Why You Need a Genealogy Research Log Now

Right, so I know that a Genealogy Research Log is not the sexiest subject in the world. Logs are boring and you keep putting off creating one. Before you click that close button, think…do you want to save time and energy now? I challenge you to ask yourself the below questions 👇

Whilst in the midst of your genealogy research:

  1. Have you ever been searching a set of records only to be struck by a nagging feeling you’ve done this before?
  2. Have you ever started a search only to find a vague note in your records? One you can’t recall making and don’t entirely understand.
  3. Do you feel excited to chase up an idea, only to become frustrated that it’s failed to deliver the hoped for results?
  4. Do you ever run out of time mid research session, only to feel you’ve achieved very little?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions than you need a log and you need one now! As dull as research logs sound they can help you with all of the above scenarios. If you want to make the most of your research time and break down brickwalls then you need a research logging system.

What is a Genealogy Research Log?

Your genealogy research log should not be confused with your family tree. The two might live in the same place, but they are not the same thing. Here’s a simple definition of both tools:

A family tree software package records all the individuals in your tree, their relationships, their facts and the sources for those facts. It may have a notes function. Family tree packages or software may exist offline, online or include two copies (on and offline) that are synchronised. Example offline packages include, RootsMagic, Legacy, Family Tree Maker, Family Historian. Online packages include, Ancestry Family Trees, Family Search Trees, Wiki-trees.

A research log contains all your workings, or proof statements, lists of sources checked, research plans and tasks. It may be organised by family unit, by individual, by place. It may exist in numerous formats, such as on Evernote, One Note, Scribner, Excel, Word or within a family tree package.

What are the key requirements of a Genealogy Research Log?

We all know that we should regularly record our searches, working theories and genealogical conundrums. Yet, putting this into practice can be challenging. If we’re honest with ourselves it’s a bit of a chore. But it shouldn’t be. A good logging system should fit around the way you work.

Here are my key Genealogy Research Log requirements:

  1. Must be able to record all notes in one place. No one wants to be looking in different programmes or physical locations for their notes.
  2. Must be able to record the same note against lots of different individuals. Research notes often include details on several persons within a family group. 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, the children, a combination of both. I may even want to record it against the grandparents, especially if they have the same first and surnames as the parents.
  3. Must be able to record notes that do not relate to any specific individuals. I may have researched individuals that I have decided are outside of my family tree. For example, witnesses on a marriage certificate. I may be researching a place rather than a person. I might be looking at social history.
  4. Must be able to add information to the log quickly and easily
  5. Must be able to include pictures and ideally charts too
  6. Must be able to find my notes again, quickly and easily

How did Evernote meet my requirements for a Genealogy Research Log?

Evernote allowed me to do all of the above. But what is Evernote? Well, it’s a note taking application that can be installed on multiple devices – computers and laptops, tablets (e.g. iPad) and mobile phones. The basic version 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.

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.

Meeting Genealogy Research Log Requirements 1, 2 and 3

Imagine Evernote as a filing cabinet. The cabinet contains Notebooks. You can add as many Notebooks as you wish. Within that Notebook are individual Notes. You can include as many Notes within your Notebook as you need. For example, you could have a Notebook for every surname in your family tree. Or you could have one Notebook for all your surnames and lots of Notes. Notebooks can be archived. Notes can be deleted. Notes can be moved from one Notebook to another. Notebooks can be named, and Notes can be given titles.

tags are like electronic post it notes
Tags are like an electronic version of post-it notes on a page or a card index

Evernote’s jewel in the crown is it’s tagging system. Tags can be added to your Notes. For example, I could have a Note called “Search for Baptisms of Children born to Elisha Pithers and Elizabeth Webb”. This Note would detail all my searches, findings, conclusions, tasks to be completed etc etc. I can then add Tags to my Note. Using the above example, I could add a Tag for every single person mentioned within that one Note. So Elisha Pithers would be one Tag, Elizabeth Webb another. Each of the children could be a Tag. I could even add a Tag for the resources I’ve used, such as Ancestry. I could add a Tag for the source type, e.g. Baptisms.

Evernote takes these Tags and puts them into 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. Clicking on that Tag will bring up a list of all the Notes that use that Tag. It doesn’t matter which Notebook the Note is saved within.

An earlier version of my Evernote Tags screen. (c) Natalie Pithers

On all of my personal specific Notes I add a Unique ID Tag along with the names of individuals. This Unique ID is taken from my family tree software. Any decent genealogy software will assign a Unique Reference Number to all the persons added to your tree. The Unique ID helps you to distinguish between persons with the same names. Using it in Evernote means that I don’t have to explain which ‘John Davies’ I’m referring to within a Note. Instead I just include the Unique ID as a Tag.

Meeting Genealogy Research Log Requirements 4 and 5

I wanted a tool that would allow me to ‘dump’ information into it and follow up on it later. This needed to include website links and images.

Evernote allows you to do this. Your Notes can include images, URL’s or you can attach documents. You can create tables directly within a Note, or paste in something you created in Excel.

Treat Evernote like a virtual bulletin board. It allows you to 'pin' all your scraps of into into notes. Ready to be revisited and turned into full log entries, when you have the time.

