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Focus On: Research Logs

How many times have you got half way through a search and then had that niggly feeling that you’ve done this before?

How many times have you started a search only to find an odd note in your records…only you can’t quite recall what it’s referring to?

we all make mistakes

We’ve all had those oops moments when we realise our research log has let us down

We all know that we should regularly record our searches, working theories, problems etc. Yet putting this into practice can be challenging. Research notes need to be easily accessible (preferably searchable) as well as clear to understand. After all, it could be years before you, or someone else, re-reads your notes. Additionally recording notes needs to be a methodical, repeatable process that can be used consistently across all your research. When you really think about it, the perfect research log has a lot of requirements and needs careful consideration.

research can lead to vast amounts of data

Research can lead to vast amounts of data. How will you organise and store it?

In this article, I’ll look at some ideas for best practice and then share the reasons why I’ve chosen to record my research notes within Evernote.

Good Practice

A tool is only as good as the workman who wields it!

use the right tool for the job

You need to find the right tool for you, and this might change depending on the size or complexity of your research

No matter how or where you decide to record your research, it’s worth bearing in mind the following:

Add Dates

Make sure any research is dated. Online records are often updated and added to – a search in 2018 of the Berkshire Baptisms on Find My Past might not be the same as performing a search in 2020.

add the date to your research notes

When did you last look at this research? How old is the data?

Similarly, new records are opened all the time. I’m thinking of those closed records on the 1939 Register. Not to mention, the release of newly digitalised data. Furthermore, we learn new tricks all the time. Chances are you are a better genealogist now than you were two years ago, so maybe it’s time to revisit that older research?

Adding dates can help you to prioritise your work. Looking for a new project? You might want to revisit your oldest research.


can you understand your notes?

Not only does your writing need to be readable, it needs to be understandable!

It’s amazing how quickly a small tree becomes a huge monster of branches and roots. With so many lines to research it can be years before you revisit a group or a problem. I can’t stress enough how important it is to add as much detail to your notes as possible. Your conclusions might seem logical and obvious now – but will they be as clear in 3 years time, when you’ve half forgotten the branch you were looking at? Imagine you are explaining your research to a stranger, would they be able to follow and understand your notes? Would they be able to pick up your research and continue with it? After all one day you might hand your research over to someone else to continue. Sadly none of us live forever.

Full Search Information

It’s not enough to write, “I searched the parish baptisms of Village X between 1800 – 1810, for Pithers’. Did this include any variants in spelling? Did I search by first name and surname? Did I review similar names, like Peters or did I exclude them for the purposes of my search? Which collection of parish baptisms did I search? Online? At which website? Microfilche? Bishops transcripts or original parish records? Did it include non-conformist churches?

Research notes need to be detailed

Asking yourself “how, who, when, where, what, why” can help to ensure you include all the details in your log

The more specific I can be about my search, the easier it will be to pick up the research again at a later date. It’ll save time later, in that, I’ll be less likely to repeat the searches I’ve already conducted.

No Results or Uncertainty

journey to the past

Sometimes our journey to the past is as uncertain as our future. It’s best to note our path in case we get lost!

It’s fine to add information that you are unsure about to a research log. In fact, it’s best practice. I’ve found Elisha Pithers baptised in Berkshire. I’m not sure if he’s ‘my’ ancestor, or not. I’d expect him to be baptised in neighboring Hampshire, but I can’t find a record there. It’s best to record the searches I’ve completed, what I did and didn’t find and my reasons for being uncertain. I can even add the actions I might take to increase my certainty levels. Then later, I can add the results of those actions, to really build a full research log.

I’ll remember that later…

It’s so easy to lull ourselves into a false sense of security. You might have just found a fascinating newspaper article on a murder committed by your 4x great-grandfather. You’ll be sure to remember that! You’ve got to rush out the door to an appointment, you don’t have time to write it all down now.

don't lose your findings

We’ve all had that ‘now it was in one of these books’ moments…

Only later that night you come down with a cold, and it’s days before you pick up your research again. You remember something about your 4x Great-Grandad Fred committing a murder, but you can’t recall which paper it was in…or which year. Now you’ve got to try to search all over again. And wasn’t his name mistranscribed? Oh dear!

We’ve all done it! Make a note now. Even if it’s a URL on a post-it. It’s better than nothing.


Everyone is different and what works well for me might not work well for you. I’ve settled on using Evernote to record my research notes, and the rest of the article looks at why I’ve chosen this particular application. However, there are many different tools you could try. From MS Word and MS OneNote, to bespoke packages like Scrivener or using your genealogy software programme. Try as many as you can and find out what works well for you. Once you’ve settled on a medium, don’t be afraid to change it if and when something better comes along.

What is Evernote?

Evernote is a note taking application that can be installed on multiple devices – computers and laptops, tablets (e.g. iPad) and mobile phones. The basic version of Evernote is free, but you can upgrade to other packages for increased functionality. Personally, this is something I’ve never had to do – so everything discussed in this blog post relates to the free version.

