Using a Genealogy Research Log

Using a Genealogy Research Log

Does your genealogy search feel a bit scattered? Whip it into organized, efficient shape by using a research log. Our expert shows you how to get started.

As the saying goes, “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” In the course of your research, you probably talk with relatives, use online databases and websites, visit repositories to scour books and microfilm, and yes, sometimes even send away for records via mail. You might collect plenty of data for each ancestor, but usually each answer leads to more questions. Keeping track of it all so you can pick up where you left off and avoid rechecking the same sources gets challenging. The best way I’ve found to manage my searching is to record my research to-dos and have-dones in a simple spreadsheet—a research log.
A log is a comprehensive list of sources you’ve already searched or plan to search, including the purpose of each search (what you want to find); a summary of what you did or didn’t find; the related person or family and where they lived; notations and source citations; and comments about your search strategies, suggestions, questions, analyses and discrepancies. You can use this important tool to organize and track your research, to prepare for a research trip or to pick back up after a break. Just follow these six steps. 

1. Decide on a format.

You’ll want to set up your research log using a tool that lets you sort the data by each column (so you could, say, find all of the entries related to the library you’re visiting next week) and search for a term such as a name or year. Depending on the extent of your research, you also might want the flexibility to set up separate tabs for different ancestors, branches of your tree or record groups. You could also set up one family per workbook and assign each ancestor a different sheet. Database software such as Microsoft Excel is a simple way to keep your research log. You probably already have it on your computer and are familiar with how it works.
If you keep your spreadsheet in the “cloud” with a tool such as Google Drive (the new home for Google Docs) or Evernote, you’ll be able to use it from the library, great-aunt Edna’s house, or wherever you happen to have internet access. Here I’ll show you how to set up your log using Google Drive.
If you want to set up your log in Excel, you can upload it into Google Drive for later editing and anywhere-access. You also can set up Google Drive to sync with files on your hard drive, so you could edit the file at home and still access an updated version online. In Evernote, you can attach an Excel file to a new note.

2. Consider columns.

Think about your research and plan out the columns you’ll want in your research log. It’s better to start with too-specific columns you can combine or delete later than to be months into your log and realize you should’ve been recording a particular bit of data all along. Here’s what I suggest recording for each research log entry:

  • Date entered: Note the date you enter the item into your to-do list.
  • Given name: Record the first and middle name of the person who’s the subject of this entry.
  • Surname: Enter the relative’s surname (include a woman’s maiden and married names in case she used one or the other in the record you’re seeking).
  • Record or resource: Enter the title, date and other details for the resource you’re seeking. 
  • Information sought: Note what you’re looking for.
  • Repository/Website: Record the archive or website you need to visit to complete the task. Include contact information such as URLs and phone numbers.
  • Date completed: Leave this column blank until you check the item off your to-do list.
  • Outcome: Note whether your search was successful and what you discovered once you complete the item.
  • Source citation: Compose a source citation you can copy and paste into your genealogy software once you consult the resource.
  • Source number: If you number your sources according to a filing system, you can enter that number here.
  • Notes: Add any other helpful information about the person, repository or record.
Every genealogist researches differently, so no two genealogists’ research logs will look entirely the same. For additional column ideas and examples, see the “Getting a Log Up” section below

3. Create a new document.

For Google Drive, first log in in to your Gmail account. If you don’t have one, set it up for free following the steps at Next, click on Drive or go to and then click the red Create button. A list of document types will drop down; select Spreadsheet. Next, give your spreadsheet a title: Click Untitled Spreadsheet at the top, then rename the spreadsheet. You could go with something simple such as “Lisa’s Genealogy Research Log,” or use the name of the family or person who’s the focus of this log (for example, “Jan Alzo”).

