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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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How to Take Genealogy Notes

clipboard with paper with genealogy notes written in cursive and quill pen

This is the follow-up to the post "Why to Take Genealogy Notes." That post explained why everyone should take notes, not just record "facts" (i.e., why you need to do more than just attach names, dates, and places to an online tree OR do more than record names, dates, and places in genealogy software or in a form).

image of hands typing and text how to take genealogy notes

I've had people tell me, "I know I should take notes but what do I put in the notes?" That's what this post is about. This post is NOT about the technical aspects of creating a note-taking form (or which form you should use) or even how to organize your notes. (You could check out this post if you want a template.)

Modern Genealogy vs. Paper Genealogy

There are SOOOOOO many options for how to physically take notes today. That's part of why this is a complicated topic. Before electronic options, you were going to use paper. The only question was whether you were going to use blank paper or a form (and for notes, I believe most people used blank paper even if they used forms for other tasks).

Because there was no automation in the paper process, you didn't need to be told how to take notes. You needed to be told how to keep a research log. If you did that, the only thing you needed to know about "how" to take notes was to be sure your notes could be matched to the proper log entry.

This really hasn't changed but because most people get started doing genealogy where they use automation (attaching information to an online tree), it isn't obvious what should go into a note. In the paper process, beginners put the "facts" in their notes. Today that would be duplicated effort.

Genealogy Notes are More Than a Tool

Here's what I think is really important about this change from paper to electronic---and what you need to be aware of so you can do something about it. Because you HAD to take notes in the paper process, as your skills progressed, you'd naturally add more to your notes. Today, most genealogists don't learn basic note-taking, so they are handicapped by missing the skill improvement that went along with naturally improving their note-taking.

Do you understand what this means? Taking notes improves your skills as well as notes being a tool you need for more advanced genealogy.

Taking notes improves your skills as well as notes being a tool you need for more advanced genealogy.

You don't need to duplicate effort and put in your notes what you can automatically capture. This doesn't mean you don't need to take notes. It means you need to take notes like a more experienced genealogist. If you're reading this, you are ready to be that more experienced genealogist.

Genealogy Note-taking 101

First, you need to take notes while you research.

Taking notes after you finish researching is "reporting." You also need to do that but just realize they are separate tasks. People think "reporting" is a big complicated task. For a professional genealogist, it is. When you report to yourself, I like to call the reporting step "summarizing."

Understanding the difference between note-taking while you research and writing up information after you finish should help you understand part of "how" to take notes.

Note-taking and reporting are two different phases in the genealogy research process. We often describe this as a cycle but many of the phases are repeated before we finish the full process so a "cycle" isn't exactly accurate. This is actually important to understanding note-taking's purpose.

Note-taking, Analysis, and the Genealogy Research Process

Here are the basic phases of the genealogy process:

  • Review what you know.
  • Plan new research.
  • Research.
  • Report.
  • Repeat.

You will take notes when you review and when you research. You might take notes when you plan (I'll explain this when we get more into what goes in your notes).

Reporting or summarizing is a different phase. There's another phase that can be added to this process but it is one of the phases that really can be repeated anywhere in the process so I don't list it in this basic process (this basic process is what can be represented as a cycle).

The additional phase is "Analyze and correlate." (Correlation is actually a specific type of analysis where you compare similar information. You will often see the phrase "correlation and analysis" so I've mentioned that phrase here but I'm just going to call it "analysis" going forward.)

You can analyze information in any of the phases. You MUST analyze before you report/summarize. Genealogical analysis does not have to be complicated. It's basically a one-word description of a bunch of potential tasks or skills that take raw data and turn that data into usable information.

In the post about why to take notes, the compelling reason was to capture clues. Analysis is how you take information and either recognize it as a useful clue or how you take several clues and combine them to either find more meaning (basically combine them into a better clue) or combine them to create an answer.

What goes in your notes is the raw data (information) that needs to be analyzed. What goes in your report/summary is the processed information.

What goes in your notes is the raw data (information) that needs to be analyzed. What goes in your report/summary is the processed information.

There are some additional things that can go in both and I'll talk about those in a moment. 

Modern Genealogy Note-taking

I've said note-taking 101 is taking notes while you research. Now we immediately run into a modern vs. paper issue.

You want to log every search you make. This is traditionally done with a research log. Much of what goes in a traditional research log also belongs in your notes. In a paper world, people created all kinds of options to avoid duplicating what they put in their log in their notes. This could be risky if the two got separated so it's always safer to just duplicate the information.

In a digital world, it's easy to cut and paste info between notes and a log. It is also possible to use just notes to serve both purposes (this wasn't possible with paper because you couldn't search paper like you do digital documents).

There are many digital options to log every search. You don't have to create a "log" in addition to your notes. Initially, you might want to take notes and then enter the log information into a separate logging option (this might be a spreadsheet or a "log" in your genealogy software---this is a big topic that belongs in several other posts or an entire online class!).

