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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 8.44.54 AM
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?

Genealogy Do-Over Week 1 Take Away

… This is the stepping-off point for revitalized research!

At the start of Genealogy Do-Over Week 1, I came up with my top five base practices for family research. I decided to further develop my second research practice:

I will develop a workflow that works for me, and follow it. I will update it when I find it’s not working. (This will likely include trial and error attempts.) It will include a research plan, sharing with others and efficiently working with documents — from collection, to analysis and data entry to producing reports.

Remember these?
Remember these?

Throughout the week, I evaluated my former research habits and came up with some things that didn’t work, some that did and others that worked, but could work much better.

I studied charts and research logs and best practices others had shared.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • I’m a bit ADD. I’m good at finding things, but not so great at processing them. I need to allow myself the occasional freedom of spontaneous research, but follow-up with disciplined tracking and data entry.
  • I had no research plan. Sure, I started looking for a certain thing. But then, I followed every BSO that came along. Oh, the stories I could tell about the rabbit holes I’ve been down. Most didn’t result in good research, however. So, I need a plan. An overall plan, and project plans, to direct my research.
  • I had no finished package. I had been organizing digital material and throwing hard copies into boxes to sort out later. No more. My workflow will include printed reports that I can share with family, who will enjoy it today. I was inspired by several posts on The Organized Genealogist Facebook page.
  • I have very few family photos. I’ve been trying for several years to get access to them, but relatives across the country have them. Correcting this may require a cross-country trip.
  • My research and to-do logs kind of work, when I remember to enter data into them. Post do-over, this won’t be the case. I’m looking forward to developing research, to-do and tracking logs that work with my unique workflow and get updated consistently.
  • Legacy Family Tree worked for me. I came to love its integral notes, robust Evidence Explained compatible source templates and scalable fonts and dialog boxes. This sounds like a good thing, right? Not so much. I switched from Windows to a MAC in January 2015. I’ve yet to find a comparable program for MACs.

    Sneak peek at new digital file tree
    Sneak peek at new digital file tree
  • My census naming system worked. Unfortunately, I had no naming system for other files. This is about to change.
  • I was anal about documenting sources, but not properly recording the data. This means I have scribbled notes written sideways across pages that reference sources and analyze data. No more. My new base practices require that I cite sources according to Evidence Explained, and that I analyze data according to the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Grandma Smith (nee Van Lue) walked along an Indiana ditch with me, pointing out edible wild berries and sassafras leaves. She bent and pulled the weeds away from the sassafras plant and gently dug it from the ground, showing me its reddish bark. Her mother was part Native American, she told me.

Grandma's sassafras roots
Grandma’s sassafras roots

She had taught her about plants to use for healing and to be a caretaker of the environment — before environmentalism was a thing.

This grandma’s genes, mingled with those of countless other ancestors make me who I am today. I’m participating in Genealogy Do-Over  to honor them, and to help tell their stories to generations to come.








Binders and folders and papers — oh my!

Genealogy Do-Over, Week 1 Cycle 3

Setting Previous Research Aside

I’ve had a month or so to come to terms with the fact that my research is a mess, and I need a plan and a do-over. And, I’m used to setting research aside. In fact, that’s contributed to two of my data losses. Years ago I set my research aside to move across the country, without backing up my database. I lost all my digital files, but I had kept my hard copies. Now, I’m a full-time student and I work, so when the semester gets hot ‘n’ heavy, I pack my genie goodies into boxes and hide them. Yes, I hide them, so I’m not tempted to look inside and do genealogy instead of homework.

No, this isn’t my ONLY box! 😉

Before I set aside my paper files, I’m going to give them a quick once over to clump them according to record type and family. This will help me formulate a research plan that fits my research style and records on hand.

I don’t plan to toss these records, but I do plan to carefully reintegrate what is usable into my NEW system, once it’s fully in place.

Today, I set aside my digital files. It was easy. They are on my old Windows laptop and I’m now working on an iMac.

I’m hanging onto one thing, though — a special project I recently started that involves separating tangled roots in a family branch. This project will be my testing ground for tracking and workflow, however I won’t be entering any data into my database during the cycle.

Preparing to Research

For me, this includes everything that I will go through during our genealogy do-over. I will be better prepared because as I participate in the do-over, I will identify what I’ve been doing that doesn’t work, and STOP it!

I will be armed with the latest version of “Evidence Explained” by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and I will stick to my plan but not keep it set in stone. When I find something’s not working, I will find a better way to get the job done.

Establishing Base Practices and Guidelines: Five little words that carry loads of weight.

This is pivotal to the success of my do-over. It may take more than a week, heck, it may take longer than the whole cycle to complete. But, by the end of the cycle, I hope to be better acquainted with my options and to have a strong plan in place that I can tweak as I go.

What’s inside Pandora’s box?

