Genealogy researchers love the thrill of the hunt. When you’re on the prowl for old records, it’s hard to match that feeling of triumph when you ﬁnally net the will or deed you’re after. Perhaps less thrilling, though, is the need to organize all the information you find. But unless you do, that information will be less useful to you or the generations that follow. As a professional organizer and an avid genealogist, I’ve found that organizing my research time can make my research sessions more successful and enjoyable.
Getting your research organized isn’t optional if you’re serious about discovering your family tree. You can bet that professional genealogists, who might trace the family trees of three or four or 10 clients at a time, have devised clever ways to organize information and maximize their research time. There’s much to learn from these pros. Four of these experts divulged their top organization principles to me—and I’m sharing them so you, too, can ﬁnd your family faster.
1. Know your research question
Start each research session knowing what you’re looking for. “Have a very specific research question in front of you so you can keep focused on it,” says Drew Smith, author of the book Organize Your Genealogy (Family Tree Books) and podcaster at the Genealogy Guys Podcast. An example might be, “Where was my great-grandmother buried?” Narrowing the focus of a session to an individual, or possibly a couple, can help you avoid distractions and keep you from feeling overwhelmed as you search online databases and consider which record might belong to your family.
D. Joshua Taylor, president of the New York Geographical and Biographical Society and a host of PBS’s “Genealogy Roadshow,” limits his personal research to two or three projects—that is, questions needing answered—at a given time. “I try to be very diligent about not shifting my focus, but it’s much easier said than done,” he says. He finds that making the conscious decision to explore only a few specific questions keeps his focus on resources that may pertain to these questions, boosting his productivity.
Taylor sets a time limit of three to six months to finish a research project. If he hasn’t found the answer he seeks by the deadline, he puts the project on the back burner and moves on to another question. He keeps a list of his projects, so he always knows which one will come into the rotation when he finishes or tables the current project. “I actually have the next two years of research mapped out.”
2. Be realistic about what you can get done
When you’re creating a plan for your research session, set yourself up for success by being realistic about what you can accomplish in the time you’re able to spend. (This is good advice for organizing any aspect of your life, by the way.) This helps you avoid having to stop midstream. “I try to imagine how long it will take me to do a project, and it helps me plan what I want to accomplish,” Taylor says.
There’s no need to set aside a whole day to research, Smith adds. He says that for most people, two hours of research is probably the maximum before they feel mentally drained. And short sessions are much easier to fit into your busy schedule. I research every morning for about 30 minutes. My to-do list is brief for these bite-sized sessions, and they’re usually productive. For more-involved research questions, I add longer sessions about once a month.
3. Jot down your “Bright Shiny Objects” for later
You undoubtedly know the temptation of coming across unexpected information on a family member you weren’t researching. These BSOs (Bright Shiny Objects) can distract you from the question you started off with. It’s human nature to want to explore an unanticipated find. To stay focused on your research question, Smith suggests taking a moment to bookmark or write down the BSO so you can come back to it later. “Make a note for yourself so you won’t have that [distraction] running around in your head,” Smith says.
Taylor tries to anticipate distractions, deciding before starting a session what he is and isn’t going to research. “I’m never as efficient when I’m going in a million different directions when I’m researching,” he says. “So I try to stay focused on the research I set out to do.” He keeps a log called Other People, where he notes information that doesn’t fall into his current research plan but merits further investigation in the future.
4. Keep a research log
A research log lets you maximize your research time by helping you jump right into a task, instead of spending the first 10 minutes figuring out where you left off. It also stops you from duplicating efforts. “To me, it’s like Hansel and Gretel with a breadcrumb trail, except the birds are not going to pick up those breadcrumbs,” says Thomas MacEntee, the genealogist behind Abundant Genealogy. It’s up to you to search out and keep track of these clues.
Your research log might be a spreadsheet or a list in your genealogy software where you record pertinent information: the date of your research, ancestors searched, records you used, what you found, information extracted from that source, and resources you need to consult next. For example, if you discovered a name in an online index and you need to request a copy of the record or find it on microfilm, record these tasks in your research log. MacEntee suggests checking out different research log formats and trying the one that feels best to you. “You’ve got to find the method that works best for your habits,” MacEntee says. “Otherwise you’re not going to stay with it.” He turned his own research log into a template that you can download for free.
I keep a freeform log in Evernote, with one note per research session that I file in an annual research log notebook. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. After a number of failed attempts at more complicated logs, this simple system has allowed me to create the habit of recording what I did and what my next steps are. You can check out some tips for using Evernote for genealogy here.
While searching for your ideal system, keep data portability in mind. You want to be able to download or export your data, so you can back it up, create a report with it, or import it into a new system if needed.
5. Record negative findings
Of course you record the information you find in your research. But taking note of what you didn’t find can be very helpful as well, Smith says. This can help you avoid checking the same sources again. Paying attention to negative results also can provide valuable clues.
“Not finding something can tell you just about as much as finding something,” Smith says. For example, if someone doesn’t show up as expected in a census or city directory, you might have an indication he or she moved away or has died. Look for him in death records and in records of other places (such as where other relatives have moved).
6. Use your research log as a place to hold unproven discoveries
It can be challenging to keep track of finds that may or may not be legitimate—theories about where your ancestor may have migrated or how a same-surname family is related to yours. You don’t want to prematurely give them credence, but you also don’t want to lose track of the clue. Your research log is the perfect place to record this unproven information, suggests MacEntee, who calls this his “sandbox.” It’s a holding place where you can explore the clues more until you prove or disprove them.