The information that may be duplicated between a log and notes is a combination of absolute fundamentals (what source you are using) plus the additional information many beginners miss. This additional information is often vital to finding clues.

Your research log includes:

  • exactly what you were looking for (why you checked that source),
  • what exact source you used (this includes what search you made if you used an online search form or how you looked for the information such as using an index or table of contents),
  • the information you need for a citation (don't skip this if you did NOT find what you were looking for, I have had to cite a source because I did not find information!),
  • plus any "notes" about the source.

Honestly, it was crazy to try and put so much information in a paper table but that was necessary when paper was the only option. You used the log as a cross-index as well as a quick reference to skim.

My recommendation is to put the research log parts in your digital notes and if you feel the need for a spreadsheet or other summary/cross-reference, copy and paste the basics to your "log" (and add a link to the actual notes). I personally do use a spreadsheet because I like reviewing information that way but a separate log is not necessary if you are fully digital (the information is necessary, it's the log format that is not necessary).

So your notes should indicate the source you are using (otherwise the notes aren't that helpful!). You can put all the log parts in your notes as well but you at least want notes about the source such as what it does or does not include and any problems you see. This is information that can relate to "clues." Right now you might not see significance in this information but later it might be important.

Recap

The absolute basics in your notes are:

  • The source the notes are for.
  • Notes about the source which includes issues with the source (are parts missing or hard to read?) and if you did or did not find what you were looking for (what you were looking for should be recorded but it might be in your log).

Here's where we get to the information you might capture at any point and therefore might be in your notes, report, plan, etc.

If you have ANY questions, put them in your notes (or plan or report if those are the items you are writing). Later, seek the answer. This is how paper-based genealogists naturally improved their skills. If you're taking notes, it's easy to write down your questions. Looking for the answers improves your skills.

Noting Questions Example #1

You're at your local genealogy room using books of records. You read the introduction to a book and it tells you what is included in the book is only select information from the records. The introduction tells you what is abstracted (record what should be in the abstracts in your notes). The introduction doesn't specify what isn't abstracted (if it did, you should also put that in your notes).

The question you would record is "what other information could be in the original records?"

Based on this question you can plan research to get the original records to see if there is more information related to the question you're researching.

Maybe the originals are hard to get, though.

You might instead use that question to plan education into what other information could be in those records. Based on that you can decide how much effort to put into getting the originals (i.e., you prioritize money and/or time to get the originals if the extra information looks very promising or you prioritize other research if it doesn't---all genealogists have to make this kind of decision).

Noting Questions Example #2

Here's a different example. You're using deed records. You find a deed involving the surnames you're interested in. You find the phrase "by his next friend" in the deed. 

You should note that you need to find out what this means.

And then you need to actually find out.

Most importantly, if anything else appears like it might be of interest, make a note.

Do You Need Genealogy Notes?

Hopefully you now understand that using digital methods to record genealogy information has made your options far more complex. Unfortunately that means many modern genealogsits have taken cheats, instead of shortcuts, to take advantage of faster digital methods. Some of the key features of a solid genealogy research process, like note taking, got abandonded along the way and this ends up causing problems as you continue to research.

Remember, the biggest "problem" is you don't know what you will need in future. This applies to the information and clues you should gather but also just generally to your skills. When you start doing genealogy, you don't realize how important some of the seemingly "useless" stuff actually is.

The fastest and easiest way to fix your research process is to use the suggestions in the section below. The long-term solution to being a successful genealogist is to continually learn about doing genealogy and apply what you learn.

What Should You Put in Genealogy Notes?

This section summarizes what I recommend you put in your genealogy notes. It includes some informaiton that could be kept in your research log. This is a concrete suggestion, not "options." If you just want to get started, you can print the list below and keep it handy to remind you what to put in your notes EVERY time you research. This is not the only way to take notes but this is the fast and easy method to start improving your research process.

Take great notes by including/doing the following:

Before you actually start researching (i.e. at the start of your research session but before you search the source/get results)

  • The date.
  • Where you are physically.
  • The source you are using (see the post about evidence analysis to learn what information about the source to record).
  • Why you decided to use that source (what exactly do you hope to find)
  • The search you are using.
  • Any issues you see with the source.

Don't forget to look for any explanatory information about the source and make notes that help you use or understand the information.

Make your search and then note:

  • Do you see any issues?
  • Did you find what you were looking for or not?
  • If you found what you were looking for, record the information in your notes.
  • If you did not find what you were looking for, make any appropriate notes.
  • Any questions you have during your research session.

That's it. It's a decent sized list written in this format but this boils down to your working citation and notes. The catch is, many new genealogists don't know what to include in a working citation so I've spelled it out here as much as possible (use the post about source analysis to get the additional details about what working citation information you should record).

How to Take Genealogy Notes

To wrap this up. How do you take genealogy notes? All you need is a blank document (or piece of paper). A form is used because it can remind you of the parts to include (the list above). You don't need a note taking form, it's just as a reminder.

Now that you know what to put in your genealogy notes, why not get started!