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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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Organizing Genealogy Research : What You Need to Organize

You want to organize your genealogy. But what exactly needs to be organized?

  • Information
  • Documents
  • Everything else

This post will cover the basics of what to organize and why.

Don't miss the first post in this series on genealogy organizing basics (for creating a system that works for you).

I've been writing a lot lately about organizing your genealogy. But one problem you might have is you don't realize what needs to be organized. We all have some concept that genealogy involves a lot of "stuff" and that material, digital or physical, must be organized to find it and use it.

But missing some of the "stuff" that needs to be organized can actually be one of the reasons your research is struggling. I'm not saying you're struggling because something is disorganized. I'm suggesting you're not keeping some information you should and of course that means you're not organizing it.

So what do we need to organize in genealogy?

Organizing Genealogy Information

Clearly the most crucial thing we must organize in our genealogy is results or facts. These are the names, dates, places, relationships, and hopefully also your citations. Your citations will organize themselves if you attach them to the information (the individual data) they cite and that data is organized.

This is so simple, we almost automatically do it. You create an online tree or in the past, you used a pedigree chart and family group sheet. I actually don't recommend focusing on improving your organization of this material.


As you become a better (and more prolific) researcher, you will need to be better organized BUT, I recommend you focus on organzing all your research, which includes some of the other items listed below. Organzing the names, dates, and places could be done with an online tree, any genealogy software, or by writing a family history (with an index, or a digital version that is searchable). It's easy if that's all you're organzing.

Great genealogy means keeping and finding more than just the facts. Organzing becomes more difficult as you incorporate these "other" things, so focus on them. They need your attention.

Organizing Your Research Process

Now I get to sound like a broken record. You need to be taking genealogy notes, not just attaching "facts" to a family tree. If you can't find your notes, there's no point in taking them so they must be organized.

I harp on taking notes because that's your next step if you've only been attaching things to a family tree. But the genealogy research process also involves planning (you should create actual plans) as well as reporting (creating "reports" but for simplicity you can think of these as summaries).

I recommend creating plans that become your notes which will include your summary when you're done. Ideally you'll also write reports based on several sets of notes---which means you didn't start with a plan since that's not new research. Don't worry about that if you've never even taken notes, just realize you might have plan>notes>summary AND reports to organize.

Having plans that you take your notes on and then add a summary when you're done makes organizing easier. You don't need to organize plans, notes, and summaries separately because they are one document. But also realize, if you do this digitally, you might have unused "plans" and then completed "summaries" as well as reports about several summaries (i.e. reports based on several sets of notes). It's just something to be aware of when you're thinking about what has to be organized.

My recommendation is treat all of this as one thing, the "research process."

Organizing Advanced Genealogy Material

This is actually an add-on to the above "research process" material. You should create and organize (and review, i.e. use in future) various types of genealogical analysis. You might write an analysis as part of a summary or report but sometimes you do the analysis as a separate item. I do this a ton when I'm doing correlation. I have spreadsheets and charts and lists, even paper items involving string to connect families!

I can't tell you how to best organize analyses but you want to create these and reference them when reviewing in future. That means you need to organize your analysis and correlation documents. (If you're wondering, I put these in my surname folders whereas my plans/notes go in a folder for notes---but I'm working towards finding all this via Evernote so it doesn't matter what "folder" they are actually in!).

Organizing Genealogy Information : Not Research 

aka "Genealogy Knowledge"

This might be the biggest game-changer for your family history. You need to essentially create your own reference library. Yes, you can Google for answers but you have to separate the wheat from the chaff in that case and that can be very time consuming.

This is the material I ALWAYS struggled to find when everything was on paper. It wasn't hard to "organize" in the past (in the paper-era). If you got a binder at an institute, you put it with your genealogy books on a shelf. But how did you find that random note you took in the binder (or even that random piece of information about probate records, but it's in a book about marriage records)?

For years the easy answer to this, for me, has been Evernote. I'm only now trying to create an Evernote system that also allows me to keep my research process (and analysis) material that way as well. Something like Evernote or One-note is ideal for non-research information you need to keep. This information usually is not associated with one surname, it is reusable across many projects.

As a note, when I lecture about "Evernote for Everything Else" I list several more categories besides genealogy knowledge and ideas. You may have seen this list from me. For this post I want to just roll those items under "genealogy knowledge" to keep this short. If you have a handout from me with the additional categories of "everything else," great! You should keep that type of information.