Here are my top five base practices:

  • Research from a point of “I don’t know.” (I’m borrowing one of Thomas MacEntee’s Golden Rules of Genealogy). I’m not out to prove this or that, but to find out who, what, when, where, why and how.
  • I will develop a workflow that works for me, and follow it. I will update it when I find it’s not working. (This will likely include trial and error attempts). It will include a research plan, sharing with others and efficiently working with documents — from collection, to analysis to data entry and producing reports.
  • I will implement regular back-ups in multiple formats.
  • I will create a tracking system that prevents double work, lets me find documents when I need them and fits into my workflow. It will include documenting where I search, what I find, accurate source information and a plan for future work. It must work with my database and other software I use and has to be efficient.
  • I will work toward the Genealogical Proof Standard and carefully analyze data before making conclusions. I will pursue a blend of people focused and evidence based genealogy, with a strong emphasis on evidence, source citations and evaluation.

No big deal, right? Well, not so much. Several of these are within my reach for day-to-day research. However developing a workflow and tracking system that efficiently integrates with my database and other programs will be a challenge and might include some do-overs.

Better genealogy: Know what you don’t know

… “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” = FAIL in the genealogy world.

Since I stumbled upon Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over blog and Facebook page several weeks ago, I’ve gotten a glimpse into what I don’t know about doing genealogy well. That peek awakened my native curiosity and left me craving more. And, I know just where to get it.

There’s an active community of genealogists online, many of whom are more than willing to share their secrets of success with others, who like me, don’t know what we don’t know.

Take Christine Sisko Svircev’s recent post on the Genealogy Do-Over Facebook page, where she has shared her workflow for handling new records and how she incorporates OneNote into this part of her research. (You may need to request to join the group page to view the post.) After I checked it out, I realized my workflow was full of holes.

Or, Jessica Kaylor Morgan’s “Personal Collection Log” spreadsheet that she shared on The Organized Genealogist Facebook page. This spreadsheet could serve as not only a log of records collected, but a repository log, cost tracker and contact sheet. Best of all, Jessica has made the file available for download.

Before I found “Genealogy Do-Over,” I knew I had a mess of paper records that would make a hoarder drool, a file naming crisis and no suitable genealogy database to run on my iMac. But, I didn’t realize how many other holes there were in my research process, or what great solutions are within reach.

Data is hypothetical only
Data is hypothetical only

Gone are the days when genealogists connected primarily through, or USGenWeb. I confess that I miss the active message boards of the late ’90s, but today we have new options and ways to connect with other genealogists that offer to change the way we do genealogy.

Better research starts by knowing what you don’t know, so I’m excited about the opportunity to create my own improved research system. And, I’m stoked about participating in the upcoming third cycle of Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over that begins Friday, July 3.

Confessions of a messy genealogist

… why I need a genealogy do-over

My frustration over not being able to find a good (IMHO) family tree program to run on my new iMac led to my decision to do a genealogy do-over. But, it was my many years of sloppy record keeping that necessitated the do-over in the first place.

In the late 90s, I was ecstatic to find a wealth of information on I connected with other researchers and we added branches by the bunches to our family trees. I was so eager to see it all in my The Master Genealogist database, that I entered many individuals without proper source data.

Sure, I jotted my sources down somewhere, in an abbreviated form. I mean, why not just come back and add those pesky sources later?

I was surrounded by scribbled notes.
I was surrounded by scribbled notes.

About a year in, I realized how important the source information was, and I began the painstaking process of going back to add the source data. Then life got in the way. I packed up all of my work and moved across the country. A couple of years later when I picked it back up, I had a data crash and hadn’t backed up my system.

Since I had all of my hard copy information and hastily scrawled notes, I began the process of re-creating my family history file, this time in RootsMagic. I armed myself with “Evidence” by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and started over, sort of.

"Evidence," by Elizabeth Shown Mills
“Evidence,” by Elizabeth Shown Mills

I managed to trace one line to a Daughters of the American Revolution patriot ancestor and was accepted into DAR membership.

But, I’m the sort of person who learns best by doing. Doing it wrong the first few times, actually. I didn’t back up my data — AGAIN. I had uploaded my GEDCOM to GenCircles and thought that was good enough. I hadn’t gotten all of my old information re-entered when my computer crashed without warning.

Life came calling again and I packed my genealogy work away. By the time I decided to try again, GenCircles had been taken over by My Heritage, who wanted to charge me for access to my own family history. Family history that I soon realized had been edited to contain errors by others.

Since then, I’ve pecked away at adding data to my Legacy 7.5 database on a small laptop. My eyesight isn’t good enough to do too much data entry on that small screen, and I have a lovely iMac for work purposes. My hope was to be able to run Legacy on my laptop and use the iMac as an external screen. Not happening. And, probably this is for the best.

Now, I can focus on building a system, and recording and BACKING UP my family history research from the get-go, as I embark on my “genealogy do-over.”