Friday, May 7, 2010

How Do You Take Notes?

I have a question for you: what is your system for taking and making notes related to genealogy?

The reason I ask is because of something I saw in my group's ProGen assignment this month. One person shared a research report she wrote to herself. She went on a research trip and wrote up the details and results for her own reference in the future. It looked cool, but I don't know if I can incorporate something like that into my "Post-It" style of note taking.

Right now, all my notes are part of my RootsMagic database. In the paper world, I put little sticky notes all over everything. RootsMagic 4 (RM4) lets me do something similar in my database. I can add notes to anything or anyone.

For example, I'm making my way through the Los Angeles-area city directories in search of my great-grandfather. If he is not in a particular directory--like 1934--I make a note saying that I checked that directory and he's not there. That way I don't check it again. I have notes about records, details that don't fit neatly in the "fact" box, family lore, personality characteristics and stuff that shapes a person outside the timeline.

I like how RM4 lets me add notes or comments on anything I want. I've also taken advantage of the "to-do" lists there as well. What I can figure out is a way to gather all my notes and see them in one place. I can print out a to-do list though, but that's a subject for another time.

What about you? How do you take notes? I'm looking for ideas.


  1. I'm curious to see the responses, because I really struggle with this. I have far, far too many scraps of paper that make no sense.

  2. I'd like to hear answers to this too.
    I've just started using my onenote program to get myself organized. I think this might work for me, but I have to figure out onenote a bit better first.

  3. I live in a world of"stickys", backs of envelopes, and odd scraps of paper. If I don't deal with the "notes" fairly immediately (week or so) then I am in a 'backwash" of confusion, and I end up throwing things away because I dinna know what it means any longer. My organized world lives on my computer and in binders (that's when I am really finished and have the hard copy to prove it.)

    Obviously, I have organized disorganization, so i am always looking for ways to coral the stickys.

  4. Hi Amy,

    I struggled with this as well. I use Legacy, and there is a Note feature (that can be sourced), but I didn't like it for some reason. Then I started putting notes with the sources, but I didn't like this either for two reasons: 1)it's buried, and 2) if I just have random thoughts not associated to a source, where do I put it.

    I ended up created a custom event called Research Note. I capture all sorts of things, such as possible record matches, thoughts, and analysis. The nice thing is that when I'm looking at an individual, all of the notes are there in the event list (and they print out in certain reports). It's not a perfect system, but it works for me. I've tried other systems outside of Legacy, but I like having everything in one place.

  5. I use Family Tree Maker as my database program but seeing this feature in RootsMagic really makes me want to take a second look at the program.
    I'm very organized in my home and at work but not so with my genealogy. It's a real struggle for me. I'll be looking at the responses you get too!

  6. I know this is the day and age of doing everything on the computer, but I still like taking notes and keeping my research log on physical paper that I keep in a binder. I have a research log for each person I am working on and alphabetize them in the book.

    I am also creating a "check-off sheet" of different places I have searched for different records. I think this will help me record what I have found and where I have found it in a little bit faster way than a normal research log. I will let you know when I am finished with it and I will post it on my website for others to download and try it out for themselves as well.

  7. My genealogy software is Legacy and I use a combination of the To Do List function and the Individual Research Notes to keep track of things. Legacy's To Do List is really a research tracking system. I use that to track where I've already looked for something so I don't check the same source again later. I use the individual person's Research Notes (which are separate from their General Notes) to summarize findings and theories that aren't fully developed enough to actually add as events or facts.

    I function better with everything available at a click in my genealogy program. Plus I always have everything with me as long as I have the laptop on a trip.

  8. I take the note on a tablet and then move them to a binder. I have the binder in sections by family names.

    When I am sure of something I will scan it and put it on the computer. I am still playing with which program I like the best.

    I like Roots Magic because of Roots To Go feature. I also like My Heritage, I just wish there was an easy to import information between he two files.

    There probably is but I don't know how.

