Skip main navigation

Recording and organising your research and sources

Introducing how to record and organise your research and the sources used
OK, so we’re going to have a look at ways to go about recording and organising your research and your sources– thinking about recording information as you’re actively in the process of doing research, and various tools that you can use to do this. And we’re going to have a quick look at referencing, so recording the sources of information that you’re using as you go along. And then once you’re more confident about your findings, how to go about pinning those down and recording those for all time. And talking very briefly about backing up your findings as well to preserve them for the future. So, looking at recording preliminary findings.
Now, you, like me, probably get caught up in the heat of the genealogical research moment and the frenzy of looking things up either in an archive or online. And it’s– as we were talking earlier– very difficult to keep yourself focused on a particular question and topic. But one of the ways that I like to try to keep myself focused– and to also record what it is that I have looked at, so that six months later I can come back and decide what good information and perhaps wasn’t so good information– was to take notes as you’re actively researching. So, put down what sources you’ve actually looked at, and that could include the different online databases that you’ve looked at.
If you’re physically in an archive, what data sets or books, or that kind of thing, you’ve looked at. Put down what names you’ve searched on, name variants, date ranges. Have you searched 1830 to 1860 for a particular birth? And if you realise, “Hmm, well, actually, maybe they were born in 1820”– so you need to expand that. But you would have forgotten that you had only searched on a particular date range unless you’d written that down, if you’re coming back to it later. And places that you’ve searched on as well. So– have you looked in just a particular county in a state? Or have you looked at the entire state?– that kind of thing.
So, keeping track of exactly what search parameters you’ve used– it can be a real help to yourself. And note down what you’ve found, and perhaps more importantly, what you didn’t find but you’d hoped to find. And noting down what you didn’t find can help you know that– “OK… well, that information wasn’t found in that database or that archive.” But maybe six months later, they’ve added some new information, and you should go back and have a look again. So– different types of tools for doing this, and there’s no right or wrong about recording and taking notes, about how you go about doing it.
I have a great little black notebook that I carry around with me and take down information on pen and paper. I’m often sketching out rough trees to try and say– “OK, well, if that person is that person’s sister, then– and, OK, well, here’s a possible husband”– just to keep relationships more or less straight in my head. But those, of course, may have no bearing on reality later the day, but at least you’ve helped yourself try to figure things out as you go along.
If I’m looking at things that are available to me online– in particular, if I’m doing just a straightforward internet search and seeing what might be available on a name or a place in different web pages or databases– I often will have word processing software programme up. And I’m often cutting and pasting bits of information from the internet, pasting them on to the word processing page that I have up. And being sure to copy the internet address as well, so I more easily can get back to it so that I have kind of a general thread of what I’ve looked at online as I go. And the other thing that I found really quite useful is what I’m calling note-taking software.
And there are a wide range of different types of note-taking software out there. You can either buy it, or you can download it for free from the internet. And in this case, a note can be an image of a web page. It can be text. It can be an entire web page itself that you save as a “note” into the software. And the nice thing about using this type of software is that if you search within the software on a phrase, or name that’s within that information, it will pull up all of the examples of that. So all of these tools are perfectly acceptable. I would say just use choose what suits you.
And some things may be of use in one particular way that you’re searching, and another day something else might be better used. So this is an example of a research log, if you like. The more formal type of research log that I’ve actually created on a software– I’m sorry– spreadsheet package. And it gives information about the day that I was searching, the name of the source, what I’ve found, and in some cases the URL of the internet address of what I’ve found. So this is easily saved on my computer, and then I can go back and find what it is that I was looking at and looking for.
Now, this is pretty in-depth, and this is something that I created bits of this as I was actively researching. And then I went back a bit later and augmented this with further information. Because I knew that this was a family that I would need to come back to and continue researching, so I wanted something really quite sturdy and in-depth to have a look at. So this might be a bit more in-depth than most people would want to go to, but– OK, so as you’re actively researching, keep notes of things. But then the other thing you’re going to really want to do is record the sources that you’ve used, and that you’ve looked at.
And this is called the whole aspect of referencing or citing your sources. So, a reference gives very precise details about the original source of the information that you’ve used in your research. And you should create a reference for all the data that you’ve used, because they tell you and others where the information has come from. It helps give a– well, it does give an assurance that the information that you’ve found has come from good, sturdy sources, instead of family stories or that kind of thing. Family stories can be a source as well, and there are ways to record and reference things like conversations, that kind of thing. And references can be very simple, or they can be very complex.
