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Notes to Self

By Daniel Hubbard | November 5, 2012

A little prompt to organize from our friends at NARA.

As I research I often think of things to do, fragments of plans occur to me, possible research strategies start to form and ideas pop into my head. In short I think of things that I can’t do right at the moment. I probably have that in common with roughly 100% of people who do research. It isn’t anything strange.

There is an obvious question. Why don’t I do those things right away? Here are some answers-

All of those are good answers. Any one of them is a reason not to do something right away. The trick is to record all those good ideas and half formulated plans while keeping focused on the task at hand. Actually, I find that is only half the trick. The other half is to keep those ideas in places where I will find them later when I actually can make use of them.

Generally, there are three things going on when someone does research.

  1. Getting the raw data.
  2. Making sense of the data—analyzing, integrating, organizing, etc.
  3. Planning.

Planning can be something that one does intentionally. Genealogists often prepare a research plan. It may be formalized on paper or it might not. The more complex the problem, the more planning it might require. Nevertheless, “planning” it is often something that simply happens when we least expect it. I can be concentrating on finding a name in a church register and suddenly get two or three ideas for things to do if the name doesn’t show up, something to do if it does show up, and a fallback if what I find means that the hypothesis I’m working on turns out to be wrong. All of those things are good to have, though perhaps not in the middle of wielding a magnifying glass over an endless string of Gothic script.

Interesting thoughts and ideas can break one’s concentration. Getting it written down is the best way to stop thinking about it while avoiding the opposite of the “Aha moment,” the “Argh moment,” an hour later when you realize that you had an idea but you no longer know what it was. Getting it written down in a place that you will be able to find it when the time comes is the best way to not be distracted by it at random moments.

Where should I keep those idea filled notes to self so that I can pursue them? My current thought is that the answer to “Why don’t I do those things right away?” is the answer to how I should file away those ideas. If I file some ideas away in a category something like “waiting for John Doe’s naturalization,” it just might occur to me that once his naturalization arrives, I might be able to do those things.

Our research notes, files, logs, documents, etc. aren’t the only things family historians need to organize. We need to organize our ideas as well.

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