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Digitizing Genealogy Records: DIY

Last spring I wrote a post about subscription savings, digitizing records, and Evernote. It was actually a combo post of three topics/ideas that segued from one to the other but that I didn't think each had sufficient material for a post.

I'm more verbose than I thought. Now there are three posts.

Here is the "digitizing" content which stemmed from a reader question.

DIY the digitization of genealogy material. With the right tool for you, you can create digital images for your family history research. | The Occasional Genealogist

A reader asked a question about digitizing. It relates to the suggestion I made about "gathering" material to use while taking a break from a subscription. That suggestion was gathering already digitized records. But she wanted to know about options for digitizing physical records.

In this post I'm actually going to quickly discuss some of your options and finish by telling you how I digitize digital records.

Most importantly, I want to tell you what I think is the FIRST issue to consider. Once you've considered this first issue, you may not need to consider a bunch of options. You might even have one clear choice you just need to learn more about.

Considering Digitization Options: First Step

Before even thinking about actual digitization tools, you HAVE to think about where you will use them. And I mean exactly where you will use them.


Rules for using digitization tools vary dramatically from repository to repository. You can't have one solution for every situation you might ever come across. For one thing, some places allow you to bring in nothing. I mean nothing, they provide a pencil and paper.

That's obviously the extreme. However, it is quite common for many of the specific digitization tools to be forbidden. These often touch the materials and this is why they are banned. Even if they don't touch them, misuse of the tool could touch the material and a repository doesn't want to stand over you and watch you.

Wand Scanners for Genealogy: Bad Idea?

The most common "scanner" I've seen forbidden is the wand style scanner. You run this down a document to scan it. This is probably the hardest to use, too. However, I've also been in courthouses and seen attorneys, heir searchers, title searchers, etc. using these.

A wand scanner is the most portable so if it's allowed where you research, it might be the best choice for you. If you can't use it where you research most, why take time to learn more about it?

Flip Pal: Voted Most Popular?

The tool I hear genealogists talk about the most is the Flip Pal scanner. This may also be forbidden at many repositories for similar reasons. It has some advantages because you can use it on physical objects (think of at a relative's where you are "scanning" an heirloom instead of trying to get a photo).

There are reasons so many genealogists love the Flip Pal so figure out if you could use it at enough places to make it worth the cost. If so, you can then look into if it offers the features you need.

Don't keep reinventing the wheel. Make notes for yourself as you discover what is allowed and forbidden at your usual repositories. 
This is exactly the type of information I store in Evernote (and why I have a lecture called "Evernote for Everything Else").

How I DIY Digitize Records

Personally, I use a camera to digitize records. A flatbed scanner can get a better scan but is bulky and forbidden some places.

When I used to work for clients at the National Archives digitizing documents (where you are allowed to use flatbeds), I chose not to because I could do the same work in half to a quarter of the time.

Really, a quarter of the time and easier to carry. I almost always spent more time waiting on records to arrive than digitizing them. It actually made it hard to be profitable!

The picture was just as legible as a scan, just maybe not as perfectly straight and sometimes the lighting wasn't as good. If you cared, those could be fixed in software. If a document doesn't fit entirely on the flatbed, I prefer a camera-created image.

For that work, I carried a camera stand and I had a "nicer" camera because I controlled it from my computer. The first month I photographed documents for clients, my back ached terribly from leaning over the camera so I found a better solution.

Today, I rarely get to visit repositories so I often go with the quickest solution. At NARA, I do actually still lug my camera stand and camera with me. Even a camera stand can be forbidden some places, though.

The Georgia Archives does not allow camera stands but does have plenty of microfilm readers with scanners (bring a USB drive). So, I usually just use my smartphone. (They do have a book scanner but once again, it's faster to use my own camera, I do the same at the FHL).

The Camera You'll Usually Find Me Using Today

My favorite option? I have my smartphone with me, I know how to use it, and it's lightweight. There are app options that make it great for document capture. Note that the camera on an older cell phone probably will not work. The camera quality isn't sufficient.

Most people with a cell phone have been forced to upgrade to a newer phone which will have a decent camera, though. If you need to check, you can Google using a cell phone camera for genealogy to learn about megapixel requirements and more.

