Timesaving Genealogy Tech Tools

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

From work and family commitments to volunteering, from making an emergency call to the plumber to squeezing in a visit to the dentist, it’s a feat to find enough hours in the day for doing genealogy. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the thought of so many ancestors; so little time. Your family history to-do list might include searching online databases, visiting repositories, writing up source citations, scanning pictures, calling up second cousin Sally, starting a family history, cataloging heirlooms, organizing your files and more.

But don’t let your burgeoning to-do list bog you down. We’ve found 16 apps and online tools to help you save time and get a handle on those backed-up research projects.

Note takers

As a writer and genealogist, I’m always making notes and collecting information in the form of text, images, web addresses and documents. I also brainstorm ideas and scribble notes about new ancestors or family connections I find. You probably do the same. In the past, saving and managing all this data was cumbersome (and required lots of paper), but now note-taking and brainstorming tools make it easy to organize the information you process in your genealogy search.

Evernote: This dynamic tool is an online notebook where you can store textual notes, family photos and recipes, articles clipped from websites, and even audio and video files. Just like on paper, you can keep different notebooks for different projects. I have a notebook for general genealogy information, plus one for each surname I’m researching, ones for various book projects and others for recipes, travel and articles I’m working on.

You can create text notes, clip URLs or entire web pages, add images, import photographs (or take photos with a smartphone or tablet within the Evernote mobile app), and create voice or video recordings. In addition, every Evernote account comes with a unique email address. To find it, look in the Account Info area (the exact process will vary depending on the device you use). This is especially useful if a cousin sends an email you want to file with your family history research or if Aunt Betty emails you her famous pumpkin pie recipe to make for Thanksgiving.

You also can email notes to Evernote—just specify in the subject line which notebook you want the note in, and any tags associated with the note. Use the @ symbol with the name of an existing notebook, and to add a tag, include a # sign followed by an existing tag. For example, to email Aunt Betty’s stuffing recipe to your Evernote Recipes notebook, give it the subject line might be: @Recipes #thanksgiving. This creates a note in the Recipes notebook tagged with “thanksgiving.”

Evernote works on Windows PC and Mac platforms, as well as mobile devices. It offers easy syncing across different devices. The free version is adequate for most basic users, but the premium version ($45 per year) offers more flexibility, larger upload and search capabilities, additional storage space or other functions.

iPhone or iPad users also may like EverClip ($2.99) for easily collecting websites, text and images, and saving them to your Evernote account. Simply run EverClip in the background, switch to other apps, copy anything and the items copied will be imported. Watch a demo video to learn more. EverClip does have a few quirks and limitations, such as not being able to edit a note once you’ve saved it. That said, I love this app and use it pretty much every day.

For more tips on using Evernote for genealogy, see The Evernote Blog and Tonia’s Roots Blog.

FHnotebook: This web tool is similar to Evernote, but is designed especially for genealogists to securely store notes, documents, photos, videos and audio files, as well as record discoveries and manage to-do lists. Access your family history notebook from any computer connected to the internet, capture research on the go with the free Family History Media smartphone app, and clip snippets of articles and vital records with the free Family History Web Clipper browser extension. In addition, a free Family History Box desktop app lets you back up your FHnotebook to your computer.

FHnotebook’s free plan lets you securely store up to 100 files or 1 GB of data and share your research with one friend. Additional pricing options range from $19.99 to $59.99 per year, depending on amount of storage needed and the number of people you want to share your research with.

Microsoft OneNote: If you have the Microsoft Office package of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, you probably have OneNote. It’s essentially a virtual notebook that includes the same elements as a physical notebook—pages, section tabs, grouped sections and more. You can have notebooks for each surname you’re researching, localities and specific tasks. After you set up your system, it’s easy to organize your research (no more shuffling through stacks of paper). To learn more about using Microsoft OneNote for genealogy, visit The Paperless Genealogist blog and 4YourFamilyStory’s blog.

