Returning to Genealogy Research with New Tracking Tools

It is said ‘You can never go home again.’ But I believe you can, albeit to a changed home and with a new perspective.

Today I went back to a park I used to live near. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until I had walked almost around the small lake. How fitting that I was ruminating on Genealogy Do-Over Week 3 at the time. In week three, Thomas MacEntee talks about returning “home” to our genealogy research, now well-armed with tools to improve the quality of our research.

As I walked down the tree-lined path surrounded by fond memories, I realized that though my genealogy research will never be the same as it was before, I can indeed return home and maybe even have the best of both worlds. I will begin anew in documenting my family history, cocooned in my happy memories of ancestors found in searches past. But this time, I will be prepared to thoroughly document my searches and my sources. This will require using a research log.

Thomas MacEntee's Research Log, edited by Melanie J. Rice.
Thomas MacEntee’s Research Log, edited by Melanie J. Rice. You can find his original version online in this blog post: Genealogy Do-Over Week 3

The Old Way: Informal To-Do Notes and Poor Follow-Up

In my early years of genealogy research, I would jot down things to look for and then get distracted by BSOs almost daily. I had records by the bunches, but my data was so disorganized that I struggled to make sense of it. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t occur to me then that incorporating spreadsheets to track data would have been a good idea.

Thomas MacEntee has made his combination Research Log & To-Do List available online for download in his Genealogy Do-Over Week 3 blog post.

After I reviewed Thomas’ spreadsheet, I mulled over what I wanted in a research log. Then I did a quick Internet search to see how others manage this.

The New Way: More than One Way to Keep a Research Log

I discovered that not everyone loves spreadsheets as I do, and that there are many ways to organize and track your research data. Here are a few examples, besides Thomas’, that I found:

Research Log using Google Sheets — 

Calvin Knight uses Google Sheets to track his research. He has made his spreadsheet available for public download on his blog, Calvingenealogy.com in this blog post: Calvin Knight’s Google Sheets Research Log. Calvin’s Google Sheets spreadsheet even has a nifty map feature that’s a BSO for me. I had to fight the temptation to drop everything and find out just how he did that immediately.

NOTE: Thomas MacEntee’s Excel Research log can be imported and saved as a Google Sheet, too. You can download it here. It’s about halfway down the page.

Calvin Knight's Google Sheets RESEARCH LOG includes this cool map feature.
Calvin Knight’s Google Sheets RESEARCH LOG includes this cool map feature.

Research Log using Evernote —

Other genealogists, like Colleen Greene, use Evernote as a research log. Colleen is a librarian, educator and genealogist based in California. Several folks on the Genealogy Do-Over Facebook page said they don’t like spreadsheets, so this may be a viable option for them.

Like Calvin and Thomas, she has made her template available download and public use. You can find it in her blog post about using Evernote to track research.

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Colleen Greene’s Evernote RESEARCH LOG is available for download online at her blog post here.

Green says she capitalizes the surnames in her research log, to make them stand out and make it easier to read.

Research Log integrated into family tree software — 

Finally, Michele Simmons Lewis, of Legacy Family Tree uses Legacy Family Tree genealogy software’s integrated log to track her research. She describes her process at this post on her Ancestoring blog.

NOTE: Negative search (or findings), as seen in Michele’s log below, is not the same as negative evidence. Read more about negative evidence at this blog post by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Michele Simmons Lewis is careful to record results for all search criteria in her log.
Michele Simmons Lewis is careful to record results for all search criteria in her RESEARCH LOG.

This  is where I face a dilemma. I recently switched from Windows to a Mac. I didn’t always track my research, but when I did, I used Legacy’s built-in to-do list and note features. However, as of today, there is no working version of Legacy available for Macs, without using software like Parallels, which allows Mac users to run Windows on their machines. I’m not going down that road. I liked using Legacy to track my research because I had everything at my fingertips. I find the more places I have to go to find and track data, the more likely I am to become disorganized or give-up the record keeping.

Personally, I’m a detail-oriented, big picture person. This means I want to see how details fit into the overarching plan. Thus, I find a log like Thomas MacEntee’s appealing. I prefer not to keep separate logs for each person, but to have it all together in one accessible file. Perhaps I will find it becomes unwieldy after I’ve logged data for hundreds of ancestors. In that case, I will be open to exploring other options.

For now, I’m going to start out using a slightly modified version of Thomas’ Excel Research Log. I’ve created separate columns for surnames and given names, and added a column called “Other Person Identifier” to add data to help me distinguish between multiple individuals with the same surname and given names.

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I take hard copy notes when I work on my one name study at the local library. Then, when I get home, I can enter full source information into my spreadsheet RESEARCH LOG.

Since I don’t bring a computer to the local library when I search hard copy records there, I’ve started using a notebook to record my searches. I plan to transfer this data into my research log. This lets me search quickly while at the library and enter the exact source information from home.

The Takeaway —

There’s one right way to do a genealogy research log: The one you will stick with. Perhaps exploring some of the examples shown here will give you ideas of how you can make a genealogy research log work best for you.

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