It’s safer to store these clues in your log rather than in your genealogy software or family tree. “Nothing goes into my genealogy database until I’ve proven it through the research log,” MacEntee says. That way, your database contains only sourced facts and you can feel good about sharing your tree with others.
7. Use research checklists
Creating a workflow—a step-by-step process for doing research and working with your results—can help you keep your research sessions focused and efficient. “You might even want to use a flowchart that gives you all the steps,” Smith says. You can use our sample workflow (above) or create your own that’s customized to your research.
Smith suggests creating checklist templates in a word processing document, spreadsheet software, note-taking app (such as Evernote), or another program of your choice. Copy and then individualize your checklists as needed for each project or research session. These checklists can help you make the most of the records you discover and mine every last clue. Consider using the following kinds of research checklists, and add others you find helpful:
- Your research workflow
- US and state censuses that occurred during the lifetime of the person you’re researching
- Sources you plan to consult on a library visit
- Source information to note for each record you find
- Spelling variants of your ancestors’ names
- Research log to record your findings and source citations (see tip No. 4)
- Books you own (to avoid duplicate purchases)
8. Keep track of next steps
Make a note of where you left off at the end of every session. Then when you sit down to research next time, you can simply consult that note and see what’s next. I write down my next steps in my research log at the end of each session, and it’s been an invaluable time-saving habit.
MacEntee describes these notations as “a to-do list with a little more flavor to it.” “So many of us get 15 minutes in an evening to research, and then we put it down and come back a week later,” he says. “Writing down where you left off cuts down on duplication of effort.”
Taylor organizes his research task lists by repository, which might be a library or an online database. Then when he goes to the Family History Library or Ancestry, he can do all his lookups, even if they’re not related to a current research project.
9. Keep your organization tools simple and consistent
The simpler the system, the easier it is to follow. “Start simple,” Smith advises. “Once you have that mastered, you can add complexity, like color coding, if you want. But I think for most researchers, the simpler the better.”
In working with my organization clients, I’ve found that complicated techniques requiring things like cross-referencing and special labels might be attractive, but they can be time-intensive to follow—so you won’t do it. It’s far better to establish an easy system that you have a fighting chance of following. I’ve tried and failed to keep complex research logs, filling out fields for where, when and what I found. I needed something simpler. When I finally started allowing myself to create a note in Evernote and write about each session freeform, I was able to create the habit of logging all my searches.
MacEntee suggests creating a digital file-naming system that makes it easy to identify the file by person or date. He also recommends descriptive file names so you know what’s in a file without having to open it. Name your files with a consistent scheme. Mine is Year-Document Type-Person-Locality, as in: 1938-death certificate-GW Adams-Indianapolis IN.jpg. Starting each file name with a year makes the files line up chronologically in the folders on my hard drive. You might want them in alphabetical order by surname, or some other arrangement.
10. Do what works for you
The best way to organize your research is the way that works for you, which is why Taylor urges you to personalize any organizational system you try. “Don’t try and take something off the shelf and assume that every aspect will apply to your research,” he says. Instead, take what you learn in a lecture or an article (even this article!) and customize it for your own needs, rather than trying to replicate it.
But do consider others who might one day need to sort through your research, adds Denise Levenick, blogger at The Family Curator and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes. A good system will be open and accessible to your heirs, who may need to determine what information goes with what person, and what’s important to keep.
People have a tendency to give up on trying to get organized the moment it starts to feel like it isn’t working. But instead of jumping to another strategy, or just deciding organizing your research isn’t worth the effort, tweak your techniques. Think about what is and isn’t working for you, and write it down. Can you alter the parts that aren’t working to be more like the parts that are? Often, simplifying a system by just removing the steps you’re resisting is enough of a modification to make it work. If you love color-coding file names, research log entries and paper folders, and you’ll do it consistently, great. If not, it can be an impediment. In that case, just leave out the color-coding step.
11. Don’t rush
I always urge my organizing clients to give a new system time before deciding it’s not for them. Creating an organizing system that works requires creating new habits. And new habits take time to establish.
“Genealogy isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” MacEntee says. “You want to set yourself up to win that marathon in the long run.” That means there’s no need to cut corners. It also means that patience is a virtue.
Researching your family tree is not something you do in a week or a year. Taking time to organize your findings is just part of that process. The same holds true for inherited family archives. Levenick suggests taking your time when you’re working with a family archive, to get to know what’s in it. Carefully go through the photos and the letters and see what you have, trying not to disrupt the groups or order of items.
She’s found that spending time with her family photos has helped her in her genealogy research. For example, she recognized a name on the family tree of a DNA match because that name appeared on an old photo. If she’d rushed through her photos, rather than carefully examining them, she might not have made this connection.
12. Be kind to yourself
It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll to be able to organize all your information or your entire family archive in a week, says Levenick. And you may not have access to all the resources, like archival quality storage materials or a flatbed scanner, that you’d like. Be kind to yourself. “You just have to do the best you can with the funds and knowledge you have,” she says. “And that’s okay.”
Don’t beat yourself up if an organizing system you read about or heard an expert talk about isn’t working for you. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. “We’re all unique,” Taylor says, “and genealogy is part creativity.”
Organizing your genealogy information takes time. But it’s time well spent. Investing that time up front in setting up a research log, workflow or staying-focused strategies will pay off down the road in more genealogy finds. You’ll save hours and effort locating information and documents.
Honestly, wouldn’t you rather spend more time researching and less time looking for things? As MacEntee says, “We should be looking for ancestors, we shouldn’t be looking for stuff.”