Thursday, February 23, 2012

What Format Do You Prefer for Genealogy Information?

Last week I gave a webinar called "10 Brick Wall Tips for Beginners."  The first point in my webinar was reviewing your data and looking at it with fresh eyes. That got me thinking. What format *is* your genealogy information in? I am really curious to know.

Is your family history handwritten on paper? Is it written out as text in a word processing document? Is it on random papers and stuffed in manila folders? Is it all kept in a software program (that is hopefully backed up!)? Maybe index cards?  Or something else?

My genealogy information is in four basic formats:
  • My genealogy software program
  • 3-ring binders with sheet protectors for documents
  • Personal genealogy reports in Microsoft Word documents
  • Typed up notes and/or transcriptions from research trips in Microsoft Word
When I started out in genealogy I put everything in my genealogy software program and stuffed random papers in manila folders.

As I became more experienced, I still used the software program but now do more in a word processor. My personal genealogy reports include my objective/task, what I searched, what I found from those searches and my conclusions up to that point.  I find those are really helpful with brick walls that are researched over a long period of time. It's hard to keep all the information in my head and the research report helps remind me quickly where I left off.

I used to fight the urge to use 3-ring binders and sheet protectors. Now I have caved into it. When I am hot on the genealogy trail I need to be able to access and review my documents quickly. Stuffing them in a manila folder doesn't let me flip between the documents easily. As I am processing and analyzing I sometimes flip through the information hundreds of times. I also print out pedigree charts and family groups sheets and put them in my binder so that I am not dependent on a computer for a quick look-up.

If you were to review your information as I suggested in the webinar, what format would you find your information in? How would you gather and sort through it?

Let me know!

Photo Credit: photo by Muffet and used under the creative commons license.


  1. Like you, I now prefer the gen. data on my computer.

    Happy Dae

  2. Marian,

    Great question. I think that my "home work" assignment from your webinar show's how I review what I have, and/or what I am missing.

    I am lazy, I guess, but I put everything into my genealogy management software. Digitize what I need and include it in the software. I depend on the reporting capability of that software. The Mapping feature, the Timeline feature and reports that I create and generate.

    I'm lazy, because the "filing" doesn't happen as it should.

    But, that's just me.

    Thank you for the question.


  3. I use all three, the three ring binders for travel and quick look, the computer for ease of access and additional info, and (stuffed) four-drawer cabinets for backup. Trying now to get all my boxes of old photos scanned in to be stored on external drive. Think I will need at least a two terra bite external! HELP! I am being suffocated under all this paper!

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  5. I use all three, the three ring binders for travel and quick look, the computer for ease of access and additional info, and (stuffed) four-drawer cabinets for backup. Trying now to get all my boxes of old photos scanned in to be stored on external drive. Think I will need at least a two terra bite external! HELP! I am being suffocated under all this paper!

    Hope you Like my page:

    To learn more about writers and writing tips, sign up for my monthly WRITERS REMINDER. CLICK HERE -

  6. I use archival boxes to store my documents and any special records (emails from relatives, etc) but most of my information is on my computer.

    I started on paper, though, and still use it when I travel.

  7. I use Excel sheets to tackle brick walls. I use it to sort and group information according to my needs and the information entered, like dates, names and places. You might get new insights just from reordering your data. It particularly helps when there's a lot of data available, like parish records or census records per district.

  8. Most of my personal genealogy is in software. I'm not using three-ring binders, but any hardcopy I have is filed in family name folders using table of contents pages (as per Sharon Carmack). I've added another level of splitting this last year as I put two projects online and public at Ancestry. The first is my mother's Swedish and Danish ancestry (I hope to connect with cousins), and the second is a missing maiden name for a woman who seems to have connected me. She is "Abigail and the Three Fancy Husbands" on Ancestry.

    My client work is all in folders. The lineage clients have their documents sorted by generations (using 3-hole punched index tabs) and entered on electronic forms. My genealogy book files are sorted by household number from the book. The book, of course, is an electronic file in Word.

    I find that I need those hardcopy documents. When I go over them again and again, I see new possibilities for places to research or new connections. Often recently, I've been checking to see if new information is up online; this has helped in my mother's ancestry.