  9. My system is similar to those listed here: I have a notes section in Reunion which gets all sorts of information that does not fit into the rest of the program. Handwritten notes go into the relevant binders (taped onto a piece of binder paper if necessary), and I often have word documents as well that go into the relevant folders on my computer (much of the material from the Word documents gets copied into the notes section on Reunion as well). A little redundant, but at least I always have three places to check when I try to remember where I put something.

  10. I like to keep notes like a timeline. For some reason, I can comprehend large amounts of information on paper better than on my computer screen. So using Word, I type the year and then the event or document along with helpful details. It’s easy to update and to keep in chronological order. Any time I’m reading through my timeline, I add questions that come to mind. Then I’ll add lists of places to look for answers. As I follow up with those resources, I add what I found, if anything or if the source contained nothing. I can’t always have my laptop with me, but I can usually have a binder or my Daytimer (where I keep reduced sized notes and group sheets) with me wherever I go – library, family visit, car ride, work, etc.

  11. I use Legacy and it has 3 tabs under the main Notes section - General, Research and Medical. I keep notes like you are talking about under the Research tab. Those are my private notes that I don't share with anyone and I can exclude the Research notes from any reports that I do. I use the General notes tab for commentary that I want to be included in reports. I also use the events to add information that I want included in the person's time line or on reports like census data, military service, deeds, etc.

  12. I got a little wordy with my response :) So I decided to make it a separate post on my blog. Check it out. Hope it helps. This is a really good question and I'm enjoying reading the responses.

  13. I take notes on the back of my family group sheets. When I fill that up I use notebook paper and staple it to the family group sheet. I, too, use Roots Magic and love it. I try to add the information to the software program soon after getting it. I keep my family group sheets in file folders by surname, once I have added the info to Roots Magic.

  14. I also use Legacy's note features and events for my research notes. I like having everything available in one place. I do sometimes keep my written notes - mainly when I am brainstorming about an issue and how to resolve it.

  15. There is always a spiral notebook by my computer that gets notes jotted down in it constantly. If something is important enough to enter into my Family Tree Maker program, it is put on a separate "loose" sheet of notebook paper. Information from these sheets are later added to the database with the proper individual. I also have a filing cabinet that holds physical folders for each family in my tree. The loose sheets of notebook paper might end up in there as well, if I see fit to add them. Furthermore, I have a master genealogy file I have just begun organizing on my computer. Like Greta, I have exactly three places to look when reviewing notes on a certain person.

  16. For at least five years I have taken notes in Evernote. Since it went cloud a couple years ago I can do it anywhere, anytime, because I can do it from any computer, smartphone, ipod, that is connected to the internet as well as from my computer. I can cut and paste just about anything into it [or out of it]. It's always available regardless of what other program I am using. It is searchable. It takes pdf, photos, etc. Everything is in one place. I love it, couldn't live without it.

  17. This is a great topic for discussion, Amy. Like some of the others who have responded, I have bits and pieces of paper that end up in a stack by my computer-if I've been searching online. If I'm at a library I usually take either lose paper or a tablet which I use to make notes, including the source of the information and, at the top of each sheet, the surname I'm searching (and first name if I'm searching for one person in particular). I keep all surnames on separate pieces of paper. When I get home, I either put that information into my gen. program (as a source or in the notes area), type it and save it in a file on the computer, or put it into a paper surname file for later use.

    The pile near the computer is really my problem. I think I should put a research log or even just sheets of paper, one per surname, near the computer and put my notes on that, just as I do at the library.

    I like your colleague's idea of writing a report based on what she's found. I've been trying to think of my blog as incentive to write "reports." (Not successful yet.)

    I've been debating about switching to Roots Magic. Your and others' comments encourage me to make the switch.

    The kinds of things you mention about city directories, etc., I don't (yet) put in my gen. program but keep in files on my computer.

    To A.C. Ivory, you might like the forms I posted a few weeks ago on my blog. You can see all three at

    With only 4 years experience, I'm still trying to figure out best ways.

  18. I use FTM 2009 (haven't upgraded to 10 yet) and I use the Notes columns a lot; however, these are really notes, stories, etc. I want to print out on reports. For true notes, I've been using pencil and tablets up to now. I just downloaded QuotePad 2.2 and am liking it very much. I can either type up notes or copy and paste.
    So far it's working for me.