Today, some smartphone cameras will do a better job than your actual digital camera. Phone manufacturers know people take pictures of documents and that a smartphone can shake more than a camera.

Smartphone cameras are now designed for both social photography and digitizing business cards, capturing paper notes, and many more "digitization" uses. These work perfectly for genealogists.

When I first started, my digital camera always did better. Today, my smartphone is easier and with one app, is a MUCH better choice than a standard digital camera (the camera stand and nicer camera is still superior but not as practical).

I have another post about using your smartphone with an app (and a little modern magic) to create great images and automatically back them up.

Scanner or digital camera, which is best for family historians wanting to digitize genealogy records? How do you decide? | The Occasional Genealogist

Why You Need a Genealogy To-do List

Deciding on the next action for a genealogy project can be exhausting. Is tiresome decision making keeping you from doing more genealogy or even doing any genealogy? | The Occasional Genealogist

Can you say decision fatigue?

That phrase was actually the note I made to myself, so I'd know what this blog post title was really supposed to be about.

Is it what you expected? It's not what I expected the first time I opened the draft post after thinking of the title.

It IS the reason you need a genealogy to-do list. But I'm pretty sure I need to clarify what kind of to-do list I'm talking about.

Genealogy Is More Than...

One "part" of this blog is the Instagram series "The Lunchtime Genealogist" where I provide a suggestion for a genealogy task you can do in 45 minutes (on your lunch break---I used to do a lot of genealogy on my lunch break when I had an office job).

There's one suggestion that is exactly where I want to start.
"Create a genealogy to-do list. Not just research to-dos!"

I've been a proponent of this concept for a long time. Genealogy is more than just research. It's more than just the research process (plan > research > report > repeat). There are education and organization to give you the two big "other" required subjects.

I only just recently realized how much decision fatigue plays a part for Occasional Genealogists, though. (You can learn more from the same book that "hit it home" for me). I heard about decision fatigue from a variety of sources. I got the concept, the more decisions you have to make, the harder it is to make the later ones and the more likely you'll make poor decisions.

Decision Fatigue: Not Just "What's For Dinner"

Who hasn't opted for a really bad, fast-food meal after a long, stressful day, full of decisions? But "comfort food" is different than genealogy, right? You actually have to eat. Naturally, you want something you perceive as quickly available. It's easy to see how you picked what you think will taste best instead of a healthier, less-satisfying option (I'm talking about you, fast-food salad).

Genealogy is different. You don't have to do genealogy. If you want to do it, it's fun, right? Surely you can rebound from decision fatigue to do a bit of research at the end of the day?


I've been so busy lately; I've realized I'm choosing not to do genealogy rather than decide what to do. Decision fatigue has reached its maximum. I already knew I sometimes choose not to do genealogy because I can't do quality research. This is different.

Just like choosing healthier food, there are "better" genealogy choices you should be making, too.

Choosing the Right Kind of Genealogy

You might make the poorer choice of just hunting around without having a plan or a place to take notes. You might make the better choice of hopping on the Internet to do a search, and you have your research log open (to record what searches you are making and the results).

There are any number of iterations of this research scenario I could list but what about the better choice of creating a research plan? What about reading a genealogy journal? Maybe the best choice would be organizing your files.

This is where we need to get back to that to-do list.

You need a genealogy to-do list that gives you the best choices but not too many choices.

A Long List of Quick Choices

Here's where it gets a bit complicated, you probably do need a list with 100 choices. It just needs to be obvious you should only pick from five of those 100 choices.


Creating a good genealogy to-do list is not easy (or at least not fast). As an Occasional Genealogist, your lack of free-time makes it harder than for someone who has frequent free-time or occasional, but significant, amounts of free-time.

Part of the reason I've been so busy lately, and decision fatigue has become my side-kick, is I've been creating The 2018 Occasional Genealogist Planner.

The Planner contains tasks and suggestions that are ready to go on your customized to-do list. Do you have to buy The Planner to create a great to-do list? No. The point of The Planner is I've done as much of the work as I can. You just take it to the next step to customize a list for you.

If you're the genealogist who is never going to buy anything, keep reading because you'll still set-up your to-do list the same way, you'll just have to do the time-consuming work of breaking down genealogy tasks into bite-size pieces.