    Finally, for a few very confusing issues, I use spreadsheets. My first foray into that area was in disentangling all the Mathews in colonial New York City/Long Island. Miracle of miracles, I figured out where they fit in families. Even found a few maiden names, unfortunately not in the family that was mine. I love being able to sort on date, sort in given name, sort on location. It helps me see patterns.

    Marian, thank you for a thought-provoking posting. Makes me take stock of where I'm not getting my filing done these days...

  9. My [handwritten] research notes are retyped in Excel (for evaluating timelines, source summarizing, and sorting any-which-way). Research reports are simultaneously written in Word and all papers are filed in drawers. Same with documents and photographs; digital copies are on my computer, photocopies in ancestors' files, and originals in archival storage. My non-client documented research done on Ancestry is available there to share with the greater world as well.

    I have a 3-ring binder full of empty sheet protectors that I fill up before each research trip...but empty, record, and file away the papers when I get home.

    All in theory, of course. My desk is pretty crowded about now...

  10. All of the above for me.

    Generally I try to keep any evidence of my ancestors attached to a tree online so that I can access via my phone or computer where ever I have a signal or wireless access. No matter how much I think I need to take with me on a trip, I always wished I had access to even more and by doing this I solved that problem. It also keeps it backed up on servers not in my house should a fire or other natural disaster happen and I like to think available for some great great grandchild of mine to find long after I'm gone. Of course I back it up on my home computer too.

    For the file folders, I keep my rejection letters (couldn't find a record that I requested) and correspondence between people. Most of this information is not critical information. I also keep hard copies of records of pictures that I have found but have scanned and put online.

    Then for the binders, I put general information such as family histories or area histories published by others. Basically anything that might add context to an era and a place where my ancestors word.

    Finally I write blog posts about my discoveries and biographies on my ancestors so that they too are online, accessible anywhere and are backed up.

    Over the years, I've found that the more I can make available online, the happier I've been on my research trips especially now that I have a smart phone with an app for my chosen website provider ( where I store all this stuff.

  11. Also, there is another great free program called Dropbox that allows me to add files to from any computer or phone and have them available where ever I may be. I put files on there that are two large or two many pages to attach to an online family tree. It is like a virtual briefcase.

  12. Timely post, Marian! I've used genealogy software for many years, but until five years ago, kept all my hard copies in manila folders. Then I went through a massive process of digitizing all my records so it was accessible through RootsMagic. About three years ago I stopped printing hard copies and all was electronic. That left a huge gaping hole with how I handled all the stuff that was still "to do," things gleaned from research trips, and minimized the opportunity to really analyze in paper format. So, the last two weeks I spent a massive amount of time taking my original documents and placing in three ring binders by surname, and printing off much of what I'd gathered over the last three years (when I'd stopped printing hard copies) and making sure I had that in the binders as well. It was a HUGE task, but well worth it - already identified missing pieces and came up with new thoughts and approaches to research. Next step is how I document my conclusions, which will likely also include the Word Processor vs. just the notes section of RM.

  13. I use my genealogy software to input all information I have “proven” from various records, etc. I was initially very lax at entering sources, but now I’m going back and entering all my sources into each record—a monumental job, and not so fun! But in doing so, I am finding that I “got something wrong” here, and “missed that there.” I have found that you can never read something over too many times—and it does help to review something after it’s been left alone for weeks or months. But NOTHING goes into my software program until I have a source for it.

    I developed a “source” sheet for my ancestors in excel, which I have printed out and manually check when I find and review that source. It’s not as thorough as the “Quick List” you presented in the Webinar, so I plan on revising it to mimic what you’ve done—as I was very impressed with it.

    I’m an old-fashioned paper person—I prefer to pick up a book and look through it. Thus, everything I input into the computer I print and put into the appropriate file. I have file cabinets full of color-coded files for each ancestor and all copies and research notes go into those files. I have scanned (and am still in the processing of scanning) photos for each ancestor to input into my genealogy software, AND for the purposes of backing them up should something happen to the originals. It is my plan to have a “book” on each family line, which I am setting up in a three-ring binder, where I put the original photos, photocopies of certified-copy documents, newspaper articles (all these items are in sheet protectors), family group sheets, etc., as well as a composed “story” (in Microsoft Word) about as many of my ancestors as I can find information to write about. I’m not a fan of leaving everything in a drawer, nor am I a fan of having to turn on my computer to look at what I have done! I want to thumb through and enjoy the “fruits of my labor”!!! I am using a parchment paper for these books, giving them a nice “old” look about them.

