about me
blog author
Meet the Author
I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

Read These Posts First

Posts contain affiliate links. See my disclosures page for details.


Jumpstart the MAGIC Step in Genealogy with this Tip

I've been creating a lot of genealogy forms, guides, charts, cheatsheets, etc. in the last few weeks.

I've gotten to the point of summarizing some of the most important steps you need to take, those steps the most occasional of Occasional Genealogists needs to do, even if they have to drop a lot of other "important" steps.

Well, maybe I shouldn't call these "steps." These are genealogical things you need to be doing. In this post I want to highlight a simple solution to what I often refer to as the magical genealogy step. This simple solution may or may not directly accomplish the step it helps you with but it has lots of advantages. I've written about it before but need to update some of what I said.

Tha Magic Step in Genealogy

This Step Really Feels Like Magic

My "magical" genealogy step is writing up your conclusion, that's how we complete proving a genealogical conclusion.

So completing a conclusion is a step but writing about your genealogy can produce the same "magic" even if you don't reach a conclusion. Writing can also be a brain dump or another reason such as organzing your thoughts for one part of your research (as opposed to organizing everything to reach a conclusion). That's why I'm being so specific that this isn't really a "step."

I'm suggesting a simple way to get started writing about genealogy. This isn't about writing your family history but it will work for that. This option isn't limited to any one type of writing which pretty much means it's for everyone.

My simple solution is to keep a genealogy journal. Like a diary (not like a quarterly journal you'd receive from a genealogy society).

Honestly, you could just write without even confining this to a "journal" but I used to do this a lot (and I should get back to doing it) and you want to be able to find what you wrote because you'll create some good stuff.

I'm getting back to this topic now because after I wrote about 21st-century solutions to the research log, I realized some of the tweaks I hadn't considered until recently for a log also apply to some of my "warnings" for a genealogy journal.

So, first I'm going to tell you about keeping a genealogy journal in a rather 20th-century structure. I started doing this in the 20th century. Possibly before my family ever owned a computer but certainly before I had a computer of my own.

I think this concept, placed in the idea of a bound paper journal, helps you understand this idea (assuming you're familiar with the concept of keeping a diary, perhaps you're so young you only know blogs and vlogs and can't imagine writing in a paper book).

Once I've explained the why, I'll talk about some 21st-century tweaks that makes this easy to do, and overcome the warnings (I'm still giving the warnings because I know a lot of you will still do this on paper or with a more 20th-century electronic solution and they will apply).

If you can implement "modern" solutions you can get the advantage of the genealogy journal and use it with my highly recommended plan to notes to report suggestion which can also roll your log into.

That just seriously reduces the amount of work you have to do without cheating the system. You have to use a pretty advanced "technology" solution for this (not a hard to use solution but we've gone way beyond simply doing the same tasks on digital documents instead of paper and filing them in electronic folders instead of paper folders).

Keeping a genealogy journal is for everyone. You can do this on paper or digitally. Whether you need the warnings I give depends on how you write your journal, and you can use several options if that works for you. This is completely customizable and a great choice for Occasional Genealogists.

Overcoming Genealogy Writer's Block

I think one of the most important aspects of the journal is that you create it just for you, for no one else to see. There is no reason to worry about what others think of what you wrote. Just start writing. That should give you a clue about using it appropriately, too.

Another genealogist (including your future self) can benefit from your notes, plans, logs, and reports. Don't put them in your journal. The benefit of a genealogy journal is simply in catching your random ideas and thoughts, not its use farther down the road. Don't confuse it with other types of journals/diaries.

UPDATE: The "genealogy journal" concept is to NOT stare at a blank page unsure how to start a report, or your family history, or whatever "formal" thing you are trying to write. Remember that distinction because that's how it can help you when you're stuck. HOWEVER, you might inadvertently create something that really should be filed with your main research. If you use a bound paper journal, you don't want important info trapped there. I'll talk about possible solutions at the end but if you know you're a pen and paper genealogist, make sure you don't cross the line and put too much in your journal. See below.

Using Genealogy Notes with Your Journal (don't)

You should write about whatever genealogy topic you choose. You don't need any reference material in front of you when you write. If you have a question that depends on information about an ancestor, don't look it up.

Write down what you need to look-up and the implications. Even if it turns out the ancestor is the wrong age (or whatever information you needed), the general idea will probably apply somewhere else in your research.

If you have the time and inclination to pull out your notes, you should probably be creating a formal document (plan, summary/report, timeline, etc.).

If you start keeping this journal while using your notes, you are likely to start abusing it and cause yourself different problems.

Take a look at my genealogy collections for a bullet journal posts or my genealogy to-do list post for better ideas for when you have time to pull out your notes.

Brain Dumping for Genealogy

You don't have to sit down to solve a particular problem or task when you want to "journal" about genealogy, although you could. If you feel blocked trying to write a plan or organize a report, you might want to start with a journal entry. Just make sure relevant ideas make it to the plan or report.

I know I hate reading my own unedited work. If you feel the same, here's the good news. You only need to reread what you wrote one time. You need to transfer relevant ideas to an actionable document. Make a to-do list, add it to a plan or log, create a note or report, whatever is appropriate.

Realizing you need to review existing research may be the most useful feature of your journal. You may have some other realizations, too.

RELATEDCloud-Based Mind Mapping Tools to Help You Organize Your Genealogy

Improving Your Genealogy Skills

You may realize you need to correlate and analyze data/sources you already have. Don't know what correlating and analyzing are? Those are the formal terms for a very important set of skills.

If you have the urge to make a chart to compare information, you want to correlate the data.

If you begin having questions about a source you used, you are feeling the need to analyze it.