Efficiency and Good Choices

So you need a genealogy to-do list with research tasks and non-research tasks. The purpose is to help you make good decisions and beat decision fatigue.

As an Occasional Genealogist, a good to-do list will also help you "do great genealogy, despite the interruptions."

A good to-do list contains quick actions. You don't want one of your choices to be "research ancestors." No one's going to ever check that task off, it's never-ending.

If you create an actionable to-do list, not just a long list of ideas, you are part way to keeping track of what you've done and what you need to do next. When you get interrupted, you can probably check off an item if you just finished it. You can also jot a note like "in-progress."

Next time you look at your to-do list, you'll see you should move on to the next item, or you need to finish a task.

How Much is Too Much?

So let's get a little more specific. I have no idea if 100 tasks is a good number for your to-do list. I know it wouldn't be hard to come up with 100 tasks that are small, actionable tasks.

Here's why I think a long to-do list is a good idea.

Whenever you decide you have time to do some genealogy, you don't always want to work on the same thing.

  • Sometimes you want to work on a specific project, 
  • sometimes you want to try out a new genealogy "toy" (whether software, a database, an organization system, or a gadget), 
  • sometimes you just want to do anything that feels like genealogy.

You need to have a choice that fits your desire. If you create a short list of the tasks related to one specific research project (and if it's short, it'll be for a sub-part of a larger project---so really specific tasks), you may not really want to do any of those tasks.

That won't help you do more genealogy, and it won't help you avoid decision fatigue (you may try and decide on a different option that isn't on your list, so no advantage).

What I'm suggesting is a list that is long because the tasks are broken down to be quick and actionable (FYI, quick is a relative term in genealogy). You shouldn't be deciding between all of the choices. You should have a built-in filter, what you feel like doing right then.

Filter Your List

This filter will have you choosing between the options that are realistic for your situation at that exact moment.

Very likely you either want to work on a specific project, or you want to do research online (new and unique research online). For a specific project, research may not be the best choice. Maybe you need to learn about a location involved in that project. Maybe you need to learn about using specific records for that project.

A really great task that is constantly shoved to the back-burner is doing online research to identify offline sources. Without any structure (like a to-do list), you'll rarely decide spur of the moment to research offline sources. Yet when you do, you'll probably find at least one source that is easier to obtain than you thought.

If you don't find an easy to obtain source, you might find out there's a really exciting source that exists.

I'll give you an example. Recently for a client project, I discovered the focus ancestor had military service no one knew about (or no one ever mentioned). The relevant records weren't cheap, but they were really easy to get.

I order military records almost every time I find out they exist. I didn't have to do much research to have everything I needed to order the records. If you don't order records routinely, you probably need to spend some time researching what records to get (what should exist) and how to get them (including where they are).

[Hint: finding the right person to get records for you can allow you to skip some of the time figuring out what to get. I use contractors I know are familiar with what exists so I can give them a more general request. This saves me time over having to request exact records. Finding great contractors could even be an item on your list.]

Let's recap.

  • Create a long to-do list of quick, actionable tasks. It should give you choices for whatever kind of genealogy you want to do.
  • Your list should include research process tasks, education tasks, and organizing tasks.
  • You list needs to indicate the next step whenever it's appropriate (if one step should be followed by a specific next step, this needs to be obvious).
I want to quickly talk about keeping your list. If you can't find your list, it doesn't help having one.

KEEPING a List (Create It and Find It)

I've mentioned that I've created The Occasional Genealogist Planner to help you create your to-do list. It contains quick, actionable suggestions that you can customize (for research process tasks, these are already in order, too).

The Planner is a digital file meant to be printed (by you) and assembled (by you) in the way you prefer. I've designed it for a 3-ring binder since that's the easiest way to add items in, when and where you need them.

A paper to-do list may or may not be your best option. If you don't like using technology, find it slow, or can't keep track of files, keep a paper to-do list. Just keep up with it!

I actually made The Occasional Genealogist Planner a printable planner because it can help with technology integration.

I would keep my to-do list digitally. As I mentioned, I only realized decision fatigue was really a factor with my genealogy recently, so I don't have a long to-do list created. I'm using The Planner to get myself to do more genealogy this year, too.

