Taking Better Notes in Your Genealogy Research

Much has been said about organizing our genealogy research, but there’s an aspect that is often overlooked: note-taking.  How do we work with the records and information as we’re using them, analyzing them, putting things together? Let’s explore how to we can take better notes in our genealogy research.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 48

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 14 minutes.

The choices now are much broader than back in the days of deciding between spiral-bound notebooks and loose-leaf notebook paper. But it’s still a struggle for many of us.

There is more to the genealogy research process than gathering records and filling the blanks. We’ve talked before here on the podcast about the WANDER method for genealogy research:

  • What do you want to find
  • Analyze what you already have
  • Note what is missing
  • Discover new records
  • Evaluate everything
  • Repeat as necessary

Because research isn’t a straight line, things start to get messy because we have different needs as we go through the process.

Why We Need a Good Note-Taking System

A bigger part of the note-taking problem is that we try to force everything into one system. We try to combine note-taking, analysis, to-do lists, and conclusions into one tool. We need to analyze what we already have. We need to discover new records. We need to evaluate those new records. And it’s likely that we’ll need to repeat as necessary. 

All of that is a lot to ask just one tool.

Genealogy software or an online family tree is a great way to organize your conclusions or your working theories, but it’s a fairly lousy way of keeping track of your research as you’re drawing your conclusions. That software is best for organizing the people you’re researching and keeping track of their relationships to each other. But that family tree software isn’t going to help you analyze the records you’ve found. It isn’t going to help you keep track of what you need or want to look for next.

What do we do with the records we find, whether on paper or digital, that we collect as we’re researching? How do we keep track of it all?

Unfortunately, there is no one single solution that will work for everyone. It’s like organizing. The system that works well for me might not work as well for you. I know I’ve shocked a fair number of my colleagues when I’ve told them that some of my research is organized by location rather than by surname.

When we think about research as a process, we realize that not everything is going to fit neatly into our family tree software or chart. One tool likely isn’t going to cover all of our needs. What we need is a system where the tools can work together.

What Makes a Good Genealogy Note-Taking System

It needs to be simple. The more complicated you make it, the less likely you are to keep it up. It will also be more difficult for all of the parts to work together.

It needs to be flexible. The whole point of taking notes and saving records is so that you can analyze them as you need to and how you need to.

What you want to avoid is using a tool — whether it’s a piece of software or a piece of equipment — just for the sake of using it. If it helps your research process, awesome! Keep using it. If it doesn’t help — if all it’s doing is making more work for you — then stop using it. The key is to keep things simple.

For example, for a long time, I tried to use Evernote in my research. But it always felt like a struggle. I could never quite get it to feel like a natural part of the process. Finally, I decided to stop using it.

Your note-taking system will likely evolve, much like your organizational system does. Back in the old days, before I took a laptop or a smartphone everywhere, I kept a separate research log. They were pre-printed forms with columns for where I was researching, the date, the resource I used, what I was looking for, and a summary of what I found (or didn’t find). It was kind of like a table of contents into my full research notes.

But as I started to use my computer everywhere, I stopped keeping a research log that was separate from my research notes. Instead, I started using a document that combined the two. I still use that basic format today, even though now I more often use Google Docs than a Word document.

In this document, I record where I’m researching (which is especially helpful later if I need to revisit a book or record group that I used in person) and I record what it is that I’m using (essentially writing a source citation).

Here’s something that I have always found useful: I record what it was I was looking for. If I’m searching in a county history of Marion County, West Virginia, I’ll record that I was looking for references to any Hibbs or Masons. Later, when I’m reviewing my notes, I can see that I didn’t look for anyone with the surname of Amos.

I’ll record what I found. If it’s something short, I’ll just type it into my notes. If it’s longer or it’s something online that I can download, I’ll make a note that I made photocopies or downloaded images.

Just as important, I record what I didn’t find. (Yes, I looked in this county history for anyone with the surname of Hibbs, but I didn’t find any.)

It’s also important to note any limitations to the source. Going back to the county history example, I’ll note that it doesn’t have an every-name index and that the Masons I found were the ones listed in the biographical section. When I review my notes later, I can see that there might be more Masons in books; they just weren’t in the main list of biographies. Maybe I could follow up to find a digitized version of the book where I could do a full-text search to find more.

Sample of genealogy notes showing how to record information
Sample of my genealogy notes. It’s a combination of research notes and research log.

Note-Taking a Step Further: The To-Do List

Speaking of follow-up, that’s really what the N in WANDER is about “Note what is missing.” It’s the second type of note-taking that I do: the to-do list or the idea list.

I don’t try to force my ideas for follow-up in my notes document. To me, it’s too easily jumbled and lost. Instead, I keep a separate document. How I maintain that document depends upon the project and how I’m researching and analyzing at that moment.

I do have a running to-do list for my various projects. But when I’m in the moment, analyzing things and collecting new information, I almost always have a notepad with me. I’m constantly jotting down ideas for things to look for next and why I think something might be important.

Yes, I know I could do that on my computer, either in a Word document or a Google Doc (or any other piece of software). But I like the immediacy and the flexibility of writing it down. I also like how I’m more likely to retain the information if I write it versus if I type it.

If you’re wondering, yes, those scribbles get added to my files in some form or another. I’ll either add the task to my to-do list and/or I’ll take that piece of paper and add it to that research folder.

Avoiding Rabbit Holes by Note-Taking

I’ve recently taken note-taking and follow-up a step further. You know those rabbit holes we find ourselves in? Those ones that we get lured into with a bright, shiny object? (“Oh that database looks so cool, I have to look at it right now!”) Which leads to another database, which leads to another website, which leads to a digitized book…  I think part of the reason we follow those so easily is because we’re afraid we’ll never get back to them again.

What I’ve started doing is keeping a Google Doc with those “cool things.” That way, I don’t feel the need to stop everything and go explore it right now; I have a way of getting back to it later when I do have the time.

As you’re developing your own system for taking notes, I encourage you to keep it simple and also not to try to force all of the functionality that you need into just one tool. Find the best tools for the various jobs that you need and come up with a system that works best for you.


Posted: June 12, 2020.

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  • I find Google Keep to be quite helpful. I can easily save URLs, images (JPGs), and text in separate Keep items.

  • I too found Evernote an awkward tool for me. Like you I much prefer the written method of taking notes. Then I type them into a notes file on my computer for a particular person or file the piece of paper into a folder for that family. So old school, but it works!

    • Thanks for sharing your process. I tried to use Evernote and discovered that for me it’s like taking a thought or document and carefully labeling and storing it in a box in the attic never to be seen again. I’m going to try your suggestions this weekend. Thank you!

  • I have started keeping a paper notebook and different colored pens to record different items like what I already know, what I found ,and any new questions I developed that need answered. I’m more likely to keep up with writing rather than typing. I have tried Rootsmagic’s research log, but it’s not right in front of me like my notebook! I do like all the options that RootsMagic has, but like you said, it must work for you

  • Thanks, Amy. You shared some really good thoughts. I struggle with note taking and research logs and remembering what I have already searched.

  • I use my Legacy software to keep notes. This has been my method for over a dozen years. I date each entry. When I come back around to a particular ancestor I can easily see what I was researching and my conclusions. Legacy has notes in several sections of the program.
    I also use Evernote, but only for keeping track on DNA correspondence.

  • Thank you! Great tips. I’ve used several different approaches and find myself reverting to pen and paper often. I also like keeping a running google doc handy.