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Genealogy Notes: Why You Need Them and How to Take Them the Right Way

It won’t do you any good to research your family history if you can’t remember what you found. Taking notes in genealogy is a must, not only for recording important information but also for transcribing it onto a more permanent record repository, such as genealogy software. However, you can’t just copy down any information you find in any old way. No matter how good you are at interpreting your own handwriting, shorthand, and scribblings in the margins, you need to take a more measured approach to notes in genealogy. You don’t want to get home with those notes and find you don’t understand what you wrote, and/or can’t figure out what piece of information goes with other tidbits you wrote down on the page.

Here is why you need to take careful notes in genealogy research, and how to take them.

Why You Need to Take Notes

Other than the obvious reasons given above of getting information from one repository to another, you have also got to consider the size of your genealogy collection. While it may start out small, the longer you do it, the more information you will bring in to add to it. You may have an excellent memory, but there will come a time when all the names, dates, places, and stories you’ve come across in your research will become too much for your mind to hold. Some important pieces will fall through the cracks, being lost once again to the shadows of time, until and unless (a big IF) some other, future researcher from your family re-discovers them.

This means you have to write down everything you find, be it by hand or by typing into a phone, laptop, or tablet. You should always have something with you that you can use to record information on when you’re “in the field” doing genealogy research. You won’t always be doing research on the computer, where documents and stories are easily saved. When you’re in the trenches of genealogy, where no one has gone before, or in centuries, you need to take notes. You’ll regret it later if you don’t. This is a mistake too many other beginning genealogists have made. Don’t you make it, too. Start out your research with better habits, and your family history work will shine.

How to Take Genealogy Notes the Right Way

Do Not Use Your Own, Unique Shorthand

No matter how well you think you know it, it can’t be relied on when you get home to transcribe it. If you never get a chance to transcribe it, other researchers who come across it may not be able to interpret what you were writing. Make it easy on yourself and researchers who must use your notes later, and only use common, standard abbreviations for things in your notes.

Include Your Sources

This is a hugely important thing, and one many beginning genealogists neglect. Then, when they are more experienced, they have to go back and re-do a lot of their early work to get the sources. Save yourself time and hassle later by recording all of your sources now, as you find them. You’ll need to record the name and location of each source, as well as the date you checked it. This will prove your work to other genealogists, leave a trail for them to follow, and let you know what you’ve already examined so you don’t repeat your research unnecessarily. Don’t just limit your sources to your notes, either… be sure to transcribe them into the sources field on any genealogy software you use, and also use them in blogs and books you publish. Wherever you record any information in genealogy, the source should always accompany it.

Use Your Best, Clearest Writing

Whether you are writing in cursive or print, use your best writing. This won’t be so much of a problem if you are typing into an electronic format, but if you are hand-writing something, write it clearly. You want to be able to read your own writing later, as well as make it easy for future researchers to interpret and read what you wrote.

Be Clear With Dates

Even though there are common abbreviations for the months, it’s still best to write the whole name of the month in question. And pay extra special attention to years. If you record 91 as a year, you may not remember later if it was 1791, 1891, 1991, or a 91 in some other century… and those reading your notes won’t know it, either. As far as the format for recording a date, genealogists who have been doing it for a long time, or who do it professionally, usually use the day/month/year format. However, you can use month/day/year if you prefer it, and it is still perfectly acceptable in your notes. As long as you record the month and year in a way that they are absolutely clear to you and anyone reading your notes, your preferred format is fine.

Record Everything Exactly as it’s Written in the Original Source

It is tempting to change information that you think is misspelled, non-sensical, or otherwise incorrect when taking notes. Don’t do it. People centuries before us often had different ways of writing things, and there was no uniform way of spelling in the English language until the early 1800’s. Also, things you think don’t make sense or are wrong may actually be true, and will make sense when you research the time period. Record everything exactly as it is, and interpret it later when you get home. If corrections need to be made, you can determine it after you look more deeply into the material, and compare it to your other information.

Always Record a Person’s Entire Name

Don’t use initials to describe someone in your notes if you know their actual name… you may not remember the name later. And, always record a woman’s maiden name. They are notoriously difficult to find before the 20th century, so don’t neglect it. Those maiden names are important for tracing new branches of your family.


Will Moneymaker

Will founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his last name. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)