4. Share if you want to.

Google Drive permits sharing, great if you’re collaborating with cousins on your research or you want to keep family updated on your progress. (Evernote and similar tools also let you share your logs.) Click File and then Share, and review the privacy policy. The default setting is Private. If you want to share your log with a family member or genealogy pal, click Change. Under Sharing Settings, set your visibility options to Public on the Web (makes the log viewable by anyone) or Anyone with the Link (only those who receive the link to your log can see it). Click Save. Click the Learn More link to get more details on these visibility options. If you change your mind, you can always return to these settings and choose Private.
To email others a link to your research log, go to the Sharing Settings page by clicking on the blue Share icon in the top right corner of your spreadsheet, enter the email addresses, then check the box to send out emails. You also can add a message to your email and designate recipients as editors (“can edit”) or readers (“can view”).

5. Set up your log.

In the first row of your spreadsheet, type the title of your research log—if desired, you can make it longer than the file name you used in step 3, or add identifying details such as life dates. For easier readability, I like to skip a few rows and then start adding headings for my columns. I also boldface my column headings so they’ll stand out. To do this, highlight the row by clicking on the row number on the left and then click the bold B in the toolbar. To “freeze” the header row and/or name column to stay put as you scroll down or across the sheet, highlight those cells and go to View>Freeze Rows or Freeze Columns. 
You can customize the appearance of your research log in many ways. You can change the font size by highlighting the text you want to change (click the rectangle at the top right of the spreadsheet to select everything) and going to Format>Font Size. To change the font color, highlight the words and click the Text Color button on the toolbar (the A with a dark line under it). You also can change the background color of a row or cell—say, yellow for a census record, pink for a church record and so on—by selecting the row or cell and clicking the Text Background Color button (the A with a light under it). In both the Text Color and the Text Background Color boxes, you can choose Conditional Formatting to set the color to automatically change when you type certain words. For example, you could make a row turn light blue if you put a big X in your Date Completed column.
You can label this sheet’s bottom tab, especially helpful if you plan to create multiple sheets in this workbook. Just click on Sheet 1 in the bottom left corner and choose Rename. Type the sheet name and hit OK. If you need help with a specific feature or with formatting, click on the Help tab for the Docs Help Center, User Forum and Docs Community on Google+. Also look for the handy Function List and Keyboard Shortcuts. For a guide to other features in Google spreadsheets, see the guide at Google support.

6. Maintain your log.

This is the most important step of all—your log is no good if you don’t use it. Start with your current research to-do list: What records do you need to look for to fill in holes in your family tree? Enter information for each record into your spreadsheet.
No to-do list? Take the opportunity to review one of your research brick walls and brainstorm records that might help you solve it. Put those into your research log. Next, review your research for missing records. Do you have a death record for every family member? Have you found a WWI draft registration card for every male ancestor age 18 through 45 in 1917 and 1918? Did you search for every post-1961 death in the Social Security Death Index (available on If not, add these searches to your to-do list.
Keep the log open on your computer or with you in printed form whenever you do genealogy research. As soon as your search inspires another to-do, add it to your log before you forget about it. Say a newspaper society column reports that your great-great-grandmother filed a divorce petition in court. You’d immediately fill in a row with today’s date, your great-great-grandmother’s name, the type of record (“divorce petition”) and date of filing (as reported in the newspaper), the repository (the county courthouse) and information needed (for example, the date and grounds for divorce). In the Notes column, you could enter source information from the newspaper article you found, including the date, which will help you locate the divorce petition.
Next time you have a few minutes, check your log for online searches you can do. If you’re going to the library, sort the Repository column for the library name to find all the genealogy tasks you want to do there (to sort a Google spreadsheet, click the arrow at the top of the column you want to sort by and select Sort Sheet A-Z or Sort Sheet Z-A). Can’t remember whether you’ve already searched for your ancestor’s birth certificate in’s birth records collection? Run a keyword search for the ancestor’s name.
Whether it’s in Excel, Google Drive or another program, you can customize your log to your research needs and use it in an endless number of ways. Once you settle on a system that works for you, you’ll make the most efficient use of your precious research time. With a research log, you can search with a purpose.
Getting a Log Up
These how-tos from experienced genealogists will supply plenty of inspiration for setting up and using your genealogy research log:

* * *

Lisa A. Alzo is an instructor for Family Tree University, with courses including Organizing Your Genealogy, Time Management for Genealogists and several ethnic heritage classes.
From the January/February 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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