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, 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.

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.

Research plans, logs and to-do lists: What’s a genealogist to do?

Research plans, to-do lists, research goals and project plans — what’s the difference, and what’s in a name?

This week’s Genealogy Do-Over topic of “setting research goals,” left me grappling with what the difference was between:

  • Research Plans
  • Project Plans
  • To-Do Lists
  • Research Goals

And, how these work together with a research log, and other tracking logs.

No, I don’t have the definitive answers to these questions, yet. But, I have given it some thought and cast my net to the Interwebs to see how others approach these questions and deal with the data these things will certainly produce. I’ve included several helpful links below.


Genealogy research is personal. Though we can learn much from each other, ultimately each of us needs to find methods that work for us and our own unique research style. That said, I’ve come up with some thoughts that may help clarify how these things differ and what the role of each may be in my family history research. There’s no one right way to do this. Instead, there are many good ways and some not so good, which I’ve already tried. 😉

After digging through my old paper research, I realized I had been doing some of these things — unintentionally and sporadically. I had no formal research plan, to-do list or research goals. But, periodically, I would jot things down that I needed to do, and kept rough analysis notes.

To-do lists — the old way.
To-do lists — the old way.

Since the “Do-Over” will look at project plans in Week 4, I will leave that one out. However, I’ve created a new overarching category called “Overall Plan.” It may turn out that this is the same as the “Project Plan.”

Personally, I need to see tasks and goals nested into a hierarchy. I want to know how individual items fit into my big picture goals / plans / projects.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Overall Plan — This is my big picture goal. It has many sub-goals and components. An example would be: Starting with my generation, create a 4-generation printed family history report, complete with narrative, documents and images — to share with family.
  • Research Goal — This is a specific point I will need to prove, such as: Prove birth date and location for John Smith.
    • There will be many such goals in my Overall Plan.
  • Research Plan — The research plan is specific to a given research goal. It documents how I will find and analyze records to prove my research goal, in this case, John Smith’s birth date and location.
    • It will include a list of repositories and records that may exist for this individual.
    • After data is collected, it will need to be analyzed and interpreted.
  • To-Do List — My to-do list will be overarching. It will incorporate tasks generated by multiple research plans, relative to several specific research goals. Thus, it may include several records requests for different individuals and other diverse tasks.
    • I like the concept of an overarching to-do list because it will help me better coordinate research attempts. If I’m at a repository, I can gather records on several individuals, that may apply to multiple research goals.
My data analysis was informal and inefficient. I had no "log," and didn't follow-up on problems identified.
My data analysis was informal and inefficient. I had no “log,” and didn’t follow-up on problems identified.

I’ve decided not to get hung-up on nomenclature. I can call these things whatever I like. What’s most important is that I create a way to manage data intentionally and effectively. Per Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over, I intend to create lists of things to prove, show how I will accomplish and evaluate records I collect, and then track my progress and holes in logs. Call it what you will, it’s what we do that matters most.

Here are some helpful links:

Patricia Rhon’s post on Tracking Research

Patricia Rhon’s sample Evernote Research Plan

Genealogy Do-Over FB Post by Renita Ford Collier

Renita’s blog post on Setting Research Goals

Erin Williamson Klein’s blog post on Research Goals and Workflow

Family Search — Basic Genealogy Research Plans

Board Certification for Genealogists — Focused vs. Diffused Research

Genealogy Do-Over FB Discussion on Research Plans and Goals

The information at the links above was provided by other researchers who have shared their processes. Why not check out their blogs and Facebook posts to thank them?