You can download Evernote’s web clipper tool and use it to ‘clip’ an article or page directly from the web, putting it straight into your Notebook. All without even opening Evernote on your desktop. You can even add your Tags and any remarks you might want to note. Once you’ve added an image or screenshot to your Notes you can right click on them and select ‘annotate’. 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
Example of an image I have annotated within Evernote. (c) Natalie Pithers

Evernote can be installed in multiple locations. I have the app on my laptop and on my phone. The two synchronise so I take notes whilst on the go, such as in the middle of a graveyard!

Some Genealogy Research Log Essentials

I love Evernote, but no matter how or where you decide to log your research, your log is only as good as your notes. Here’s some tips to ensure your log works for you:

Date Your Genealogy Research Notes

Make sure all your research notes are dated. Online records are often updated, and I don’t just mean that ‘new’ collections are added. Entire data sets are refreshed, such as additional parishes being added to a county collection. Transcription errors are fixed.

A great example of such data refreshes is the 1939 National Register. This source contains many ‘closed’ records. These are reviewed periodically and where appropriate the closed records are opened. Thus a search of the register in 2018 will not be the same as a search in 2019.

You don’t necessarily need to determine when a collection was last updated. In fact, to do so could be challenging. Instead, make a judgement call based on the age of your notes. Simple parish record searches undertaken two or more years ago are probably worth a quick re-run.

add the date to your research notes

Even if a source hasn’t been updated it’s still worth periodically re-running a search. Our skills as genealogists improve as we gain experience. You might have missed a clue that the more experienced you would now spot.

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

Ensure Your Genealogy Research Notes are Clear

Your research logs need to be understandable. No, I don’t mean the handwriting!

The need to be clear sounds so obvious. Yet, taking shortcuts with explanations or otherwise failing to be clear is one of the biggest mistakes genealogists make. It’s so easy when you are caught up in the moment to presume you’ll “get the gist” of a few scrawled notes. You won’t. You will forget!

can you understand your notes?

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 family group. 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 understood in 3 years time? By then you’ll have half forgotten the branch you were looking at.

The best way to ensure we are future-proofing our notes is to imagine we are explaining our research to a stranger. Once we’ve written our notes we should re-read them and ask ourselves, would a stranger be able to follow this? Would they understand my theories? Could they repeat my research?

There's No Such Thing as Too Much Information

Writing, “I searched the parish baptisms of village X between 1800-1810 for Pithers’ might sound like a thorough explanation. But it’s not. Did this search include a look for any variants in spelling? Did I search by first name and surname, or just for Pithers. Did I review similar names or did I only look at those records that matched Pithers exactly? Did I include some variants, but exclude others? For example, I often look at Pither, Pitter, Pether variants but tend to discount Peters. Which collection of parish baptisms did I search? In what format? Offline, online? If online, at which website? If offline was this the originals or a copy? Was it a bishops transcript or the parish record? Did my search include non-conformist groups?

Research notes need to be detailed

To ensure you include all relevant details, ask yourself, “how, who, what, where, when and why”.

Being specific will save you time in the long run. It’ll stop you for needlessly repeating the same searches again and again. The more specific you can be the easier you’ll find it to pick up where you left off.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll remember that later. This is how valuable information is lost! For example, you might find a fascinating newspaper article on a murder committed by your 2x Great-Grandmother. You are sure you’ll remember that! It’s far to juicy to forget. Sadly though, you can’t investigate it now. You’ve got to rush out the door to an appointment. You fail to write down the source details.

Later that night you come down with a dreadful cold. It’s days before you pick up your research again. Of course you remember finding out that your 2x Great-Grandfather committed a murder. You even remember the year. But you can’t quite recall what paper it was in, or exactly what keyword you were using to search. You try his name but that doesn’t bring up the result. You spend hours trying different searches before finally stumbling across the article. Turns out that night you were searching for your 2x Great-Grandfather’s brother. That’s how you found the murder article. Your Great-Uncle’s name had been spelt correctly within the newspaper. Whereas your 2x Great-Grandfather’s had been mis-recorded. Now, if you’d at least have written down the full date, newspaper name and page details you’d have saved yourself a lot of trouble.

Record 'No Results' and Uncertainties

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

journey to the past

We should use our logs to record our levels of certainty about our research. We need to explain our conclusions, or lack of them.

Let me give an example. In 2016 you researched your 3x Great Grandparents and concluded that John Davies was your 4x Great Grandfather. Two years later you find a tree online and it states that your 4x Great Grandfather was Samuel Davies. The tree has appropriate sources and on the face of things it looks like it could be right.

Luckily you recorded all your research so you are able to review all your notes and you can explain exactly why you concluded that John was your 4x Great-Grandfather. You noted at the time that Samuel was a possibility but you had discounted him for various reasons. You can share this research with the tree owner.

Alternatively, perhaps you weren’t that sure about John. You were only about 60% certain and had clearly noted this in your logs. More importantly you’ve explained why you were unsure, and written a ‘for’ and ‘against’ argument. This tree online has provided you with new clues and you can pick up the trail exactly where you left it.

Having a full record of both supporting and inconclusive results is essential. It enables us to answer those difficult questions, like ‘how do I know I have found the right John’ or ‘how do I know he’s mine’.

Keeping a detailed Genealogy Research Log will help you to really utilise your precious time. Stop re-running the same searches. Keep on track with your tasks and your research plans!


We don’t all have the time, or the energy to devote ourselves to tracing our family trees. If you’d love to discover your ancestors stories, but are less keen on doing it yourself, than please check out my Services and Get In Touch.

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