Evernote for Genealogy: The Foundation of My Research Organization System

Evernote for GenealogyIt has been a while since I last blogged about Evernote or my personal and professional information management (PIM) workflow.

I have been using Evernote for over four and a half years now, and it is still my favorite go-to app for anything I need to organize, document, or remember. I use it as frequently as my email and calendar apps. And I have used it heavily for genealogy for years.

There’s been a lot of chatter online among genealogists about Evernote over the past year, particularly since Evernote workshops have now started showing up at genealogy conferences. There are several sessions coming up at the RootsTech conference I am attending next week, so I figured it’s about time that I start sharing the method that has worked best for me after several years of experimenting with Evernote for Genealogy.

If you are not already familiar with Evernote, I suggest you first read my introductory post on How I Use Evernote.

This is the: 

My Foundation

The foundation for my Evernote workflow for genealogy consists of the three basic building blocks of Evernote:

  • Note: A single item stored in Evernote.
  • Notebook: A container for Notes (a Note can be stored in only one Notebook).
  • Tags: Descriptive topic words assigned to Tags (a Note can have an unlimited number of Tags assigned to it).

Notebooks and Tags can be organized at a more fine-tuned level (a must for we librarians!). A Notebook can be stored inside another Notebook by what are called Stacks, with the parent Notebook being the Stack. And Tags can be nested inside of a parent Tag.

These three building blocks make my genealogy organization system a breeze!

My Notes

Every single record or clue I discover gets saved as a Note. The majority of these Notes are created via the Web Clipper (I like the Chrome version), which provides an automatic import of critical metadata.

All of my Notes, even the clipped ones, get a standard naming convention (Smith, John: Imported Record Title). This is for the ease of browsing alphabetically through my Notebooks. If the record refers to more than one person, each person gets named on the Title, with the primary person being named first (ex: head of household, parent, or male spouse). I don’t modify anything in the imported Title, except appending my names at the beginning of the original Title.

Evernote for Genealogy Note basics from web clipper
A record saved and imported from FamilySearch via the Evernote Web Clipper for chrome. Viewed in Evernote for Mac. Click on the image for a larger view.
Evernote for Genealogy Note metadata
Looking at the “Info” metadata view for that same clipped record, in Evernote for Mac. Click on the image for a larger view.

I also create Notes by dragging and dropping digital documents (photos, PDFs, Word, etc.) that I’ve scanned from print copies or had emailed to me, again applying my surname naming convention. While I don’t keep my preservation copies of photos and documents in Evernote, I do store them in Evernote for easy of access, for portability, for full-text indexing (a Premium subscription feature), and just as another backup copy.

My Notebooks

Unlike most of the recommendations I read from other genealogists, I only keep 3 Notebooks for ALL of my genealogy, all of which get saved in a single “Research” Notebook Stack. In fact, ALL of my research (including my professional research for work, and hobby research fields) gets stored in that single Stack:

  • “Research: Family History (Colleen)”: My side of the tree.
  • “Research: Family History (Jeff)”: Hubby’s side of the tree.
  • “Research: General”: Miscellaneous forms, templates, articles, and tips.

I do not create surname-specific, location-specific, record-specific, or task-specific Notebooks. I tried that route years ago, and it proved to be too restrictive. Why? Because Notes can ONLY get stored in a single Notebook. I don’t know about you, but none of my ancestors have just a single surname. If I organized my surnames into Notebooks, where do I put Grandma Bessie?…in only one Notebook (aka surname)? I encountered similar limitations with using Notebooks to hold records for a particular location, or Notebooks that hold only one record type, etc. I think I renamed Notebooks, created new Notebooks and deleted old ones, and moved Notes around into different Notebooks at least a hundred times before settling on my current system. I am speaking from experience.

Evernote for Genealogy Notebooks
My parent “Research” Notebook Stack, with my three genealogy-related Notebooks, on Evernote for Mac. Click on the image for a larger view.

Simpler is better. And FAR less frustrating! A record belongs either to my family line, my husband’s family line (except our marriage certificate 🙂 ), or neither one of us (ex: a Census template, or a research log template, or a blog post sharing a general genealogy tip.).

Because I store EVERYTHING in just those three Notebooks, that’s where my Note naming convention comes in handy when I am browsing through a Notebook.

Evernote for Genealogy notes alphabetical by surname
I am able to generate an alphabetical list combination of surnames + primary person’s given name saved for all of my family history research, by applying my standard naming convention to each clipped and manually imported record added to my genealogy Notebook. Using Evernote for Mac. click on the image for a larger view.

All three of these Notebooks are accessible off-line (a Premium subscription feature) so that I can use them on every mobile device even if I don’t have a good or any wifi or data signal.

