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Take Notes on Loose, Archival Quality Paper

How I Got Started

Lela Virgie Miller Shoup 1893-1980

My grandmother died on 1 August 1980. As my parents, my sister & I sat around after the funeral, we did what all families do on these occasions--we began to share family stories and memories. As we sat there, I realized that I was losing my family's past. All my great-grandparents were gone and with the passing of my father's mother, I only had my mother's mother left, as both of my grandfathers had passed many years before. For years I had listened to their stories--where they came from, what their parents were like, how they had lived their lives.

I wanted to capture what I could before my memories became too faint. So I began my genealogical quest. My mother had begun several years before, so I had access to her notes and research.  But I wanted to ask my own questions and take my own notes. 

I bought a 4 subject spiral notebook. It seemed a logical choice. I could use the separate sections to divide the four ancestral lines I had chosen to research. The dividers had pockets to hold loose papers. I had visions of taking all my notes in a very logical, organized way, much like I had in all my college classes. I numbered all the pages for each section. I was excited that I could carry all my research everywhere I went, making all my information readily available.

Mistakes I Made

I look back now and laugh at my simplistic vision of genealogy research. I quickly ran through one section of the spiral working on one ancestral line, while the other three sections were virtually empty. So I bought another spiral, now I had to carry two spirals (4 sections each. I was determined to continue with my chosen strategy.) After a few months, it became apparent that the spirals were a bad idea. While they kept everything together, I was carrying far more weight (two 4-subject spirals) than I had expected and I continually had to search through the pages of my notes for information I had collected.

I also discovered that as I collected information and added more surnames, I could not separate my notes for those names. Now I had multiple surnames on the same page of notes. So my Roberson notes were mixed in with my Shoup notes and my Miller notes.

It was also hard to keep track of what I knew about each individual and family group. I recorded my information on pedigree charts and family group sheets, but they did not provide places for all the details on each individual, nor for the larger family stories (no computers or software back then.)

I made file folders for each individual, but because my notes were mixed together, I had to make multiple photocopies of note pages so I could file the correct notes with each individual.

And then there was the problem of which notebook I needed to look at to find the note I was looking for. I would sometimes have to look through 50 or more pages of notes to find the exact information that I needed.

Twenty years later, I discovered that my original note pages had begun to yellow and the ink was faded on some pages.

What seemed like a good idea was not.

I have taken those notebooks apart since then and now am scanning all those notes, so they will not be lost forever. With the genealogy software programs that are now available, I am able to capture every tidbit of information and associate it with all the individuals each note references.

What I Learned

I learned that when I need to take notes on paper I use 8 1/2" x 11" paper, so all notes are the same size.

I learned to use loose (unbound) paper so that I can easily file my notes and documents.

I learned that by using archival quality paper and archival ink pens, my notes will not yellow and they will be readable in 20 years.

I learned to take notes for each ancestor on a separate page, so I can place my notes in the proper individual file.

I learned to keep a research log, so I can track what I have done.

I learned to make an index of what documents I have for each ancestor.

I learned that I needed a filing system that maintained only one copy of each document or page of notes.

We live in a digital age. I am embracing it. When I take notes now, I use my laptop and my digital camera. As soon as I get home from researching, I link the images to my research log and my genealogy software. I record the information collected in my genealogy software program.

I learned that digitizing my family history requires time and effort, but the products produced are easy to share with other family members.

I still like spiral notebooks, but not for my genealogy research.

Check out my tips on how to get started with your research.

Genealogy Tutorial


  1. Landed upon your site via Pinterest and happy I did ! Your research data collection stories match mine exactly with the spiral notebooks with 4 dividers , through more spiral notebooks.I actually also used those school composition notebooks too, and tiny 2 inches sized ones so what do I have is boxes filled with notebooks! Although I always entered the data right into my PAF program daily when I came home, I still had to reverence those old notes. Your loose paper approach is sensible, as well as using a camera. Looking forward to how you index.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I have digitized those notes and filed them in family folders so that I can easily find them.

      I keep all my original notes.