Friday, March 06, 2009

Organizing as you Research

I know I have been guilty of it, and maybe you are too. I love the thrill of the hunt. I will start a family history research project and find all kinds of great information including, births, marriages, even a few skeletons and then that gets me excited to look for more stuff. Pretty soon I’ve made a lot of copies of websites, census lists, pedigree charts and other documents. I neatly pile that somewhere; half way forget about it and then start the process all over a week or so later because I haven’t documented anything and I forget what I have already found. It’s so exciting to do the research that we all sometimes forget to organize it so we don’t duplicate our efforts. Here are some ideas that may help you organize as you research.

Utilize your Genealogy Database

As I research a family, I always keep open two windows on my computer. One is my active window with whatever website I am researching and the other is a window I have minimized with my PAF file. (To minimize a window just click on the first button with the little line _ on it on the top right of your computer). This way I can enter information as I find it. Sometimes I am entering dates and places that I find as I research. This also allows me to add in the source, fairly easily and while I can remember! It also provides me the option to “cut and paste” information that I find that I may want to check out later or read more about. By keeping two windows open on you computer you are saving yourself time, you don’t need to print out all your findings and then enter them into your database.

Utilize a Research Calendar

Some sort of research calendar, one that you like and will use, can help keep your research organized and help you remember what you have looked at and what you haven’t yet found. You can find pre-made forms on websites like www.familytreemagazine or from the website for the BYU TV series Ancestors,

I tend to only use forms that I can type in and can use on my computer. A form that I use that I learned about from a presentation at the FGS conference is to create a table (you can do this in Microsoft Word or another word processing program) with 4-5 columns. The first column is for a document number. This is a number that you give a document in your file, for your reference. The second column is for the date you searched the resource. The third column is the name of the resource. The fourth column is for the name of the repository and call number for the resource. Finally the last column is where you state the purpose for the search and the results of the search.

Now you can personalize this form in whatever way makes most sense for you. You could add a column to use as a timeline of the person’s life. Also, I go to “page setup” found under my file menu in Microsoft Word and I choose the landscape orientation so that the form “fits” better on the page. I also insert a header that gives the name of the family and the date. To insert a header in Microsoft Word, go to the View Menu and click on “Header and Footer”.

Using Spreadsheets

Spreadsheet programs allow you to organize your family history in ways that can help you track the family through time. Spreadsheets can help you look at a family as they are enumerated in the various U.S. Federal Censuses and you can even add the appropriate state census. With a spreadsheet you can create a timeline for an individual or a family. Spreadsheet programs also allow you to ‘manipulate’ your data, meaning you can sort the columns so they are alphabetical or by date. If spreadsheet programs like Excel intimidate you, you can set up a table in your word processing program-you just won’t be able to sort the data like you can in a spreadsheet program.

Beau Sharbrough shows on his Roots Works website how to organize your genealogy using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, He provides examples of Excel spreadsheets and how they can be used to track land records, vital records and the U. S. Federal Census. You can be inspired form his example to then create your own.

Another great site that provides downloads of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that you can use to track everything from the federal census, state census, cemetery logs, passenger records and other data is found on the website Census Tools, One of my favorite spreadsheets is the Research Log, which serves as a great checklist to remind you of what resources you have looked into and what resources you need to look at next. This website is free but you may consider sending a donating to keep this website free and available.

Colleen Fitzpatrick’s book, Forensic Genealogy, includes a chapter entitled “The Database Detective”, where she illustrates using tables and/or spreadsheets to document families and search for patterns. She covers everything from setting up a database to examples of spreadsheets that utilize primary record research and common genealogical resources like city directories. To find out about ordering Forensic Genealogy, check out Colleen’s website at, .

I have been working with spreadsheets to help get a better perspective of the research I am working on. In one large scale project I am conducting which revolves around 100 women who are listed on a friendship quilt, I have created a spreadsheet that lists the women’s names down the first column and then each column after that helps me track each woman in the 1880-1930 censuses, then I have included additional columns for resources including an online newspaper index, an online obituary index and an additional column for indicating relationships between the women and comments. So each woman is listed on her own row within the spreadsheet with information about her. I can use this as a timeline for her life and to look at similarities and difference between the women in this community. For example, since I do not know who made the quilt, I am trying to see what the commonalities are between the women hoping this will provide with a clue to the maker. The spreadsheet has allowed me to track how many of the women work at the same cigar factory and what their occupations are inside of the factory. It allows me to get a visual representation of the research and the women involved.

Using Forms

Other forms exist on the Internet for organizing your genealogy. Cyndi’s List provides links to charts and forms both free and for sale at A great form for using when researching deeds can be found at This website, Do History, also includes a toolkit where you can learn more about 18th century writing, probate research, and “reading a cemetery.” The goal of the site is “A site that shows you how to piece together the past from fragments that have survived.” The case study used for this website is that of Martha Ballard, a midwife whose diary was published by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in A Midwife’s Tale.

Another website that includes forms to stay organized is Family Tree Magazine, Forms available for download as either a PDF file or a Text file include Research Repository Checklist, Note Taking Form, Research Journal, Statewide Marriage index, Research Calendar, and Deed Index Forms. With 38 forms in total, there should be at least one from on this website that you can use in your research.


Laura said...

Very informative post. Thank you for the great ideas you've shared.

Jo said...

How interesting - will definitely be making more use of word and excel now!