Scapple: Scapple is a freeform text editor that allows you to make notes anywhere on the page and connect them using straight dotted lines or arrows. Unlike more traditional “mind-mapping,” you don’t have to start with one central idea that everything else branches off from. You can make your own connections as to how your ideas best fit together. To create notes, double-click anywhere on the canvas and start typing. Make connections between ideas by dragging and dropping one note onto another. The best part about this app is that you’ll never run out of paper.

The program is available for Mac computers, with a beta version for Windows ($14.99). An iPad and iPhone app is in the works. Try it free for 30 days of actual use.

Scrivener: This hybrid word processor and project management tool is affordable ($45 for Mac; $40 for Windows) and simple to use. Try it free for 30 days of actual use before you buy; then you’ll need to export all your work or buy a license to continue using it. Click on the Video Tutorials link to watch short visual demonstrations of the program’s features.

Time and task managers

From lists of genealogy records to find or to-dos for the next family reunion, time management apps and web tools can help you organize all the things you need to do. Some even send you automatic reminders to keep you on track. The variety of options available allows you to choose on best suited to your personal tastes and organizational style.

Any.do: This simple to-do list app claims to help you remember everything you have to do. It lets you keep all your to-dos in sync, use drag-and-drop tools to plan your agenda, add reminders so you don’t forget anything and attach notes or subtasks.

It automatically sets up categories for tasks into Today, Tomorrow, Upcoming and Someday, and you can check off each task as you go. The default folders are Personal and Work, but you can create your own (such as Genealogy Research Requests, Family Reunion or Family History Writing). You also can speak into the app to quickly add a task if you don’t want to type it. The app is available for free on Android, iPad, iPhone and has a Google Chrome browser extension.

iDoneThis: Working with a group of researchers? This email-based productivity log keeps a calendar of completed tasks and sends you and/or your project manager) daily messages. The iOS personal version is free; add $5 per person per month for collaborators. Use it on your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Mac desktop.

Trello: Trello is a free, web-based tool for organizing projects. You can get the large overview of a project or drill down to the details. If you like to use index cards to organize your files, Trello may appeal to you.
Log in using your existing Gmail account or create a new account. It’s easy to use and flexible. You can set up different boards, which have collections of customizable lists. The lists contain cards. A good genealogy setup might be one board for each surname you’re researching, another for a family history book project and one for each genealogy conference or online class you attend. 

You can put your cards into lists to track progress or categorize tasks. You also can add members if you’re working on group projects, and get notifications of changes made to the lists. Because I’m a visual person and like the “storyboard” method for my family history writing, I use Trello to help organize and track my writing-related tasks. Trello works with Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer web browsers. An app is available for Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows 8 devices.

WorkFlowy: If you like seeing your tasks in outline format, this free web-based tool could be just what you’re looking for. WorkFlowy is especially good when you want to focus on one thing at a time, such as searching for a specific record. You also can use it for note-taking, brainstorming and keeping a journal of things to remember such as alternate surname spellings, questions that arise during research, or genealogy conference registration deadlines. You must be connected to the internet to use it on a computer, but the mobile apps (for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch) let you work online or offline. Android users should check out Workflowy Agent in the Google Play store.

Tome trackers

Family and local histories, data compilations, reference books, historical fiction: Most genealogists love books, particularly the old fashioned—aka paper—kind. These apps can help you catalog your collection like a library’s.

iBookshelf: I have hundreds of genealogy books and in the past, I had to keep track of them in my head or on a typed sheet of paper. Now I can use iBookShelf on my iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. The “lite” version lets you store up to 20 titles; the premium version ($1.99) gives you seemingly unlimited space.