    When I travel, I have a huge binder with dividers labelled with the ancestors I’m researching. Behind the dividers I have the family group sheets, ancestor charts, notes, my excel worksheets, and anything else that will help me on my trip. I do take my computer, but rarely use it. I just purchased a flip pal scanner, and know this will be with me from now on!

    I have a book I keep in a file drawer that holds all certified copies and other original sources I have. I photocopy each source for inclusion in the various files and books I’ve created, but I do like to keep the certified originals safe in another location. I may change that, though, since I keep the original pictures with their records in my books . . .

    Wow, I’ve been wordy, but I find the more I type, the more I think, the more I discover. That must be why I tend to agree with you about typing up my notes in Microsoft Word—I re- think what I’ve done and about all the other scenarios and what-ifs that might just lead me down the right trail . . .

  14. What a great question Marian! I try to scan EVERY document and photo I have into my computer (which of course gets backed up externally on a regular basis), and use a software program to keep track of what I've got. Plus I have folders and folders organized by SURNAMES, and also by TYPE (documents, photographs of people/places, censuses, old & current maps, etc.). I have a folder of family stories written out at various times, and I've used an elderly cousin's badly typewritten and scribbled-over list of descendents down several generations. I'd love to have folders out on my desk but my tiny place doesn't make that work at the moment - still my binders are partly organized and I may use them more in the future.
    Mostly my "stuff" is in my computer - I go to pen/paper for trying to figure out problems.
    Love to read everyone's answers to your question - this could be an ongoing Q&A couldn't it?! Thanks for another wonderful post.

  15. I actually organize my information exactly the same way as you, Marian. Though for brick walls, I give them an entirely separate folder, and there tend to be quite a few handwritten notes in there, along with copies of vital records, census and directory records, a timeline, and more. :)

  16. I watched your webinar and decided this would be the weekend I would organize all my papers on my brickwall line. Time to type up all the notes. Just started a spread sheet for all the John Foss's in NH and Mass to try to connect families. I have most of the information in my software program, only after I have verified the information as accurate. I have several three ring binders with birth, marriage and death records and other family artifacts and am in the process of scanning into the software program. My goal to put some of this data into words!!!

  17. My information is primarily on my computer. Factual and source data goes into my genealogy software, I scan or make digital reproductions of most documents and place them in a system of surname files, and I use program called NoteTaker for my research notes, to-do lists, and analyses. Great question!

  18. Great queston Marian!

    I keep everything stored in my Rootsmagic5 database, and use that as a storage place for when I come across information that needs to be analyzed and proven. But, I work best when reading paper, or a book. For each of my main lines, I keep a master Word document, which contains a modified register-style genealogical sketch, with citations, any proof arguments I needed to make when putting the sketch together, and a section on that line's brickwalls. Each brickwall contains a summary of the problem, a research log, notes for what I've done to date, and a plan for what's next. Once the brickwall is broken, the new data is incorporated into the modified register section of the document. THis way, at a quick glance, I can see where I am with each family, and I can easily see my thought processes and what's still left to do.

    I keep my original documents in vertical files organized by surname, but first I scan them, saving them to a Dropbox folder, and when needed, I incorporated them into the Word documents.

    I still rely on my genealogy software for its various reporting capabilities, but the Word documents bring it all together for me, and are something I can pass on to family.

    Thanks for asking the question!

  19. My research covers my mother, father and two in-law family lines. So, my record keeping has to be very simple or I'll get confused. My software is Legacy 7.5 Deluxe with four family databases. Bankers Boxes are used for hard copies of my documents and photos. I try to have everything scanned into the computer and keep the originals in folders in the boxes. I do have a few 3-ring notebooks of to-dos and reference notes. I can't print hard copies of the data every time it changes due to ink cost but hard copies do give a singular view of the data.

    Adobe pdf's are created from Legacy reports. These reports and images are posted to my genealogy website for members of the families to download. They are not printed. Having the family question my reports, when I post a revision to the web site, keeps me on my toes. It forces me to document my research. Otherwise I get phone calls or an emails if an item is not documented.

    Copies of the software and databases are maintained on my desktop computer as well as my laptop. I copy the database files to my laptop and go to the Library to do most of my research. This way I have my laptop running next to the libraries computer. I transfer data with a thumb drive from the library computer to the laptop. When I get home I copy the data back to my desktop computer and keep the backup copy on the laptop. I also backup my data to DVD/CD's.

