23 Tips For Better Genealogy Research

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium
Are you paying enough attention to your ancestors? In our time-crunched world, we’re busier than ever with family obligations, jobs and endless errands. Time management gurus are always telling us to “work smarter, not harder,” a principle that certainly applies to genealogy research. But how? If you’re feeling time-challenged, listen up: These 23 secrets will help you research more efficiently and squeeze just a little more family history into your busy life.

1. Plan it

When it comes to seeking out ancestors, genealogists can be a bit overzealous. We want to know everything right away, and the instant gratification of online searching makes us even more impatient. But before you even start the research process, you need to determine what you’re looking for (such as when your family arrived on US shores, or whether you have a Civil War ancestor). Then you can figure out what records you should consult and plan specific research steps to get them. This might sound like it’ll add to your task load, but it’ll actually save you time in aimless or redundant searching.
Find an example of a research plan at, and see the January 2011 Family Tree Magazine for advice on developing a research plan.

2. Make an appointment with Great-Grandpa

Let’s face it, tasks are much easier to forget or bypass if you don’t write them down or put them on your calendar. I find if I block out time for specific research tasks, I feel more accountable and I tend to get them done. Schedule research sessions and library visits in your planner. If you have a free Google account, you can set up a Google calendar. You also can get reminders and make to-do lists using smartphone apps such as Clear ($2.99 for iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) and Remember the Milk (available free for Android and Mac platforms, and you can even use it with email and Twitter).

3. Find 15 minutes

If you schedule just 15 minutes per day to work on some aspect of your genealogical research, it would add up to 105 minutes per week. Sure, it doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but at the very least get in those 15 minutes and you’ll feel like you’re making some progress every day. Set a timer or the alarm on your smartphone, and on less busy days, try to sneak in a little more

A few short tasks you can do: Search the free databases at <> or the subscription ones at, catch up on new resources from your favorite genealogy blog or magazine, run a Google search on a surname, or e-mail a research query to a library. See page 28 for quick online projects doable in a weekend. Check the January 2009 Family Tree Magazine for a list of genealogy jobs you can do over your lunch hour.

4. Log it

I tend to bounce from one family history project to another, often starting and stopping my research. When I do find time to get some genealogy done, I don’t want to have to repeat steps. To keep track of where I left off, I maintain a detailed list of my genealogy searches—whether successful or failed—along with a to-do list of other databases to check, records to request and books to borrow. You’ll find downloadable research trackers and forms to help keep you organized at

5. File on the fly

Do you have to step over piles of paper to get to your genealogy workspace? Save time spent searching for papers you need by getting into the habit of filing documents, notes and other research material right away. You can use manila folders in hanging files (you can buy these in different colors for your surnames) and keep them in a filing cabinet or file boxes with lids. We outline how to set up a genealogy filing system by family at ?
If you feel really ambitious, try going paperless and storing most or all of your information electronically. For inspiration, read why and how veteran genealogy blogger Dick Eastman went paperless. Still organizationally challenged? Sign up for Family Tree University’s Organize Your Genealogy course at

6. Seek the spotlight

No, we’re not suggesting you become a diva, but rather that you find sites that let you save, annotate or spotlight research results. For example, on your home page, the Searches section saves your recent searches. If you’re a subscriber, you can save records you’ve found to your Shoebox to examine more closely later. On the free Ellis Island passenger search site, you can save searches in the Your Ellis Island File. Subscription site lets you annotate or label record images, comment on them, save them to your Gallery, or use the Spotlight to leave a note on them. All these are stored on your profile page, so you can quickly find your notes and return to the record. You also can put Watches on records to get updates when others add notes.
For other sites, consider note-taking applications such as Microsoft One Note (available with Microsoft Office 2010) or Evernote (a basic account is free). These let you track your online research by electronically storing notes, clipped web pages and more. You can access your account from your desktop, notebook, tablet or smartphone. To learn more about these tools, watch the free tutorials by genealogists Caroline Pointer and Thomas MacEntee.

7. Cite it right

Failing to document where you got your family tree information isn’t good genealogy practice, and it’ll inevitably lead to confusion down the line when you have to rely on your memory. Develop the habit of citing sources accurately at the time you obtain the information. Two must-have books on the topic are Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources From ?Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd edition, and the shorter companion Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian (both from Genealogical Publishing Co.). See page 24 to learn more about source citations and letting the Genealogical Proof Standard guide your research.