And there’s no right or wrong with them, but I would just say come up– well, either use or come up with a system that works for you. Use it and be consistent in how you use it. That consistency is quite key, because if you start writing down different ways of keeping track of what a title is for something, about halfway through you’ll be going– “Was that a title or was that the name of website?” Or you know, what was it that I was looking at? So, just some examples of different ways of approaching the layout of references. The first two are really more informal examples, looking at just a baptismal register.
I’ve noted down the website in which I found it, and the date on which I accessed it as well. And I find that’s really quite useful to put down the date that you’ve accessed a website, because things change on the web. Internet links break, and that kind of thing, so it can be useful to know what date you accessed things. Number two is just an example of how you might put down that you had a conversation with someone and, in that conversation, that bit of information came up. And I think it’s important to capture that type of source as well, because otherwise you might be going– “Who was it that I talked to?”
And again, I’ve got the date here and the place in which it happened. Number three is much more of a formal reference, and this is a style that we’ve created within the postgraduate courses that we run. It goes very much into depth about the place, and that it’s from a transcription, and the website from which it came, and the collection on the website as well. And then the fourth one is an example of a secondary source, a book that was being used. So, there’s a number of different referencing styles that are out there. For secondary sources and primary sources, there’s some pretty standard ones like Chicago, and APA, and various and sundry.
But we found that for genealogy, and for gen– the primary sources that genealogists use, a lot of these more standard referencing styles don’t have the referencing layouts that we might need as genealogists so we’ve gone ahead and created our own style in the postgraduate programmes. But there’s also a woman named Elizabeth Shown Mills, who’s created an amazing number of referencing layouts. She’s an American and has written extensively on referencing, so I would suggest seeking her out, and reading about what she has to say about referencing. So– she’s a very good source for that. OK, so moving on from referencing itself, once you’ve got some firmer findings, i.e.
you’re happy with the results that you’ve found, you’re going to want to really preserve that information and the relationships of the data that you’ve discovered. And this is– so this is when after I’ve done my kind of scratchy– “Oh, right, OK I’ve found all this information”, and I’ve decided that, yes, these are the people and the dates that I’m interested in, then I’ll go ahead and put in– that information into, in my case, a family tree software package and input the information. But it’s certainly just as good to use paper-based tools, and there are a variety of these out there and available. Lots of blank family trees that you can fill in.
I would say, use a pencil, because things– even if you’re pretty sure, things can change. Things like family group sheet books that family history societies sell– all of these. So if you’re not comfortable with the computer, or want maybe another preliminary step before putting things on a computer, you might think about using paper-based tools. There’s a whole variety of family tree software packages. We’ll talk about some of those further in the course, but these are typically loaded onto your personal computer. And they act as databases of the information that you’ve found, and they can output information into different chart formats, things like that.
Then there are internet-based tools which work, in some ways, a lot like the family tree software that you input the information that you’ve found. And they’re hosted by various platforms. And these, I suppose, are considered online family trees. Some of them allow you to add sources, some of them don’t. I would say if you’re going to think about putting the information that you’ve found onto an internet-based tool, just be sure to read the terms and conditions of the platform that you’re considering using, because you might find yourself signing away specific rights to the information.
And then there’s specialist software out there as well that you might find yourself using that can help you track things like DNA test results, and different research analysis tools that look at the information that you’ve found from, say, a document perspective instead of an individual person perspective. So you put in the information about the document and the different people that are represented, and it presents information in a different type of way. So my tips are– Record things as you go along. Don’t think that you’re going to remember everything in your grey matter. Note down the sources that you’ve used, and create references as you go.
If you wait and create your references– OK, maybe they won’t be the final polished references that you might do later, but just note down where you found something as you’re taking down information. And once you’re happy with what you’ve found, record it for posterity and save it in a good format that will– you’ll be happy to share with your friends and family and preserve it for the future. And my final thought is– Create back-ups of your information. So, if it’s a computer software database that you’ve created, make back-up copies of it. Upload it onto to the cloud, make physical copies of it, and save it somewhere else.
And if you have physical copies of documents, photographs, consider digitising them, and saving them elsewhere as well. Because you never know when something awful catastrophic is going to happen. But just create lots of back-ups of your data, because things happen. And we– after you’ve gone through all of the time and energy of finding your family, you don’t want to lose it. Right, so– enjoy communicating your results.

In this video we explore in general terms why and how genealogical researchers should record and organise their research findings. We also consider the importance of keeping a record of your sources, i.e. referencing.

The research log featured in this video and a template for a research log focused on an individual ancestor (created by Chris Atkin and used as part of her research process) can be found in the ‘Downloads’ section below.

This article is from the free online

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now