James Posten.  Search 1850 census for James Posten  birth year about 1831 with focus on Monroe and surrounding counties.

I have lots of handwritten notes on printed census records and other documents.  As I continue to work through the various generations, I plan to create research logs,  a tool that I have rarely used.

No, I did not actually write out the initial plan!  But, I did have it (sort of ) in my head.   This is my typical way of doing things. Then, I let the information take me wherever.  Two (or five) hours later, I have followed numerous BSOs and still may not have what I was looking for.  At this point, I usually am not even sure about what I found that didn’t help, those ‘negative findings’.  So, I look  at the same material again and still find that it doesn’t answer my question.

What if you don’t find what you expected?  Set a new goal and develop a new action plan. Keep track of what you searched for and what you found, or didn’t find.  Further research showed that the next two generations in the line (James E.  Posten and Mary Dean, Jacob Posten and Anna Burson) are not my direct ancestors. That is a story for another day!

Want to know more about the genealogy research process?  Try these links:

Next blog:  My experiences with research logs.


[1] Posten family traditions regarding ancestors of John Posten (born 1887), Ruby Grace Gardner, compiler (Pedigree and notes privately held by Susan Posten Ellerbee, [address for private use,] Yukon, Oklahoma) as reported by Vera Posten Brooks, ca. 1989.  A handwritten note on the document states “I don’t know how accurate it is.”

[2] Find A Grave, database with images (   : accessed 3 Mar 2012), memorial 5613463, James D. Posten, Pittston City Cemetery, Pittston, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania; gravestone picture by sharleenp.

[3]1850 U.S. census, Monroe County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Hamilton Township, p. 17B (stamped), dwelling 220, family 220, Phebe Bertyman [Brutzman]; image, (    :  accessed 3 Mar 2012); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 789

[4] Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health, death certificate no. 118955 , James D. Posten (1914); Division of Vital Records, New Castle, PA.

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