As for my to-do list, I haven't decided if I want to use Evernote, or Trello, or maybe a hybrid option.

I know many people today are doing genealogy on their mobile phone. It will be easier for me to create my list in the bits of free time I have, when all I have is my smartphone.

Create it... on that tiny, little screen. I hate typing on that tiny, little screen (I have no issues with reading on it which is what I mostly do).

Having a paper planner is like having a "second monitor" in a way. The Planner has general ideas. You can read these from the Planner and type them on your phone as customized tasks.

If you are working on your phone, I'm pretty sure this is easier than attempting to cut and paste. This is actually the idea behind many of the items in The Planner. Having them on paper and using them WITH your smartphone will allow you to work faster and do better genealogy.

Options like Evernote or Trello also work great with a small device like your smartphone. Basically, if you want to use your smartphone, you want an app or a (properly) mobile-optimized website. Combine this with the Planner and you should be good to go.

Hybrid Organization

So what is a hybrid option for keeping your genealogy to-do list?

You don't have to keep one long list. It needs to be organized so you can quickly choose an appropriate option. You can do this by creating multiple (organized) lists. Just make sure you can find your lists whenever you need them.

I might keep my research-process tasks in an MS Word or Google Docs file which would essentially be a fancy research plan*. I might keep my education tasks in Trello. I can have a master "list" in Evernote so I can click on a link and open the Trello board or the appropriate research document.

[*I'm calling this a "fancy" research plan because normally I wouldn't list every tiny step in a plan. Listing every step, even those I know should come next, will save me time and combat decision fatigue. This isn't necessary in a traditional plan that you work through in larger amounts of time. To benefit from a complete to-do list, I may also include items I wouldn't consider traditional parts of a plan. Hence a "fancy" plan.]

Basically, my master list would be shorter, perhaps with names of the research projects---the actual tasks would be in the linked document---organizing tasks might be individually listed as would education tasks that aren't part of a research project.

Personally, my master list would be the broad categories I might know I want to work on at a given moment. The choices would be found when I click on the link.

I will have DNA tasks as well as research tasks and on-going education tasks, so I know my list will get long quickly. I don't want to hunt through a long list just to find my list of choices. A digital list also gives you the ability to search if you just can't keep it as short as you'd like.

Ready to Customize Your To-do List?

This has been a lot of to-do list "theory." I created The Occasional Genealogist Planner to give you more specific help than I can provide in a blog post. Tasks you'd put on your to-do list are a core feature of The Planner, but not the only one. You can learn more here.

If you want to go-it-alone, you need to break down all your tasks into pieces you can accomplish in the type of free-time you usually have. The less this is, the more tasks you'll need. Make sure you don't create "cheats" by leaving out an important step when listing your tasks.

No matter what, find a place to keep your list and remember to use it. It should have tasks besides just research and besides just the non-research parts of the research process.

At the minimum, you should find these types of tasks on your list:

  • Planning
  • Research
  • Analyzing
  • Reporting
  • Education
  • Organization

If you aren't familiar with the research process, your first task should be an education task to learn more.

A genealogy To-do list should allow you to quickly decide the best option when you're ready to do some genealogy. It'll help reduce decision fatigue by presenting you with choices crafted when you were less fatigued. You should be able to reduce the time spent deciding to mere moments, so you can quickly dive-in and achieve results.

The Occasional Genealogist Planner is available now!.

Make better genealogy decisions with a simple tool, a to-do list. | The Occasional Genealogist

Make Your Genealogy Skills Go Pro

How do professional genealogists accomplish so much more? Is it simply knowledge? Do they know more than you? Is it just experience? Have they been clued-in to some secret or magic formula?

The magic theory seems to be pretty popular. In fact, it seems to be the belief held by many people that hire a professional genealogist. Because that's the reason some people will give for not wanting to pay their bill, they say "I could have done this!"

Yes, you could.

If you have the knowledge, which comes from experience.

What's the secret formula to professional genealogists' success? Can you uncover it? | The Occasional Genealogist

There's no secret professional genealogists have discovered. There is no magic formula.

There is one other super, massively important factor.


Organization is probably the thread that runs through every professional genealogy skill and separates the really successful (in terms of performance, not money) from the mediocre.

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