7 Keys to Genealogy Research

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Whether you are just starting out in genealogy research, or have been building family trees for years, these 7 keys are crucial to your success. Taking the time to create good habits now will save you tons of time and frustration later!

7 Keys to Genealogy Research

Genealogy Research Log

One of the first things you will need is a Research Log. This can be a notebook, a spreadsheet on your computer, a file in Evernote or OneNote, or something else. The key here is not how you record your genealogy research, but that you do record your research.

The key here is not how you record your #genealogy research, but that you do record your research. Click To Tweet

You’ll want to list each search you perform, noting down search terms and databases searched. Even if you turn nothing up, you’ll want to list the search so you’ll know six months from now what your results were.

I also recommend noting the date you searched so you can go back and redo searches several months later as databases are continuously updating and new records are added daily.

File Organization Plan

In the course of your research, you will collect files. These can be digital or physical, but most likely both. You’ll want to develop a plan to organize your files so that you will be able to easily locate any given file when needed.

Most genealogists prefer to organize by surname; grouping records together by ancestor line, instead of alphabetically. Others may choose to organize via geographical location, putting records from the same locale together.

Personally, I organize by accession; listing the records in an index and assigning a sequential number to each one. I’ve shared more about this in A Complete Tutorial on Genealogy Organization.

In most cases, you’ll want a separate plan for organizing photographs as this form of media has a different set of parameters to consider when archiving.

Note: Be sure to keep your file names simple and scaleable. I recommend using a hyphen or underscore between words instead of spaces as some programs do not translate those well.


As you work through various genealogy research steps, you will likely want to fill out a variety of forms to retain family information. Family Group Sheets are very popular as you can list all the vitals for a family in one location and branch off from there onto other sheets as the children start families of their own.

Another popular form is a blank census form. Refilling out the census data piece by piece is a great way to ensure you have caught all the nuggets available from that year’s census.

Finally, pedigree charts are the best way to show several generations of ancestors at once. It’s a great platform to branch out from to continue to collect information on your ancestry.


As you begin to collect data, you’ll likely want to contain it all in one easy-to-access location. There are quite a variety of online programs, such as Ancestry.com* or FamilySearch.com, where you can link up all your ancestors and the records you have found.

While this is a great place to start, you will likely need a desktop computer database such as Legacy or RootsMagic* to keep everyone straight. These programs can also generate great charts and reports for sharing your discoveries with other family members.

Of course, paper files in binders may serve your purpose as well if you are trying to solve a specific family mystery.

Genealogy Research Citations

Regardless of how you organize or store your genealogy research, you will want to craft a complete citation for each record. This is not only good practice, it’s a must. Noting citations for every “fact” listed in your tree will help establish the legitimacy of that fact and go to show why one fact carries more weight than another.

Noting citations for every #genealogy fact listed in your tree will help establish the legitimacy of that fact. Click To Tweet

The go-to resource for genealogy citations is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained*. I recently bought my own copy of this book and it is extremely thorough! Many genealogy programs which have built-in citation capability are based on this book.

Some genealogists prefer a citation style based on the Chicago style, while others create a hybrid version all their own. The key to remember is: will someone who knows nothing about genealogy be able to locate this record?


We talked briefly about photos earlier, but there are some specific things to remember when dealing with photographs. First, you can learn a lot about a period in time from a photo. You can even come very close to identifying the correct date of a photo based on clues in the image such as clothing styles, furniture, etc.

One key with photos is that of preservation. In decades past, not much thought was given to the preservation of photos and due to that, many have been lost. Learning how to preserve (and rescue!) the ones you have, is vital to preserve the data and information for the next generations.

Creating a plan to digitize old photos is one way to ensure they will be preserved and available for the future.

Big Picture

We’ve covered a lot of details, and it can sound overwhelming. But please keep the big picture in mind! The biggest goal here is to have fun! Learning about our grandparents and great-grandparents and so on can be extremely fun and special. Discovering land deeds, naturalization papers, etc. makes history come alive.

The biggest goal with #genealogy research is to have fun! Click To Tweet

When you feel like you are getting bogged down in the details, remember your original goal. Was it to trace your family to the immigrating generation? Was it to discover ancestors who fought in the Civil War or Revolutionary War? Remembering your goal will help you regroup and start back down the right path.

In addition, you will want to think outside the box. Not being able to find a birth certificate for a great-grandparent isn’t the end of the world. There are many other avenues one can follow to gather that information!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these 7 Keys to Genealogy Research. There’s a lot of information presented here, but this really just scratches the surface of what we can accomplish with genealogy. I look forward to this journey with you!


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