    I maintain a digital to-do list (usually word.doc) within each computerized family folder on my computer and update it as I do research and complete the to-do's. One of the biggest problems I have is setting solid achievement goals. I find myself not focusing on my research to-do's but browsing data and reading history. It's so interesting.

  20. FYI on Sheet Protectors:

    I STORE NOTHING IN SHEET PROTECTORS! Did you know photo copiers use a fuser (heat) to adhere images (the ink) to paper. The powdered ink has a catalyst made of plastic and the fuser (heat) makes it stick to the paper when a copy is made. This powder, and some inks, will stick to plastic sheet protectors over time. It will also stick to other (common) paper and folders over time. Especially if you apply a small amount of heat. So, don't store your valuable documents in common sheet protectors. Don't store your boxes anywhere in the house that might get warmer than the rest of the house. Don't store your documents near a wall that contains plumbing pipes that could rupture and leak.

  21. Patricia Pavlina WagnerFebruary 24, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    Before taking your webinar about the 10 Brick Wall tips I kept my information in a software program where I also added information received from 2 other relatives. I printed up the stories that I was told and also kept a copy in Word in files on my computer. I also have 6 main family binders of information. It got to the point that I was downloading information that I already had but forgot that I had so I did what you might consider a time line in that I listed each document that I had in the order that it would have been made. And listed all of the information on the document. I carry these with me when I travel as they take up less space and I know what I have and what I need. I also travel with my laptop so that I can add notes. But I am also going to add the lists that you mentioned in your webinar. I also have hanging files for information as I get it. All of my original documents are kept in archival plastic pages in one binder with an index. Everything is backed up and once I learn how to burn disks I will be making copies for other relatives. I can't wait for your next webinar on 10 more Brick Wall tips.

  22. I have things in binders and folders. I do not have mounds of papers because I have only been researching about four years, Although I do have MS Office, what I use for my notes and research is Google Docs. You can access it from any computer and find your notes. There is even an app for your smart phone.

    I also use Dropbox because there is also an app for that, and I can access it when I need the information.

    Another app I use is My Heritage Family Tree. i take a bare minimum of papers when I go to research. I like the availability of synchronized documents.

  23. I use my RootsMagic5 and have since the days of Family Origins for storage of facts/notes and sources. Sources that do not work in or fit as of now are listed in an ACCESS database so I don't dup research.

    Library research is done on hc files like Dollarhide suggests or my own single sheet analysis per book etc. Then transferred to RM5 & Access database.

    Hard copies are kept in Surname folders by direct line. Have not digitized all as of yet, have 40 years worth to do. Dropbox is only used for sharing with other researchers/projects. Backup are external dives [3 of them].
    Notebooks are used for research trips at library's. Internet research is kept in 'Evernote', analyzed on same note, tagged then entered in RM5 & Access database which is based on Dollarhide's 'Family Data Sheet'.

    Create my own forms in MSOffice and use both Gary Minder's and John Haynie's census forms for evaluations. Filing system is direct line surname based with file groups [census, certificates, land, wills,etc] in the file folder.

  24. I use all kinds of methods, would love to say I am all digital, but, even tho I have tried for years, I am still NOT there, guess I need to stay where the files are (in SE Michigan) for longer than I have been recently.

    As far as sheet protectors, look carefully when you purchase, there are some that say, No Photocopy Transfer. To date I have been happy with them, and do not find my copies stuck to the inside of the sheet protector.

  25. I use all three, the three band binders for take a trip and fast look, your pc for supply and extra information and facts, and (stuffed) four-drawer display cases for copy. Trying now to get all my containers of old images read in to be saved on exterior generate. Think I will need at least a two terra chew external! HELP! I am being covered under all this paper!

    Digital Learning Trend

  26. I use Legacy for my database. All of my documents are in binders. I have a binder (or several) for each type of document. I use Microsoft Word for correspondence.

  27. My grandparents left behind an extensive amount of genealogy information in 3 ring binders. They spent hours in libraries and cemeteries. I would like to have an electronic version of the information. Should I purchase software and enter the information they uncovered? I'm looking for suggestions on how to deal with the large amount of information. Any information would be greatly appreciated!