Depending on the level of detail you recall, you might do some analyzing while writing in your journal. In that case, you need to transfer that information to a memo/report or, at least, a note in your file.

It's not usually possible to correlate data without having your notes in front of you (which I've already said you don't do in this informal, off-the-cuff type of writing).

Your journal can help you formulate genealogical questions you would never have thought of by filling out a family group sheet or pedigree chart. It can even bring up different questions than arise when reporting or planning.

You may start to ask questions that require you to develop new skills (like correlating and analyzing) or you may ask questions you simply need to research the answer ("how old did you have to be to witness [that kind of document]?").

Genealogy is all about answering questions and they go way beyond, "who's his father?"

Setting Yourself Up for Genealogy Success

If you decide to start keeping a genealogy journal, make sure you don't abuse it.

Genealogy is a long term project. You need a great organizing system and a long-term organizing system.

Your genealogy journal is an informal place for brainstorming or just to get ideas out of your head (brain dumping).

If you need to act on anything you've written, you need to transfer that action to the appropriate place. Your journal should NOT be the first place you go when it's time to research.

How to Keep a Genealogy Journal

Finally, you don't NEED to keep a genealogy journal. Just like you don't NEED to do mind mapping. It works for some people and is extremely helpful to them.

You do NEED to keep a research log, take good notes, and summarize your research.

RELATEDYou Don't Need a Research Log! (yes, you read that right)

A journal is a suggestion that might be helpful if you have too many ideas in your head or just need to "talk it out" but can't.

When you are a less experienced genealogist, it might help you start writing when you don't know where to start. If you just like keeping a diary, this might work for you. Whatever the reason, you may find a genealogy journal helpful.

I've suggested a paper journal but you can keep it in any portable format you like. That might be electronic and with a smartphone, audio is also an option. You can also create a workable solution for any combination of the three with an app like Evernote.

RELATED: here's a post about using Evernote for random genealogy ideas as well as research planning ideas.

Find the format that works for you and don't abuse it.

Your genealogy journal can help you think outside the family group sheet.

21st Century Genealogy

So the big warning with a genealogy journal is trapping information in it that belongs somewhere else.

This is also why you should not be taking your notes in a bound notebook. Genealogy involves a LOT of cross-referencing. Most people who use paper need to file the paper in folders to make it easier to access. You then create a cross-referencing system to tell you which (not over stuffed) folder the piece of paper you need is in.

Now, it would be possible to create a super organized cross-referencing system that referenced your notes in a bound notebook. If you have such a system, keep your bound notebooks.

If you don't, you need to free your notes!

Hybrid Genealogy

So one way you could have notes (or reports/summaries, charts, etc.) in a bound paper notebook is if you digitize the pages.

You might find it easier to take notes on paper for whatever reason but prefer digital organization. Most likely you don't handwrite your reports or create family group sheets in a bound paper notebook by hand but if you did, this would still apply.

I'm mentioning this in a post about a genealogy journal because today (even versus five years ago) it might be very reasonable for you to keep a paper journal and digitize relevant pages so they could easily be cross-referenced.

When I first wrote this post, I consider this an option but I had learned it wasn't a good option for many people. The bulk of my client work at the time was taking digital images at the National Archives and I was good at it (that's not to say I didn't have issues but I was using a camera, not a scanner, and I had very few issues considering this was literally taking photos---subject to the changing light---there weren't readily available apps for photographing paper instead of scanning it).

As I started taking clients for research I suggested to a few they take a photo with their smartphone of one or two documents I'd need and email them to me. Good grief! Most had parts that were illegible because they were so blurry.

Today, there are tons of options for your smartphone designed to digitize paper. I just bought the new Rocketbook Beacons so I can more easily digitize whiteboards (I have two in my office and yes, whiteboards are different than paper when you try and photograph them). You could even use a Rocketbook for your journal. If you want real paper, they have free printable templates.

Before I end up with a post all about how great Rocketbook is for genealogy (which I will probably write as soon as I test the Beacons for digitizing other genealogy material, like books or old paper that apps don't recognize as a page) let's move on.

Today you can use the Evernote camera (part of the Evernote app), the Rocketbook app, and I don't know how many "scanning" apps on your phone to take very nice photos of paper genealogy. It's now perfectly reasonable to keep a bound genealogy journal (or bound genealogy notes) and avoid the issues of bound paper by digitizing them.

As long as you do this in small batches (so you can check the quality), this should work fine. I took most of my notes at IGHR this past summer in my Rocketbook. I digitized them each night (or even right before I left class!). I've used several of them already and this worked so much better than anything I've tried in the past.

Digital Genealogy

Before I finish, the "ultimate" solution for your journal is the same as for a research log alternative.

This can take the form of using something like Evernote, where you have ultimate cross-reference control by using the combination of notebooks, tags, and searches. You do need to take full advantage of these to make this reasonable, though.

The other variation is a database. One you have custom created or genealogy software with sufficient features (and you must USE those features). I know RootsMagic has the features but many people don't use the features that make this more than a well-documented family tree.

All of these are fairly complex solutions and I haven't implemented any of them so I can't go over all the things you'll need to do so you don't cheat the research process.

Keeping a genealogy journal is a great way to start writing and generate ideas but you have to make sure you don't cheat the system.

If you struggle to write when it's time for that step in your genealogy research, a genealogy journal can help you get started. It can even be a valuable tool to help you brainstorm and brain dump. You need to consider what format you record your information in, what information you are putting into any formats you choose, and if you should make a different choice.

There are fantastic hybrid options if you like the idea of just writing, by hand, and then digitizing what you need. If you have a great fully digital system set-up, you can save a lot of time. If you prefer paper, you need to follow time-tested 20th-century advice.

Give a genealogy journal a try. You might find a bit of "magic" in writing up your genealogical ideas.