We haven’t known each other very long, but I have to confess something. I struggle with organization. Wrangling all those family members feels like a full time job!
As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m pivoting to life as a full-time genealogist. Part of doing this was getting my own ship in shape. If I was going to do genealogy in earnest, I wanted to be an example. And not have the genealogy equivalent Monica’s Messy Closet. This should be easy, right? I can hear you laughing now…
Our historic counterparts had a difficult challenge. Reams and reams of paper: notes, documents, family trees, you name it. They had to find systems to organize everything and keep it straight. By hand. On paper.
I love paper (maybe too much) but in the 21st century there is no excuse for not digitizing the process as much as possible! But how?
Keeping Track of the Peeps
The available genealogy apps will help you keep track of your tree as you build it. But I haven’t found one yet that lets you keep track of all of your notes, especially when you are still building a case for an ancestor or a family branch. Or if you are also building a database of geographic and general historic information that pertains to your family. Or those random tidbits that you find that you need to follow up on (aka distracting and tempting bright shiny objects).
One of the most rewarding but most complicated facets of genealogy is doing the deep research. I’m a big fan of research. But there are times when it can feel overwhelming. You are going in circles and not finding anything. And you really can’t imagine why so many generations of your family decided to go with the same name. Over and over and over again. They didn’t need to use Apple or North, but could they ditch Hardy for maybe Daniel just once?! I digress…
Brick wall ancestors especially can hang out for years, unknown or unconfirmed. And your research will ebb and flow as time and interest allow. It is these ancestors that definitely need dedicated research notes. So you don’t spend half of your valuable time trying to remember what you looked at, what you found, and what you thought about it all.
But even your “easier” ancestors deserve their own individual notes. We are all guilty of citation failures. Having a record of where you found your information and why you thought it was relevant or accurate will save you much heartache later!
The Template Search and Creation Process
While I had been loosely note-taking for years for the medium-to-difficult ancestors, one particular person inspired me to get more organized with my research.
Meet Hardy Keel, my paternal 4x great-grandfather. This guy is a ghost! I’m not even sure he is the correct individual–this is just my best guess. I have been picking at him for over 10 years and notes about him were scattered throughout his page, his son’s page, a family page, a few random musings pages. A complete mess.
I knew I needed a few things to make this easier for myself:
- A template to track my research–a traditional Research Log–and
- A place to collect all the info for that person in one place.
- And all of this had to be easy to use or I would stop using it and be back into chaos.
Basically, I wanted one-stop shopping for everything about a person and where I left off, what I already knew, and what my thoughts were about all of this.
After googling and researching, I found a template that seemed like a good starting place. However it didn’t quite meet all my needs for centralizing a person’s info as much as reasonably possible. So I supersized it to more of a dossier on the person and my research.
The template acts as a master sheet for both the ancestor and my on-going research.
We start with the basics: Who is this person? What do I know?
For the infamous Hardy, this is what I have so far:
For the rest of the file, I have sections to complete as I work through the research on the individual:
I know this diverges a bit from common practice. Usually, a research log is presented as this stand alone item, that should be used as a master sheet for research only and is in a restrictive table format. For me, my template works better. I’m highly contextual and having it all laid out in one space helps me find connections I can’t find across multiple notes.
In the Real World
There are exceptions, of course. Info or inquiries shared across numerous individuals deserve their own note. Nor would you paste in all of your location information and research. This is where tagging or using keywords and a good search function can help (see Applications below). If you would like to copy the Evernote template, it is available here.
I want to emphasize that you should always do you. Edit this to your heart’s desire. If you like a more compartmentalized structure, break the template up into separate parts you feel makes sense. Play with it until it works. My template is always a work in progress and gets edited to meet the person in question. If something doesn’t apply, delete the line. Need a line? Add one in!
Lastly, of course individual notes are only one piece of the puzzle. In the future, we’ll discuss keeping track of entire families and how to track your overall research history. Yep. There is no way to escape some form of overall tracking!
This is where a note-taking application enters the equation. And where personal preference really comes into play. I’m partial to Evernote* but others prefer Microsoft’s OneNote. There are any number of other applications as well. Fair warning: I’m a PC user but also an iPhone/iPad mobile user. I look for apps that work well with this multi-OS environment.
The important things to consider:
- Does it have desktop and mobile applications that sync easily? And is the mobile app robust enough for your needs? Both Evernote and OneNote have desktop and mobile apps that sync. And both have mobile apps that are functional but not fully operational.
- How will you organize your notes? If you are using Tags, Evernote is the reigning king. If you like tabs, OneNote is better. But beware the differences between the robust OneNote (formerly OneNote 2016) desktop app (Office subscription required) and the much more limited default OneNote for Windows 10 free app.
- Do you like using templates? Evernote again is excellent for this, as is OneNote. The free OneNote for Windows 10 app does not do templates but you could get creative if you needed.
- Cost and Data Limits: Evernote has a free version but come with data limitations. If you are adding images or documents to your notes, you may run out quickly. Their paid versions allow you more space. I use the Premium version and have never run out of my allowance, despite being a daily user. The robust OneNote requires a subscription/license to MS Office 2016/2019/365. OneNote for Windows 10 is free. Both mobile apps are also free, but have limited functionality.
Please let me know below what you think of the template: What do you like? What would you change? Do you think you will adopt for yourself? Lastly, which note taking app do you use? Thanks!
I hope you are now ready to start cleaning out the genealogical closet and getting all those ancestors in line! Happy Organizing! 🙂
*Evernote is in the middle of rolling out their shiny new Version 10 for desktop. It is taking some getting used to. I use both the Legacy and v10 on my computer currently, since 10 is missing some features still (like easy backups, weirdly).
Header Image: From Adobe Stock Photos, “Closeup a pile of old paper on a table in an abandoned building”.
Friends GIF: From Tenor. “You Weren’t Supposed To See This – Messy GIF”
Hardy Keel Census Excerpt: Ancestry.com. 1820 United States Federal Census [database on-line], Beaufort, North Carolina. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
Evernote Templates: Created by Michelle Keel ©2020, using Evernote (not sponsored).
Evernote/OneNote Logos: Pinterest Pin 62557882302806936.