You can enter new books automatically (enter the ISBN and it loads the remaining data from the internet) or manually. iPad users with a Cue Cat USB scanner and USB camera kit can scan the book’s barcode to add the title to a virtual bookshelf. You can search for books in your library and enter a “loan status” to remember whom you loaned a book to or borrowed it from. The app also tells you where you can buy the book, how much it costs and what libraries have it. Android users might like Bookshelf, which works similarly. 

Goodreads: Do you have a favorite genealogy book you’d like to recommend or want to read? Use the Goodreads app available for Android; or for iPad and iPhone. The app lets you search for and review books, see what friends are reading, update your to-read or already-read lists, and more. 

Remote accessers

What if you’re at a library and you need to check a record you haven’t yet moved to the cloud? Remote access tools let you access your home computer if it’s on and connected to the internet. Here are a few to consider:

GoToMyPC: This tool works on Windows PCs or Macs, and offers mobile access from your iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire or Android device. It lets you access your desktop files and print remotely, transfer files between computers, and copy and paste between computers. It costs $99 per year for one computer.

LogMeIn: A free version of this tool lets you access your desktop computer to open files, check email and run programs from a mobile device or other computer. The Pro version ($69.95 per year for one computer) offers additional features.

Splashtop Personal: This app lets you view and edit multimedia files stored on your PC or Mac from a mobile device. You’ll need to buy the “in-app” Anywhere Access Pack to access your files away from home. The iPad app is $6.99, iPhone/iPod touch app is $2.99 and app for all Windows mobile devices, as well as Mac and Windows PC desktops, is free.

Device de-complicators

Genealogists are always surfing the web, making discoveries and looking for ways to share what we’ve found. The following tools will help make your surfing, sharing and organizing tasks simpler.

LastPass: Tired of having to keep track of all of your email, social media, online tree and other passwords? Let LastPass remember them for you. LastPass provides a master password and securely synchronizes your data across browsers. It’s free to use on your computer, but to sync with mobile devices, you’ll need to sign up for the premium version ($12 per year). Remember: If others have access to your computer or you use it on a mobile device that might get lost or stolen, don’t use the automatic “Log me in” feature.

Split Screen: I love my iPad, but it’s a pain to switch between two web browser windows. The free Split Screen app lets you view two websites at once by giving you side-by-side browser windows. For example, I can have a Greek Catholic church record I found on FamilySearch on one side, and Google Translateon the other, or I could view Twitter on the left and an article a genealogy friend tweeted on the right. Split Screen also includes many standard web browser features like bookmarks, history and an integrated search bar. Other dual browser apps for iPad lack these basic features.

Fuzel: This handy iPhone app (free or $1.99 premium version) lets you create beautiful photo collages. It’s great for holiday cards and sharing pictures online. Choose from seven aspect ratios (proportion of width to height), including one for a Facebook cover image. Use one of the 60-plus layout templates, design your own, or make purchase unique ones in-app. You can import images from your photo library, Google Images or your Facebook account, and then share your collage on Flickr, Instagram, social media sites or via email. I like using this app to make collages of a family line, to honor a particular ancestor for his or her birthday, or for special occasions such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

When it comes to time management tools, it seems like there’s always something new to help you get more done in less time. Since no two genealogists work the same way, no single app or program is a “one size fits all” solution. You may need to test several before you decide which one to go with.

Get It Done

Just looking for a simple way to keep a to-do list on your phone or computer? Try these popular apps:
Clear: $1.99 for iPhone/iPad/iPod touch or $9.99 for your Mac.
Doit.im: free basic version, $20 per year Pro version; Android, iPad, iPhones; Firefox, Safari and Chrome web browsers
Living Organized: $9.99 for iOS; free for Android
Remember the Milk: free basic account; $25 per year Pro account; Android, iPad, iPhone and BlackBerry mobile devices; works with Google Calendar, Twitter and Microsoft Outlook

Wunderlist: free; Android, iPad and iPhone devices; Windows and Mac desktop
Tip: Before starting a free trial for a paid app or tool, check whether the trial period is measured in calendar days or actual days used.

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