So anything that is information but isn't research results/process qualifies as genealogy knowledge. This can be information about how to do something or where to stay on a research trip. It could be a foreign language word list or the instructions for ordering a certain type of record.

Keep any information that took you time to find, that you were given and couldn't find online if you needed it---or just keep all non-research information. The main goal is to make sure you can find it when you need it. Maybe you always go to Evernote instead of Google when you need to know "how-to" or something similar. 

Keeping everything so you have your own reference library might be too time consuming for you, though. In that case, prioritize keeping hints, tips, etc. that you can't search for online as well as any in-depth information you'd have to pay to get again.

Organizing Genealogy Ideas

Having organized genealogy ideas can save you a lot of time. I often get random ideas when in a genealogy conversation (such as during or after a genealogy lecture/meeting). Genealogy ideas you want to keep often happen when you find or review non-research information (i.e. you're learning something and you get an idea for a different project than your original focus). These ideas can be so valuable! But not if you don't keep and find them when you need them.

I keep these (as well as my questions for myself, which are "ideas") in Evernote. I've also suggested keeping these in a digital list. You want to be able to search for your relevant ideas or questions so these really need to be digital if possible. They might be specific to a project so you could file a paper into a paper folder but some will apply to a variety of projects. I like these in Evernote in particular because answers to questions often qualify as genealogy knowledge so you can just add the answer under the question and usually leave it in Evernote as-is.

Organizing Genealogy Documents

How did this end up so far down the list? Well, you don't always have a chance to keep a copy of a document. You might have to make an abstract or transcription (abstracts will be in your notes, transcriptions might be but could be a separate document). I personally like to include an image in my digital notes so I don't always keep just a copy of the document.

You should eventually be doing off-line research and you can't always get a copy!

Ideally you want to keep an image of every source you use. In the paper-era this wasn't always possible so this is not a requirement. If you take good notes, document copies aren't that important (they're very nice to have but with good notes, you'll rarely look at them). As I've just mentioned, you might also include your image within your notes so you aren't organizing the image, you're organizing your notes.

Here's one important thing I want to say. Just because an image is online today, doesn't mean it will remain online. Saving document images and organizing them to reuse later is a great idea. In future you will hopefully be a better genealogist so although your notes are more important, if you can easily save an image, do it! 

There were a ton of images that were on one of the early versions of FamilySearch (i.e. when online images were first becoming common) that within two years were no longer online due to changes in agreements between FamilySearch and the document provider (yes, the images are NOT completely under FamilySearch's control). Some documents became unavailable online. Period. Some were available online through the owner, but often for a fee, such as from the county or city you would have ordered a paper copy from, but now you paid for an instant download instead of a paper copy. You will find many of these as an index on FamilySearch and then there's a link to a different site where you can obtain a copy.

I miss all those free images!

Make sure you take great notes and back them up. You can't recapture lost ideas even if you can find another way to get a copy of a document.

Aim to keep a copy of any document you can. It's not a requirement, though. People did genealogy for centuries before you could make a photocopy, more or less download an image for free!

Good genealogy notes are more important than a copy. The copy will always be the same. Your notes will contain ideas unique to that moment. If you can only have one, go for notes! If you can also save a copy, that's a bonus.

Organizing Family Photos or Heirlooms

So this is an area people often want help on. I don't have a lot of family photos so I am not a good person to ask about this.

BUT, I recommend thinking of these as either part of your genealogy documents or heirlooms, not both. This can make organizing them easier because you might take photos of heirlooms (or digitize select family photos) to include with your digital genealogy documents. Then treat the original items as a separate organizing project from your genealogy. You don't want to treat a photocopy of an item you can get again, anytime, the same as Great-aunt Marge's embroidered sampler, after all.

Organizing your genealogy will get even more complicated if you're dealing with one-of-a-kind physical items. Create a copy to organize with your genealogy. This is no different than using a source at an archive and making a copy to bring home. (In fact, you can treat your photo collection like a repository you research in for a specific project instead of trying to digitize everything at once).


Here's the items you want to keep for genealogy success. Organizing them is the only way you can use them.

  • Research results (data facts, i.e. names, dates, places, etc.)
  • Research process documents (plan/notes/summaries, reports, logs, etc.)
  • Analysis/correlation documents (might be part of the above)
  • Genealogy Knowledge
  • Genealogy Ideas
  • Copies of Genealogy Documents
  • Photos/Heirlooms (make copies and treat as a document copy)
Don't miss the first post in this series on genealogy organizing basics.
The Occasional Genealogist