All In One Place

One of the key requirements for me was to be able to record all of my notes in one place. I’d tried doing this using the research log within my genealogy software package (Rootsmagic), but I found it too restrictive. Often research notes include details on several persons. For example, if I search for children born to a couple, that research info could be recorded in multiple ways. I might want to log it against the parents and other known ancestors with same surnames. In my tree I have a lot of Welsh ancestors, several of whom have the surname Davi(e)s and mother’s name Williams (or via versa!). Alternatively I might want to log the research against the children that I find (i.e. the successful search results) but at the same time, I need to note those persons found that I have discounted. I need to record possible baptisms, and those that I have proved are not ‘my’ ancestors.


In an ideal world I’d own a huge storage facility and fully train as an archivist. In the meantime, I’ve settled for Evernote.

I needed a system that would allow me to record research against multiple ancestors, plus against names that are not in my family tree – and by category too.

Evernote allowed me to do this…

Evernote allows users to create Notebooks. You can add as many notes to a book as you wish. So you could have a notebook for every surname in your tree, or for as many topics as you like. However, Evernote has an even more powerful tool up it’s sleeve – tags.


Within Evernote you can create a note, and add tags to it. For example, I could write a note called “Search for Baptisms of Children born to Elisa Pithers and Elizabeth Webb”. Within the note I can detail my searches, my findings, any conclusions reached, to do tasks etc.

tags are like electronic post it notes

Think of tags as the electronic version of post-it notes on a page, or an entry in a card index.

I can then add tags to my notes. I can add a tag for every single person mentioned in the research log – so Elisha Pithers is one tag, Elizabeth Webb is another tag, and each of the children found is a tag. I can also add a tag for each of the resources I used to perform the search – for example, Ancestry’s collection of London Baptisms.

Evernote takes these tags and puts them in a list. Now, I can access my notes in multiple ways. I can either look in my notebook, and review the titles of my notes…OR….

I can review my list of tags and click on the one I’d like to view. This will then list all the different notes that include that tag no matter which notebook it is saved into. This tool can be so powerful.

Screenshot of my tags with Evernote. Please request permission before re-using image.

Unique ID

I’ve made sure that every time I tag an individual in my tree, I also add a tag showing a Unique ID. Any decent genealogy software will allow you to assign a unique reference number to each of the persons added to your tree. Most likely this will be done automatically, it certainly is within Rootsmagic.

The Unique ID helps you to distinguish between persons who have the same names. It means that every time I tag a research note with ‘John Davies’, I don’t need to also add an explanation as to which of the several John Davies (grandfathers, cousins, in-laws) within my tree I’m referring to.

I tag the note with both ‘John Davies’ and then the Unique ID. This means by clicking on the tag ‘John Davies’ I can see all my notes belonging to all the different John Davies or I can click the Unique ID tag and see just the notes that apply to one particular John.

Images, URL’s, Documents

Sometimes we are performing fast and furious searches! You’ve been randomly browsing newspaper articles, halfheartedly searching for by surname and just enjoying the reading. You’ve been looking intently for someone in particular and you finally find them – only you’ve got to leave the house in 5 minutes to pick the kids up from school.

I wanted a tool that would allow me to ‘dump’ information into it for follow up. This could be a website link, or a quick screen shot.

Evernote can act like a virtual bulletin board allowing you to ‘put a pin’ in scraps of info, ready to revisit later and turn into a full log entry

Evernote allows you to do this. Your notes can include images, URL’s or you can even attach documents.

Furthermore, if you download Evernote’s web clipper tool you can ‘clip’ an article or page directly from the web, putting it straight into your notebook without even opening Evernote on your desktop. You can even add your tags and any remarks you might want to note.

Annotate Images

Once you’ve added an image or screenshot to your notes you can right click on it and select the ‘annotate’ option. This allows you to write notes on an image, add arrows and other badges (like exclamation marks, question marks or crosses).

use evernote to annotate images

My own image annotated within Evernote. Please request permission before re-using image.

I used this for my One Name Study. I searched the civil registration of deaths for the surname Pithers and pasted images of the results into a notebook. I then annotated it with ticks, crosses and other notes so that I could physically see which of the Pithers I had identified and included in my database and which I had not yet married up.


Evernote allows you to view your notes across multiple devices. I have the app installed on my phone, so I can see and add to my research notes, wherever I am.

The application also allows you to share notebooks, or individual notes, with others. This can be invaluable if you are performing joint research with other parties.


There are many other features available within Evernote – such as the ability to create ‘to do’ check-boxes and tables. However, the above list captures the key reasons ‘why’ I chose to use it as my research log application.

Tweet me at @geneastories to let me know your thoughts on research log ‘best practice’ and the tools you’ve chosen to use.