My Tags

So how the heck then do I organize my genealogy Notes by surname, location, record type, etc.? I use Tags. Because there is no one-to-one relationship between Notes and Tags. I can apply as many Tags as my heart desires. I also make strong use of nested Tags to more fine-tune my organization. You might want to read my previous post on Notebooks vs. Tags for a better understanding.

Examples include:

  • Surnames (parent Tag): I Tag a Note with ALL applicable surnames.
    • Flanagan
    • Smith
    • Jones
    • Sanchez
    • Sanches
  • Places (parent Tag): Countries, states, counties, landmarks, etc.
    • California
    • Los Angeles County
    • Long Beach
    • All Souls Cemetery
  • Records (parent Tag): Documents, photos, etc.
    • census
    • cemetery record
    • birth record
    • headstones
  • Actions (parent tag): Tasks I need to do.
    • to verify
    • to investigate
    • to contact
    • to obtain
Evernote for Genealogy_ Nested Tags
A look at part of my Surnames nested Tags, on Evernote for Mac. Click on the image for a larger view.

One of the beauties of Tags is  the dynamic linking system, which will query and pull up all records that reference that particular Tag. So if I just want to focus on my Flanagan research, I can simply click on the “Flanagan” Tag in the Tags view of Evernote and retrieve every single Note to which that surname is applied.

What are your favorite tips on using Evernote for genealogy?

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17 thoughts on “Evernote for Genealogy: The Foundation of My Research Organization System”

  1. thanks for the excellent example. Well thought out and executed.

    Do you handle correspondence (paper or email) the same way?

    1. Hi Randy,

      Thanks for the kind words. I do handle correspondence the same way. I scan paper correspondence, forward emails to my Evernote, and clip or copy/paste forum posts, Facebook message, etc. I usually merge Notes for ongoing online discussions (especially those Facebook Messages). And I do still append the Title with the ancestors’ name, or just the family name if it’s a general family history discussion (ex: “Flanagan Family: Facebook Correspondence with Cousin Jane Flanagan”).

      Your inquiry makes me think that perhaps I’ll do a post on using Evernote for genealogy correspondence, because there are so many venues for correspondence now that a tool like Evernote can help keep it organized and archived.

  2. your articles are great as I am attempting to reorganize my Evernote. How do you nest or parent tags? Example, if I want to use surnames as a main tag, how do I add individual surnames or do I surnames – DuNHAM or surnames – COUCH?

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  4. I’m familiar with Evernote because I used it way back in the day of the Palm Pilot. I stopped using it; but it seems like the basic concept is the same. I will be using it for genealogy, now. So I can’t wait to read the other posts in your series. This one is quite thorough. One question I have, though, is have you adopted the Moleskine system that’s been incorporated into Evernote? Is it covered anywhere on your site? Thanks.

  5. I am curious what the purpose of nested tags are? Is it mostly for the visual hierarchy? I guess I was assuming that if you used one of the “child” tags then that note would automatically get tagged with the parent. For example, I tagged a lot of notes with “Vienna” which is nested under “Austria” but I didn’t put an Austria tag on the note. If I search for Austria tags, I was expecting to see everything under Austria including those with only a Vienna tag.

    1. Evernote is quirky. Nested tags are just visually nested which goes against how any other nested tagging system works.

      They don’t use boolean search, they use their own proprietary search which does not include an “OR” operator. They explained that boolean would be too “complicated” for their users though millions of people do boolean Google searches every day.

      But for the most part it works and there is nothing else that even comes close including MS OneNote.

      They have had a couple of big layoffs after multiple disastrous attempts to “monetize.”
      But they seem to be getting how making money from software works these days by promising to take their note editor out of the 1990s.

  6. I’m a little late here. I really like your naming convention. I am going to start using it, and slowly work my way back to renaming my 765 existing notes to follow this convention. I do use Surname folders, though, but they are limited. I don’t try to keep every surname separate, but have folders for major lines of research, which pretty much are my grandparent names.

    I am curious about the nested tags. I like this idea but didn’t know it was possible. How do I set these up? Can I change my existed tags to nested tags? Example: I have multiple ‘location’ tags. Can I know organize these into their respective states, or do I need to start over?

  7. Really useful, thank you. I am brand new to Evernote and already blown away by the OCR/search feature on clipping newspaper articles. Your method sounds very practical and is one I will probably follow!

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  10. Colleen I came back here to thank you for these posts. I have 25 years of documents and all is under this system now. What a relief. I’m pretty organized and have worked in IT for a long time but leave it to librarian to get it all put away and findable again. Knowledge is nothing if you can’t access it. Thanks again.

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