Professional genealogists know that keeping research organized leads to more discoveries quickly. We need to develop and improve our research note-taking skills on our journey to become better family historians.
What are Genealogy Notes?
The basic steps of the genealogy research process involve:
Developing a Quality Research Question
Reviewing Previous Research
Developing a Research Plan
Searching for Evidence to Answer the Question
Evaluating and Analyzing the Evidence
Updating Family Trees
As we're working through the process, have you ever wondered where note-taking happens?
I hope so!
Note-taking happens at any stage of the research process. I find myself making notes as I'm developing my question, reviewing research, developing a plan, and every time I evaluate a historical document or photograph.
In short, a genealogy research note is any thought, question, or possible conclusion we have as we climb our family tree.
Your notes may also include:
What you looked for - including specific search terms and collections
What you found - the answers to your questions (including transcriptions)
What you did not find - yep. We have to record that we searched in a collection and didn't find anything.
Any problems encountered while researching - incomplete record collections, damaged files, privacy restrictions, etc.
Knowing that we need to track our notes may happen at any stage of the research process, where should we keep track of our notes?
Keep It Simple Researcher
In my thirty years of genealogy research, I've tested the organizational strategies and methodologies put forth by many books, lectures, blog posts in our beloved hobby.
Mix in the multiple cross-countries moves that I've muddled through, hoping my research would remain organized during the process.
Ultimately, I arrived at a conclusion that has been around since Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works, coined the phrase Keep It Simple Stupid in the 1960s. If you haven't heard of this design principle before, see if you agree with the theory.
"Most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore, simplicity should be a key goal in design, and unnecessary complexity should be avoided."
How does this translate into genealogy research?
Quite simply - keep your genealogy research notes where you actively research.
In the chart below, I share where you can manage your notes based on how you manage your genealogy research.
I differentiate between paper researcher and report researcher in that the first uses forms to manage notes. In contrast, the latter uses a research plan and may eventually write a research report to summarize completed projects.
Use Genealogy Forms to Manage Notes
The Family Tree Magazine offers many free printable forms for your use. Two that I find helpful for managing notes for paper-based researcher appear below:
File the first behind your family group sheets (charts that primarily manage a couple and their children).
File the second form with each record you manage to keep track of those thoughts and questions without writing on the original document or photocopies.
To see a demonstration of adding notes to genealogy software and online trees, watch this video.
Add Notes to Your Research Plans
If you use a digital research plan to track your project's progression, utilize one or all of the following note-taking strategies. In the video above, I demonstrated where the following strategies appear.
Insert Comments: Most writing software and programs allow you to insert comments to the side of your actual document.
Insert Footnotes: While many people use footnotes to track their source citations, you could also use footnotes to insert your thoughts, questions, and additional commentary about the documentation.
Highlight Text: Color-code your text can help you visually differentiate between different notes. Here are four that I often use while I'm writing a research rough draft.
Use RED for something problematic.
Use GREEN for theories.
Use YELLOW for questions to resolve.
Use BLUE for transcriptions.
How to Add Notes to Genealogy Software
Many programs like RootsMagic, Legacy and Family Tree Maker have several options to add notes in their programs. Use the following whenever possible.
Notes of an Individual - Utilize this section for details about the person overall. Things like eye color, hair color, birthmarks, tattoos, physical disabilities, personality, and so forth.
Notes for Specific Events - These fields are perfect for transcribing documents associated with an event (i.e., land records for buy and sell transactions). Also, add commentary and analysis based on each piece of evidence as well.
Source-Specific Notes - If you have the option to add commentary on specific sources, consider using those fields.
To-Do List Notes - Whether it's a research log or a To-Do list, you can keep track of your notes in the process using these features.
If your program doesn't offer event-specific notes, you can add such notes in the individual note field. Organize them in chronological order.
↪️ Are you looking for more genealogy resources?
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How to Add Research Notes to Online Trees
Online trees may offer a variety of locations to keep notes. Utilize the help centers for each platform to find the latest how-to articles for inserting notes. Below, you'll find a few locations where you can insert your notes.
You'll find the ability to track Notes from the Personal Profiles.
Add brief clarification in fact fields.
You can add notes to your DNA match list
Use the Collaborate Tab to add a Note about an Ancestor
Use the Life Sketch Field on the Details Tab to create a brief biography (or bulleted list) about an individual
DO NOT use Reason Statement Boxes as your notes. These can be overwritten, although you can view them in the changelog.
Use the Biography Section of a Person Profile and insert a heading that says "NOTES."
Whichever note-taking strategy you use, remember to keep it simple. Notice I didn't recommend using Evernote, Google Keep, Trello, One Note, and the like. The reason is most of us don't DO our genealogy in these locations. As such, these apps would fall under the caution to Keep It Simple Researcher.
Keep your research flow streamlined and simple. Please don't add any extra steps hoping that they will improve your skills. In most cases, it won't.
Keep your notes where you organize your actual research, and they'll be waiting for you whenever you need them.