By Rhonda R. McClure
By Rhonda R. McClure
When beginning your family history research, it’s easy to think that it will be simple to keep track of what information you have and what you have yet to find. You’ll quickly discover that it’s not so simple. Below are tips for organizing both your genealogical research and your findings.
Organizing Your Research
Spending more time tracing your family history is the ultimate goal. Starting out with research logs and task lists will allow you to do just that.
Research logs are an excellent way to keep track of the research you have already accomplished. Good research logs have a place to record the following information:
- Date of research (be sure to include all 4 digits of the year)
- Repository (archive, library, cemetery, or vital record office)
- Call number (manuscript number, library call number, or microfilm number)
- Description of source (put your full source citation)
- Comments or Results (What did you look for? Did you find it? Was the record hard to read?)
- Miscellaneous fields, such as:
- Time period
- Condition of source
- How the source was searched (index or page-by-page)
- ISBN (for locating a book elsewhere)
Download our research log to start organizing your research.
Task Lists or To-Do Items
Note questions when they arise—you may not remember the question later. Tracking this can be done in a variety of ways:
- Use to-do items, logs, or task lists found in your genealogy software
- Use a general word processing, spreadsheet, or database program
- Keep a small notebook with you to jot down research questions
Organizing Your Findings
Your computer is an important organizational tool. Beyond recording and organizing your findings within a genealogical software program (see our software comparison chart), there are many other programs that can assist you.
Organizing (and Preserving) Your Family Stories
Preserve the family stories you find, know, or receive from family members.
- Word processing program
- Genealogy software (easier to locate the family story as it is attached to an individual)
Organizing Data as You Go
You may come across someone whose connection to your family is unclear, however, you don’t want to lose the information. There are many programs that can assist with this:
- Census data
- Census spreadsheets can be created in any spreadsheet program
- Clooz (a Windows desktop application that helps organize and analyze data)
- Cemetery and obituary transcriptions
- City directories, deeds, and more
- Create your own transcriptions in a word processing program
Other Valuable Programs
Consider using a Notebook program to track every note, detail, photo, source, or URL:
Organizing Your Files
As you progress with your research you will find that files multiply exponentially. The documents and images you uncover are all part of the process. File them in a way—electronically, physically, or both—in which you can easily find them.
Most filing systems rely on certain principles: arrange the documents in notebooks or file folders; use an index or table of contents; be consistent. Even if you are determined to go a paperless route, there are still some documents, diaries, and photographs you will have in a non-digitized version. Organize these in a manner similar to your electronic files. Regardless of what system you use or where you store your files, remember to be consistent with file names, localities, and arrangement.
Build a hierarchy of folders. Below is an example that leads to files for Lemuel Patraw (where each level is a sub-folder of the previous one):
- Johnson Family Tree
- Patraw Surname
- Lemuel Patraw
- Patraw Surname
When naming files, especially those of documents, include details on the source. Some examples:
- File name: 1900 Nati no 122 Nataloni fhl2221027.tif — 1900 birth, record no. 122, surname Nataloni found on FHL microfilm 2221027
- File name: Lemuel patraw ww1 st paul db4.jpg — World War I Draft card for Lemuel Patraw, who registered with the St. Paul, Minnesota, Draft Board No. 4
Organizing Digital Images
If you are working with a lot of digitized photos, keep a log of where they are stored. Items to keep in your log could include:
- File name
- Date of file
- Description of file (subject of image)
- Individuals included
- Location of the original (should you ever need to replace your digital file)
When storing your images, whether taken with a camera, scanned from a microfilm, or saved from an online digitized document, it is always a good idea to store them in multiple locations, including:
Organizing Bookmarks and Email
If it is easier to do an online search for a site you are trying to reach instead of locating it in your list of favorites or bookmarks, then it is definitely time to organize your links.
- Take advantage of your browser’s “Favorites” or “Bookmarks”
- Make sure you create general folders such as:
- General Genealogy
Use a similar approach for email. “Filters” within your email program direct messages into certain folders. This way you can work just on e-mails dealing with a given family, rather than jumping from one to the next as you open each email in your Inbox.
- Online seminar by Rhonda R. McClure, Getting Started in Genealogy
- Rhonda R. McClure, Portable Genealogist: Organizing Your Research (Boston: NEHGS, 2013)
- Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Organizing Your Family History Search: Efficient & Effective Ways to Gather and Protect Your Genealogical Research (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1999)
- William Dollarhide, Managing a Genealogical Project (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1999)
Want to maximize your research? The experts at NEHGS can help! We offer a number of services that can help you break down brick walls and expand your research.
Chat live with our experts!
Do you have a genealogy or local history question? Consider our free, online live chat service! The service is available to all, Tuesday—Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET.
- I recently heard that the Wales Family Association collection was donated to NEHGS. Are these papers available online?
- What is the 19th century definition of a homesteader?
- How or where would I be able to locate volume 4 of the Newport, RI Probate Records Index?
- What resources could I use to find more about local Massachusetts regiments from the Civil War?
- I discovered that my ancestor was christened 45-50 miles away from where he was born in Norway. Could you tell why my ancestors would have traveled so far?
Visit AmericanAncestors.org/chat and type your question in the window in the lower right corner.
Meet one-on-one with our genealogists
Want hands-on research guidance from a professional genealogist? Take your experience to the next level with an extended research session with our Personal Genealogist for the Day service. In-person and online sessions are offered as half-day (three-hour) or full day (five-hour) options.
- Find elusive ancestors—Whether you are searching in the U.S. or abroad, in the 17th or 20th century, our genealogists have the knowledge to assist you.
- Locate and use records—Vital records, military records, deeds, probate, and more—if you’re wondering where to look for them, how to read them, or what data you can find in them, we can guide you.
- Get more out of technology—Feel like you could be making better use of your genealogy software? Curious about websites and databases that might be relevant to your research? Let us help!
Hire our experts in Research Services
Whether you are just beginning your family research or have been researching for years, NEHGS Research Services is here to assist you. Our team of experts can:
- Conduct hourly research
- Break down “brick walls”
- Retrieve manuscript materials
- Obtain probate records
- Research and prepare your lineage society application
- Organize your materials and files
- Write narrative biographies about your ancestors
- Create customized family charts