Five Tips for Organizing Your Genealogy Research

Are you interested in researching your genealogy, but not sure where to find information about your family tree, or how to organize it? Janine Adams is here today with some great tips to help you get started.


Who Do You Think You Are?About ten years ago I became fascinated by family history research and I jumped in with gusto. I joined and also consulted, the genealogy website of the Mormon Church, and I got out my pencil and began filling out four-generation pedigree charts like crazy. I was able to trace my lines back to the Mayflower. It was such a thrill!

Then life got in the way and I stopped working on family history research. When I decided to pick it up again about a year ago, I looked at all those hand-written charts and became overwhelmed. The trouble was, I hadn’t stopped to question whether the data I was collecting were accurate. I didn’t check for sources. And that a cast a doubt over everything.

So I’m starting over, not believing anything on those charts (though they do often provide some vital clues to explore). And I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. Finding proof of the information I’d uncovered before feels great. (And it also feels good when I discover mistakes on those charts.)

Based on my experience, this is what I tell people who ask how to get started doing family history research.

  1. Talk to family members, especially old ones. Our older relatives are a gold mine of information. Talk with them while you can. The human memory being what it is, that information needs to be verified. But they can provide a wonderful starting point. Try to get a sense of where their parents and grandparents lived and when they were born and died. Ask about marriages and see if you can ferret out any family lore. Oh, how I wish I’d quizzed my parents ten years ago. They’re still pretty sharp, but now, as octogenarians, they tire easily and their memories aren’t as strong. I do plan to quiz them this summer when I visit, now that I’ve uncovered a few mysteries.
  2. Go online to see what info is out there. But don’t do what I did and just take everything at face value. Instead, use censuses, passenger manifests, newspaper articles and vital records that you online to see what you can find out, based on the information you have. (Down the road, you might want to do some traveling to track down records in courthouses, cemeteries and so forth.)
  3. Don’t believe everything you read. If you’re looking at information supplied by other users, make sure the information has a source attached to it (and check out the source). Understand that censuses can have misleading information, because the info is only as good as the person who supplied it. That’s why looking at a number of censuses over a person’s life is really valuable.
  4. Document meticulously. When you find some verified information, write it down and say where you found it. Trust me, you won’t remember later. The thing about family history research is that the number of people you’re keeping track of multiplies as you go up up the branches of your family tree. It’s impossible to remember everything. If you find contradictions down the line, you’ll be happy to have the sources to check again. Use software or a good paper system to keep everything in order. (I use both.)
  5. Be systematic. Start with yourself, add your parents, then their parents, their parents, and so forth. When I began again in earnest, I bought some software (I use Reunion for the Mac) and I only enter verified data. And until I can connect someone with a parent through some sort of record like a census, vital document or other verified record, that parent doesn’t get added. It gives me confidence that I’m growing my family tree with a very strong foundation.

Janine AdamsJanine Adams is a professional organizer and amateur genealogist. She has started the blog Organize Your Family History to chronicle her efforts family history research and help others feel less overwhelmed by their own genealogy research. A Certified Professional Organizer® and a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization®, she owns Peace of Mind Organizing® LLC in St. Louis, Missouri.

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  1. David says

    Great tips! Another tip I give folks is realize that when you “search” on one of the websites, you are actually searching an index created a people trying to read the original documents. I’ve run into many spelling errors that would have thrown me off track completely or made it look like a dead end. Sometimes it is useful to spend the time and read through the original documents themselves. As for organizing, I use family tree software too, but found Evernote to be really useful for organizing all my research before I’m ready to officially enter it into my family tree.

  2. says

    Ruth, thank you so much for your comment! I’m trying hard to treat user-submitted info I find on as just a clue to be verified with more reliable sources.

    Your great grandfather must have been a young-looking guy! I agree, never a dull moment.


  3. says

    All great tips for sound research, Janine. I try to find two sources to verify information as I’ve experienced that information found on hasn’t been accurate. No particular fault to the site as each researcher submits their own findings and the site doesn’t have the time nor resources to make verifications.

    I particularly liked your point #3. The census records can unveil interesting information as well as open up the next mystery or head-scratcher. My head scratcher moment came in reviewing the records to find my great-grandfather wasn’t aging but getting younger as the years rolled by. It was discovered that neighbors had spoken with the census taker and guessed at his age and number of children he had. There’s never a dull moment when genealogy is your hobby.