  19. Such a BIG problem for genealogists in general. In FTM 2009, I use the person note section to jot down references and other bits of info. Scraps of paper do not work for me. I have various notebooks that seem to get scattered. It is better for me to have computer files. I will have to look into OneNote or similar program.

    Someone in my ProGen group suggested Diigo. I also have been converting relevant web pages to PDF files and keeping those in family folders on my computer.

    It seems like others have similar problems and no great solutions. Seems like maybe there is a business opportunity.

  20. I don't use my software for notes. I take physical notes, usually on a legal pad.

    When I give my "Bare Bones: Getting Started in Your Genealogy" lecture, one topic I touch on is proper note-taking, and this is based on William Dollarhide's "rules" in his Managing a Genealogical Project, in which he tells us that all notes should be the same size, preferably 8.5 x 11 inch paper. This is so that smaller scraps and sticky notes will not get lost among the larger sheets.

    I have developed a preference for Ampad's "Gold Fibre" legal pads, available at Staples and probably at other office-supply stores as well. The paper is thick, good quality, and has less bleed-through of ink than other pads. The pages tear nicely from the pad, too, without ripping chunks out of the top of the page.

    I have a binder in which I keep both active forms for lines and individuals I'm working on currently, and the research reports and interim reports I write from my notes. I try to keep track of sources and repositories I've consulted, correspondence I've sent off and received, and other aspects of research. I'm hit-or-miss on that one!

    Another of Dollarhide's "rules" I observe (having learned the hard way, as with the rest of this) is: one sheet, one surname. Makes filing the notes much easier!

  21. LOL! Scraps and piles of paper everywhere. I've changed programs several times (and yes, contemplating yet another one), but none I've seen combine the 'reporting' and 'to do list' features I'd like. I've noted a couple programs from comments here I'm going to check out like Evernote (thanks!). At NGS, one of the workshop sessions I took was on writing while researching which would probably give that nice report at the end, but I don't see that as being my only reference though. Like Debbie McCoy, some of my notes are for private use only.

    Thanks for bringing up this great question!

  22. I do notes in two different ways:

    I use RM4 as my genealogy program. After I enter in a new event, I discuss my analysis of the evidence or my conclusions. Those notes go into the notes for the event unless my analysis is about something more general - at which point it will go into the notes section for the person.

    When I am researching at a library or just feel the need to "spread out" so I have something more visual and physical - I use either 8.5 by 11 inch loose leaf paper. I use a system similar to the Cornell Note Taking System (traditionally for academic or school notes). The top right is where I write the surname that I am researching (and a first name if I am focusing on one person). Then I put a line down the 1st third of the paper and to the left of that line goes the name of the source. On the right of the line goes my findings, theories, or anything really word-y.

    I also LOVE the program One Note by Microsoft. If you want a more accessible (and free) program that is similar, I highly suggest Zoho or Evernote. Both are wonderful online note taking systems.

  23. Great post discussion site.
    These interest me as well. I seem to be a compulsive notebook writer as I read. I have to write it down. Or I cut and paste it into the note books [and dont know how to find them] or I put them into a email account under draft. that way they are saved unless I loose the email account. Not organized at all, I should say. except my note books all have holes for binders where by a page can be removed and set in the binders I have kept on surnames. Also at ten cets a note book I was able to get the various colors each fall. I get loose leaf paper too, but well, I know it will get shuffled too much. I just discovered that I can save a whole page on internet material. For later evaluation. that was a great find. At a library search, I would have to rely to save time on the copy machine

  24. I hope you know by Note book I meant the one that comes with your program on the computer found in Programs. Or did I add it. I should point out that google has them as well. I am sure word pad would work too.

  25. I haven't started this yet, but I plan on using Google Docs. It has documents, spreadsheets, and presentations and is accessible from any computer with internet. What's nice about this is since everything is online, you won't lose your data if your computer gives up the ghost. I also have an iPod Touch with my genealogy on it and use the Notes feature, so I don't have to lug my laptop around. I use RootsMagic-To-Go.