8. Stay alert

Ever wished you could do genealogy even while you sleep? You can. Setting up free Google Alerts tells Google to keep searching when you’re away from the computer. Create or log into your Google account and enter the keyword(s) you want searched, such as a surname plus a place or the word genealogy. From the drop-down menus, select where you want results from (blogs, news, books), how often you want an alert (once a day, once a week, as it happens), how many you want to see (all of them or the ones Google thinks are best), and the delivery e-mail address. Use the Manage Your Alerts link at the bottom of the page to update or delete your alerts.

9. Be informed

How many of us use the dartboard approach when searching databases or websites? Rather than blindly typing in names, learn what records a database contains (including any gaps—the year range in the database title might not be inclusive) and how to search it. To find individual databases on, you can use the Card Catalog or browse by place on the Search page. On, click a region and then use the filters on the left side of the page.
Once you find your database, read the information about it. If there’s a customized search form for that database, use it. Look for an FAQ or help section, as well as search tips to find out whether you can use wildcards or exclude certain words. You’ll save yourself time and possibly the frustration of fruitless searches.

10. Think like a transcriptionist

 Sometimes the biggest obstacles to tracing ancestors are the names you’re researching. Spelling and transcription errors in historical records and indexes are common stumbling blocks. Do yourself a favor and make a chart of the surnames you’re searching using our template. For each name, come up with as many spelling variants as possible. Take into account various pronunciations of the written name, how it sounded when spoken by an immigrant ancestor, its “translation” into English (such as Brown for the German Braun), and likely transcription errors for the letters in the name (for example, a c might look like an a to indexers). Get tips for finding surname variants at Create a similar chart with first names. When searching genealogy databases and indexes, methodically move down your list (use search wildcards to find several variants at once).

11. Organize, purge and unsubscribe

Clutter eventually creeps in to every genealogist’s workspace. Secret 5 will get you started, but you’ll also want to purge what you don’t need, such as duplicate copies of documents or books you never use. Keep your inbox clean by unsubscribing from mailing lists and newsletters you no longer read. Gain bookshelf (and mental) space by opting for CD or digital versions of publications. That includes Family Tree Magazine: Digital subscriptions, downloadable issues and back issue CDs are available at shop? A Family Tree Magazine Plus membership gives you online access to articles from past issues on our website. Finally, instead of visiting your favorite genealogy blogs every day, have new posts sent to a free blog reader such as Google’s or one of those mentioned at

12. Tool around

Just as a carpenter frequently uses a hammer and saw, genealogists turn to certain online resources or tools time and again. Perhaps you’re a frequent user of or Roots-Web. But you may be missing other great sites, as well as timesaving tools such as a relationship calculator, gazetteer, historical maps site, language translator and more. Explore the sites on our 2012 list of the 101 Best Websites for genealogy. MacEntee recommends genealogy tools at

13. Play favorites

Speaking of bookmarks and favorites, once you start adding a page here and a page there, pretty soon you’ll find your bookmarks list is one hot mess. And what happens if you want to access a favorite genealogy website at work or the library?
Go through your bookmarks, deleting those you no longer use and renaming the ones you keep so you’ll know at a glance what those bookmarks are for. Social bookmarking sites such as Xmarks and Diigo let you access your bookmarks no matter where you are or which computer you’re on. MacEntee offers more ideas for making bookmarks accessible from multiple devices in the February 2012 Family Tree Magazine.

14. Live social

Have a social media presence. Blogs (also commonly known in the genealogy community as “cousin bait”) can draw out those long lost relatives who come across your posts about ancestors you share. Being on Facebook, Twitter , LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+ and/or GenealogyWise helps you connect with cousins, researchers and repositories around the world. You’ll stay up-to-date on new resources and possibly save countless hours of research time if you find someone else who has the ancestor answers you seek.

15. Work in the cloud

With cloud storage, you can access your tree from anywhere, anytime you have a few minutes, and you may not have to manually back up your updated files. Applications such as Dropbox, SugarSync, or Google Drive will let you keep family tree files, photographs and documents in the cloud. Most services offer limited free storage space with subscriptions for more space. You’ll also want to check whether the service automatically syncs files on your hard drive or you need to manually copy files over. Gizmodo outlines cloud storage options at

16. Stay informed

With so many new online databases, up-to-the-minute genealogy apps, changing privacy laws and evolving technology, it’s hard to keep up with new resources, research techniques and tools of the trade. If you’re perpetually short on time, the last thing you want to do is check or or every day to see what record collections have been added.
Follow these and other top genealogy websites on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for e-mail updates so you can be notified of any breaking news.
Another way to stay in the know is by reading genealogy blogs (subscribe to new posts through a blog reader (see secret 11) so you can read all your favorites in one place). Ask your genealogy pals for recommendations and check out some of the top ones at

