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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.

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ESSENTIAL Skill: Why You Need to Take Genealogy Notes

Why you need to take genealogy notes, image of person writing by hand

I've been working on answering this question for months now.

Why take genealogy notes? A computer can make things so much simpler for you, recording facts automatically. There's one quick and compelling answer (and a lot of not compelling answers I'll skip for now).


Notes are where you capture clues accidentally. Those clues will bust your brick walls. Part of what is so important is "accidentally" capturing clues.

What a computer does for you automatically does not capture clues. If that is your research process, you can capture clues intentionally.

But you won't recognize most genealogy clues when you see them.

If you don't recognize information as a clue, you can't intentionally capture it.

In part, your inability to capture clues intentionally is due to the fact that the genealogist you are today is not as skilled as the genealogist you will be in the future.

There's another piece to this, though.

How Do You Recognize a Genealogy Clue?

You won't recognize some clues until after you've found other information. You don't find genealogy information in the order you need it. It's quite random. Even if you do an amazing job planning your research, you still can't know what order to find information in because you don't know what information you will find.

You need to understand and remember...

  • Some clues aren't apparent unless you already have other information.
  • You can't control the order you find information in.
  • This means >> you usually won't know information is definitely a clue when you find it.

There's another piece to this as well.

Asking Genealogy Questions

Recently I FINALLY updated my source evaluation post. In it, I explained that part of evaluating your sources is knowing what question you are trying to answer. It's possible that a piece of information is evidence for one question but not another. This is how the issue with clues works.

You're looking for certain information when you research. You will come across more information than you're looking for (just think of the records for all those John Smiths that aren't your John Smith!). Some of this extra information might be evidence for a different question (clues), while some of it is just extraneous information.

FYI, Evidence is the formal name for clues (although clues are always "indirect" whereas evidence can be indirect or "direct," but that's a topic for a different post).

Some clues you will know are worth keeping. For example, if you saw "her mother was the daughter of the town's first mayor" and the "her" is the person you're researching, you would want this clue to who her mother was. It doesn't tell you who her mother is. It's just a clue. You have to find other information to use the clue.

Not every clue is so obvious.

It's hard to give an example of a not obvious clue, BUT... In the mayor's daughter example, you need another clue (another piece of evidence). This may be a clue you missed in your previous research.

Do you know what that missed clue is? The name of the town's first mayor. If you knew that, you'd know "her" grandfather. You still don't know who her mother is, but it's going to be a lot easier to figure it out now!

This was a contrived example. It's unlikely you'd record the name of the town's first mayor in your notes if you had no idea he was important.

However, you often have plenty of hints that information might be important. 

Wait, let me rephrase that sentence. 

You often have plenty of hints if you are researching in records, not just searching online. You find hints when reading records, such as looking at the images from search results, reading pages of browse-only records, or doing offline research.

Recognizing you should record information, which you don't clearly know what to do with, takes practice. Taking notes is the best way to practice.

Why Take Genealogy Notes?

Why take notes when a computer automatically captures information? The computer captures "facts" (OK, they might not be correct, but we'll call them "facts" to make this post easier to read). At some point, your genealogy research will need "clues."

Take notes so you capture clues you will need later, even if you don't know they are clues or what to do with them yet.

You Need to Take Genealogy Notes

I've focused on addressing the situation of someone that is only attaching online research to an online tree, but you can have the exact same problem if all you do is fill in fields in genealogy software. (Online trees and genealogy software are not the same. Genealogy software can include online tree options, but it includes many more features, like being able to take notes).

In the dark ages of paper-based genealogy, people still fell into this trap. They'd only fill out a pedigree chart and a family group sheet instead of taking notes. 

Not taking notes is nothing new. Computers, specifically online trees, have made it easier and faster to capture information without taking notes.

You can create a very detailed and large family tree without ever taking a single note.

But you will either get stuck at some point, or your tree is not correct.

At some point, you need to use clues to create the answer you can't find stated in a single source. It is much faster to look back over your notes than redo all your research to find those clues.

This post only answered "why" take genealogy notes, not "how." Here's the post about how to take notes because that's a much messier topic.