Research Log Methods: What Works for You?

Maintaining a genealogical research log helps keep us organized while we hunt down all of our ancestors. I have to admit that when I first started my obsession, almost 40 years ago in the BI era (before internet), I fanatically kept a paper research log with one page for each person or family I was researching. Some of those twigs on my tree took a lot more work to find than others!

As the years have gone by, I have become much less of a research log person and more of a to-do list type.

Why? For one reason, technology has made it simple to confirm whether or not I have a particular document or record in my collection. Genealogy software makes it just as easy to determine what facts or tidbits of information have already been found, too.

However, as I move away from paper (I’m not paper-free, but don’t have piles of the stuff all over the place either), there are still several options for maintaining today’s research log.

Paper Notebooks – An old fashioned hard copy paper notebook is still an option for researchers. Yes, it has to be carried around, but on the plus side, no technology is needed to access and edit it. New items can easily be added, finished ones crossed off and new pages started.

Word files are one step up from paper and pencil. The advantage is that they are typed and can be saved on your computer. However, they aren’t accessible when away from home unless they are also saved in the cloud or on a portable device.

Next come the more techie options:

Online Notebooks like Evernote and OneNote – Online notebooks are a popular method for keeping organized. They are versatile, are free and/or have free versions and can handle several types of files.

I know people who use online notebooks to manage not just research logs, but their lives! Free programs, like the one offered by Evernote has limitations, especially regarding storage space. If your research log is going to contain many images, space will fill up quickly.

Software spreadsheets like Excel are tailor made for using as research logs. Pages can be created for as many subjects as needed with an unknown upper limit of items that can be entered onto the page.

Unlike paper logs, spreadsheets can also be sorted in a myriad of ways – name, date, location, type of record, repository, etc. Editing and saving are simple and, if saved in the cloud, can be accessed anywhere there is internet connectivity.

Genealogy Software Research Logs – All of the genealogy software programs have options to save various kinds of notes. I use RootsMagic, which has both research log and to-do list capabilities built in and ready to go.

Software programs allow the genealogist to create logs by person, family or location. Research notes can then be attached to the appropriate section, which is great for knowing exactly what has been completed or still needs to be accomplished in a specific area.

ResearchTies – Another option is to use an online program as your research log. DISCLAIMER – While I have talked to company reps at RootsTech, I have not received any compensation for mentioning this company, which offers its subscription service.

ResearchTies is a professional version of a research log that allows the user to document and search electronically.

The cost is extremely reasonable. For $30 per year, three different research logs can be created with up to 10GB of server space. I asked what would happen if a subscription wasn’t renewed. The files can be downloaded and saved.

There is one more possibility to consider:

Combination of two (or more) of the above options – An important consideration of research log style is the end goal. What is the log being used for? Here is an example. Way back when, I was determined to find a marriage record for Isaac Sturgell who I knw married in the 1840s. I had two clues about location. The 1850 census said he and Mary were both both in Virginia, but their only child, a 2 year old girl, was born in Ohio.

This was back before online research, but the example still works today. My husband’s aunt and I teamed up and first divided all of the Virginia counties that existed by 1850 in half. We each sent off letters to county clerks requesting the marriage record. Virginia has a lot of counties!

When we had both gotten back negative answers from most of our queries, it was time for Part 2. We went through the same process for Ohio. Ohio has a lot of counties, too!

A spreadsheet would be my first choice for this type of research. There is but one goal – finding the marriage record if it existed – and we needed to carefully track all of the responses. By the way, it worked – Isaac married Mary Bandy in 1844 in Lawrence County, Ohio.

For other research where I needed, say, just to locate a family in one census enumeration, I wouldn’t be setting up a spreadsheet to track that. (If spreadsheets are you’re one and only research log method, then, of course it would be entered in the appropriate spot.)

What is my preferred method? I have two answers to that question. IF I were a beginning genealogist starting out today, I would seriously consider either using my software options or something online like ResearchTies.

However, in spite of all the tech options, I am firmly rooted to my paper and pen notebook, which I kept to the left of my computer keyboard, as I’m a leftie.

My research lists are not very long at this point in my genealogist life. I find making a quick paper note is the simplest method for me. If it is an item that I need to access at the Family History Library, I turn a couple of pages in the notebook and add it to that list.

My notebook is the type with the removable disks as the binding and I have large disks (for more paper) in it when my research is local. To save space and weight, if I am flying to a destination, I simply create a smaller, less weighty version of the notebook with small disks and I am ready to go.

Given that my research logs are rather short and concise nowadays, I find that my needs are simple.

What research log method do you use?


3 thoughts on “Research Log Methods: What Works for You?”

  1. I have tried pretty much every kind of research log and am bad with all of them. My best success has been with a notebook – I record in general the kinds of searches I did. I found when keeping a detailed spreadsheet that with my limited time I spent more time on recording each search than doing the research.

    I really try my hardest, but diaries of any sort have never worked for me. The only time I keep detailed logs is when I’m doing a specific project (like the children of Lydia Lawley one I did last summer).

    I try not to beat myself up over this “failure” and just do my best.

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