Plan the Attack
By Donn Devine, CG

There’s never enough time to check all of the sources that might contribute to our family history, so the only solution is to check them out in some sort of logical order that uses our time most effectively. In other words, follow a plan.

In the past, research planning was largely a matter of deciding which libraries or repositories to visit first, so we wouldn’t have to return a second time for something we missed on the first visit. To avoid overlooking significant sources, we placed heavy emphasis on indexes and finding aids that would shorten our search.

Today, the availability of online search engines and CD-ROM indexes lets us do much of the legwork from home. However, the results we get when we check for a name in hundreds of databases may give us a flood of possibilities with little that indicates which might apply to the problem at hand.

Just as in pre-computer times, we need to check these available sources in a planned and logical order to make the most efficient use of our time. We need to develop our own order of searching the available databases, beginning with those most likely to yield positive results. We need to create a research plan.

Planning the Plan
Plans can be just a few notes jotted on the back of an envelope or lengthy works that require several feet of shelf space. Although your plan doesn’t have to be committed to paper, even when it is, a genealogy research plan seldom requires more than a single page.

A plan consists of four basic elements:

  1. Objective. A brief statement of what you want to discover. A written objective can help you focus your efforts and keep your research from wandering off course, even when those side paths that open up are very interesting.
  2. Resources. Sources of information that may contribute toward reaching the objective. First among the resources is any information already collected, the conclusions drawn from that information, and books and publications that are at hand—family records and other sources found in the home. Additional sources will require more traditional methods of research. Today, fortunately, a number of these sources can be accessed from our homes via e-mail and through databases available online.
  3. Sequence. A list of the sources to consult in the order in which they will be used or applied. Creating the sequence requires the identification of published compilations, databases, and series of original records that are most likely to contain information relating to our objective. Creating a sequence that begins with sources that have indexes, finding aids, or online search capabilities will also help you narrow your search.
  4. Arrangements. Tools that need to be assembled and contacts and commitments that must be made before a search can begin. For example, you’ll want to note required fees, hours of operation, transportation schedules, parking, advance requests or permissions, services available, and equipment necessary if you’ll be conducting research away from home. This attention to detail can make the difference between success and frustration.

Seeing the Plan
But what exactly would a successful research plan look like? The example below shows a research plan with a typical research objective and an efficient order for consulting the available sources to achieve a research goal. Reviewing such a plan can give you a better idea of what would be included in your own research plan.

Rejuvenating the Plan
Planning isn’t a one-time effort. It’s a cyclical process that needs to be analyzed, updated, and modified each time a step is completed. Each time after you have the results from an original plan, you should analyze these results for the following:

  1. Was sufficient data found to reach your objective? If not, have all of the available resources been exhausted? Or should this objective be put aside in favor of a new objective?
  2. What is the logical next step to become the objective for a new plan?
  3. Did anything found suggest other approaches that could be used in a new plan toward the same objective?

That’s all there is to it. For repeated research of the same kind, it may not even be necessary to list the sequence on paper since it can be easily remembered. However, you should never neglect committing to paper or hard drive an explicit statement of your objective. Without a written objective, anyone runs two risks that can consume productive time—being led into non-productive by-ways, and failing to stop when the research is done and it’s time to take stock and analyze what was found and select an objective for the next phase of research.

A few minutes devoted to planning an efficient order for searching available sources is time extremely well spent. An effective plan can double or triple the research you can complete within any given period.

Donn Devine, CG, a genealogical consultant from Wilmington, Delaware, is an attorney for the city and archivist of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. He is a former National Genealogical Society board member, currently chairs its Standards Committee, is a trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and is the administrator for Devine and Baldwin DNA surname projects.

Research Plan

Identify the parents of Any Name, born Wilmington, Delaware, 14 January 1896.

Original Information:

  • City of Wilmington birth registrations.
  • Catholic parish baptisms.
Secondary Information:
  • U.S. Census—1900, 1910.
  • Social Security Death Index.
  • SS-5 application for Social Security account.
  • New Castle County marriage registrations.

Locations and Sequence

  1. At home, online—U.S. census 1900 (Ancestry.com subscription); if ancestor is not found, search 1910 census.
  2. SSDI (RootsWeb.com, for SSN to order SS-5 form).
  3. Catholic baptisms (selected parishes, to 1900)—www.lalley.com.
  4. Historical Society Library, Wilmington.
    • Microfilms of Catholic baptisms.
    • City directories, backwards from 1918.
  5. Delaware Public Archives, Dover.
    • Microfilmed Wilmington birth registrations, 1896; later if not found (for late registration).
    • Indexes, New Castle County marriage registrations, 1915–25.
    • If indexed, New Castle County marriage registrations.
  6. Order SS-5 form from Social Security Administration, if parents not identified elsewhere.


  • Historical Society Library, Wilmington hours—Monday 1–9; Tuesday through Friday 9–5. Photocopies available for a fee.
  • Delaware Public Archives, Dover—Monday through Saturday, 8-5.


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