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How a Research Notebook Can Keep You Organized

I Needed to Stay Organized

I like all my research materials at my fingertips. If I need to review a census record, I want to have it readily available. If the review of that document triggers an idea about a place to look or generates another question, I want to have my research plan and to do list within reach to add those ideas and questions for follow up later.

I bet you are the same way.

In the beginning, I would make those notes in my spiral (see Use Loose, Archival Paper for that discussion.) That did not work so well. Where were my questions and ideas when I needed to make the next steps? They were buried in my notes on some page in one of the spirals.

I watched other researchers. They carried briefcases and file boxes full of folders and papers. (Remember, this is in the pre-laptop age.) And I noticed that they still were digging through piles of papers, trying to find what they were looking for.

I've always liked 3 ring binders. My first real school notebook was a zippered 3 ring binder with pockets. I still like them the best, but they are too expensive to own more than one. But regular 3-ring binders are relatively inexpensive, so I can have several--in colors too.

I think you see where I am going. I married my love of 3-ring binders with my need to have my genealogy materials all in one place.

Why Use a Research Notebook?

I make what I call a "Research Project." This project focuses on one person or nuclear family. I use the notebook to organize my materials and to help maintain my focus on my research goal.

The notebook helps me maintain control over my research project. It is a place to house all my information that I need for researching one ancestor. I have dividers to "file" different items in my notebook and it allows me to add new materials as I find them

I collect maps, information about state archives and lists of resources about the area I am researching. These items and my research and correspondence logs each have sections in my notebook.

I keep the "project" together until I have accomplished my goal. When I am done I take everything out and file it in my permanent archive. Then I use the notebook for a new project.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the lack of progress on a project. With this system I can take a break and work on something else. Since all my materials are together, it is easy for me to go back, read through what I have accomplished so far and look at everything with new eyes, without having to re-gather all the related materials.

By using the notebook system, I can have two or three research projects going at the same time. The notebooks help me keep everything straight and separated.

What I Keep in My Notebook

I tried a regular 2 inch binder but it became to heavy to carry around and labeling the outside was unsatisfactory. Now I use a 1 1/2" 3-ring, view binder. I make a cover page labeled with my project name and slip it in the front pocket. I also make a spine label that I slip into the spine pocket. I can easily change the cover page and spine label, allowing me to recycle my binders for different projects.

This chart shows how I organize my notebook. You could organize it any way that you like. What is important is to have all of these items listed in the contents section in your notebook.

Research Plan
·  Research Goals and Objectives
·  Research plan
·  To Do List
Family Group
·  Family Group Charts
·  Pedigree Charts
 Tracking Charts
·  Census history
·  Individual data list
·  Individual Chronology
·  Documents list
·  Keep documents acquired in sheet protectors
State(s) Research Guide
[one section for each state; you may have 3 or 4 for a single project]
·  Maps
·  Catalog of films, books, etc to search
·  Local histories
·  Repository information
·  Research log
·  Correspondence log
·  Use as needed. For instance:
o   A third state to search
o   Blank forms
o   Surname Analysis (spelling variations, meaning; country of origin, etc.)
o   Analysis of each research session
o   Research Journal

I use a census history, an individual chronology, transcriptions and abstracts to have my data on hand. This allows me to leave my original and/or best copies filed safely. Using these techniques, I am able to organize my facts in a logical way, which in turn makes them easier to retrieve.

What I Learned

I learned to never take the original or best copy of my documents with me when I am researching. Too much handling and exposure to light cause them to deteriorate over time. I also do not have to worry about losing them.

I learned that I am more effective and efficient when I have all my materials organized and together.

I learned that when I keep good notes, complete research and correspondence logs, a to do list and a well-written research plan that it is easy to keep track of where I am in my research on a particular ancestor.

I learned that having a section for maps and repository information helps me generate new ideas and find new sources for information.

I learned that a 2" ring binder becomes too heavy to carry around.

I learned that when I have filled a 1 1/2" binder it is time to restructure my project.

I learned that I can carry a census history, individual chronology and transcription or abstract of documents and save a lot of extra paper and weight in my notebook.

Click here to learn more about Research Techniques and see a sample notebook.

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  1. I just found your blog today, and have to say Thank You! for the resources you shared and how you put your binder together. This is going to be a huge help for me.

    1. I am glad you like it. It works well for me.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Great information! I'd love to be able to access your forms, especially the chronology form!

  3. I am glad you enjoyed this article. You can download a pdf file of my free forms at: Click on the link for "basic forms."

    Did you view the sample research notebook?

    If you have trouble with them let me know.


  4. Oh I am so happy I found this post. It is short and sweet and to the point. It gives me direction for the next step. Thank you

  5. Here I am, back again, months later; I just tried again, and when I click on "basic forms' all I see is the 'free forms cover page'; and when I download the 'pdf' that one page is all I get. So disappointing, because I am totally impressed with your blog article, and I would love to benefit from you free forms!

  6. Okay - I found a way to make the downloads work! Something I never had to do before, but I am delighted to have these wonderful resources.
    If anyone else is having problems, please contact me by leaving a message for me at my blog (just click on 'anitab' to be taken to my blog).
    Thank you, SO MUCH, for sharing all of this with us!!