17. Go beyond Google

Google is popular for searching names, locations and other genealogy information, but sometimes your search results can be overwhelming. To weed out excess results, use the tips at to construct your query or try the free Genealogy Search Help for Google site.
In some cases, a genealogy-specific search engine, which “crawls” only family history-related websites, is a better choice. Mocavo offers a free genealogy search and a premium search with enhanced features. The free Live Roots searches resources such as transcribed or digitized records, books available for purchase and individual websites. To speed up searches for materials in libraries, use WorldCat or Hathitrust (note that these searches don’t cover the FamilySearch catalog—you’ll have to search it separately).

18. Plan a genea-cation

With a bit of creative arranging, you often can build family history activities into a vacation, family reunion or work-related trip (perhaps by tacking on a personal day or two). Scout out nearby libraries, courthouses, cemeteries and churches that may hold materials related to your family and search the holdings to determine if a visit is worth the time. Call ahead to verify hours.
Historic sites are a natural for family trips. Tour Ellis Island’s Immigration Museum if your immigrant ancestors arrived there and add the National Archives to your Washington, DC, travel itinerary. Headed for Salt Lake City? Perhaps your family can take in the Great Salt Lake or This Is the Place Heritage Park while you dive into research at the Family History Library.

19. Educate yourself

Stop spinning your wheels as you try to figure out what the next step in your research should be. Learning about family history resources and strategies and record groups can help you achieve your genealogy goals more efficiently. Start with a genealogy guide such as Unpuzzling Your Past, fourth edition, by Emily Anne Croom (Genealogical Publishing Co.) or Discover Your Family History Online by Nancy Hendrickson (Family Tree Books). Look for classes from your local library or genealogical society, or try the wide variety of online courses, webinars and virtual conferences from Family Tree University.

20. Manage multiple projects

Most genealogists have more than one family history project in the works at any given time. Juggling them and trying to figure out where you are with each one when you start a new research session can lead to wasted time. Some people use spreadsheets to keep track of steps they’ve taken for each project. Microsoft Excel works well, or you can use GoogleDocs (you’ll need a free Google account) to create a spreadsheet accessible from anywhere through your Google account. I like Trello, a free online collaboration tool that organizes projects into boards. Remember using index cards on a bulletin board? It’s like that, only virtual.

21. Be prepared

You never know when your next genealogical adventure will arise—you might run into a cousin at the post office or have a few unexpected minutes to search a database—so always be ready. Look for mobile apps to help you store your family tree, navigate genealogy conferences, “scan” photos and documents, search Find A Grave or WorldCat and more. You’ll find our favorite low- and no-cost apps for genealogists listed at
So you don’t have to spend time packing for a trip to the cemetery or FamilySearch Center, keep a tote bag stocked with a notebook and pens or pencils, change, a USB drive, bug spray and other essential supplies. Consider investing in a portable scanner such as the Flip-Pal mobile scanner for copying photos and documents at the library, courthouse or a relative’s house.

22. Turn to a pro

Some tasks, such as getting records from a faraway archive or translating documents in an unfamiliar language, may be best left to a professional genealogist. Of course, doing your own research has its benefits, but once you tally up the expenses for travel, lodging, food, parking and your own time, it might be more cost-effective to use the research services of a professional genealogist based where the records are. Fortunately, you can hire experts for everything from a quick look-up to a complicated research project. The Association of Professional Genealogists has a member directory you can search by research specialty, location and more. You could use a service such as Genlighten or Genealogy Freelancers, or ask another genealogist to get recommendations.

23. Buddy up

Never has the old adage “two heads are better than one” been more applicable than to genealogy. Bouncing problems off another person doubles your efforts to solve complex research problems, break through brick walls and reach your goals. This can be another family member or a fellow genealogist who shares your passion. Don’t have a research buddy? Joining a local genealogical society and friending or following family historians on social networking sites (see secret 14) can help you meet one. I check in with my buddy by email and monthly via Skype, and we encourage, support and push each other to cross off those items on our respective to-do lists.
You and your genealogy buddy—and most of the rest of us—can only dream of having unlimited hours to devote to family tree research. The reality is that life happens, and we need every timesaving secret at our disposal to make the most of the genealogy hours we have.

From the October/November 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

New course: Cluster and Collateral Research

Dive into collateral research (focusing on indirect relatives such as siblings of great-grandparents) and cluster research (looking at those who don’t share blood but may have lived nearby) in this 4-week Family Tree University course starting Dec. 14.