Using OneNote for Genealogy

Using OneNote for Genealogy

It’s the end of Genealogy Do-Week 2 and I have to admit, I got a little off-track. Week 2’s theme is “Back to the Beginning” and covered the topics of interviews and setting research goals. The good thing about the do-over is that you can be a hybrid, either following the program exactly as it is laid out, or modifying it to meet your needs. I didn’t need to do interviews and I have my goals written down, so my ‘back to the beginning’ tasks centered around organizing. Organization has become an underlying personal theme as I have years of work in various states of disorganization. It will take a long time for me to get things in a better state.

One of my distractors this week was the discovery of Microsoft OneNote. I have been an Evernote user for quite some time but I have to admit that OneNote is more appealing visually and has some great features. If you have never used OneNote, here are some of the features I like the most:

  1. It is structured like a real notebook, something I am use to;
  2. It is a Microsoft product so the learning curve was fairly quick;
  3. It is better than a physical notebook because I can easily add pages or rearrange sections, based on my needs;
  4. It allows me to link data between sections and pages so I only have to capture the information once;
  5. It allows me to copy webpages, photographs, and other documents into my page and then add additional notes or information;
  6. It feeds my creativity by letting me color code;
  7. My notebooks are available on all my devices
  8. It is free!

OneNote is very popular among genealogists and I spent time reviewing YouTube videos and reading blogs in order to learn how others use it. I even joined a Facebook Group specifically for using OneNote for Genealogy. While there is a lot of information to be found, it’s hard to digest. Before I can understand a system, I have to understand how it is used, and most of us have our own styles. I am also a visual learner, so seeing a picture tells me a lot more than words. I did get some great ideas, however, and have put together a prototype of my virtual notebook, which I share below.

Notebooks and Tabs

One of my bad genealogical habits was not keeping everything related to a family in a single notebook. I realized just how bad a habit this was as I was going through my old papers that needed filing. I noticed I would find one page of the notebook for one family and a second page for an entirely different one. Needless to say, this was a haphazard approach, one that I look to correct by setting up notebooks by Surname.


My tabs reflect categories of information I want to keep about my chosen surname, and the good thing is I can expand tabs to my heart’s content. So far, I have a Surname Index, which will link to my individual ancestors; a tab for research plans, which will most likely be by individual; a tab for my direct line and a second tab for my indirect line; a tab for a Location index (which will include the places the family lived) and a task tab that will include all outstanding tasks to be worked on.


Individual information will be stored on pages and grouped under the ‘Direct Line’ tab or the ‘Indirect Line’ tab. This is the method I use in my physical notebooks. Females will be listed under their father’s page until they are married. After marriage, they are listed under their husband. Sexist, I know, but I don’t have a better solution.

This is how the individual pages within the section may look.


This is it so far. I feel good that in the span of a week I was able to learn how to use OneNote and set up the foundation for my notebook. The Internet is full of information on using OneNote for Genealogy. If you are interested in learning more, see the link below. It is a blog that goes into quite a bit of detail and allows you to actually see pages in OneNote.

There is also a Facebook Group devoted to OneNote called ‘OneNote for Genealogy’

Until next week….

My Genealogy Blueprint

My Genealogy Blueprint

Loose papers stored in a single locationI am mid-point into Week 1 of the Genealogy Do-Over, (GDO) a 13-week initiative to improve my genealogy habits and research skills. I have learned a lot this week from fellow participants, a great testament that collaboration always brings better results than working alone. Week 1 signals the end of my old genealogy ways. I have stopped work on my current project and filed my research documents. After a bit of reorganization, I can now happily state that all of my resources are in a central location instead of scattered all over the house. I have also started putting together family notebooks, but that is a topic for another day.

In Hitting the Reset Button – Genealogy Do-Over Week 1, I listed some of my  bad research habits that I hope to overcome. It is comforting to know that I am not alone when it comes to such things as not properly citing sources and trying to fit genealogy research in between other tasks. I believe the success of Genealogy Do-Over initiative has a lot to do with the fact that many of us have been at this for years, without proper training, and now recognize there is a better way. Reflection is never about blame. It simply means we cannot change what we do not understand.

Looking forward, I want genealogy to be more than a time-filler. I want the time I invest to be of value. To do that, I need to add structure and consistency to what I do. I have come up with a simple model that will get me started.

Genealogy Model Signed

Many people use the term ‘research’ as an umbrella for the various tasks they do, but I found this to be too restrictive. The term ‘Genealogy Work’ is purposely vague because it allows me to expand my model with additional categories and work as the process matures. For now, there are three categories of tasks, described below.

Get started

In pre-GDO days I rarely prepared for my work session. This resulted in a lot of wasted time due to stopping and starting. I would have to stop and look for documents I needed, or insert genealogy work between other tasks. It is a proven fact that the brain cannot handle more than one task at a time and every time we try to multi-task, our productivity goes down. As part of GDO, I will determine what I need in the way of supplies and resources, review what I want to do and how I will do it, clear my schedule so other things do not interrupt me, and find a tidy space to work. It might take me five minutes or 30 minutes but getting started will allow me to focus on the work and make my work time more meaningful.

Do Work

This category includes the actual work done. Not everything is research. Genealogy work includes time spent analyzing our findings, writing letters and emails to relatives, organizing our files and documenting the results. Whenever I start working without knowing what I am going to do, I end up chasing after BSO’s (Bright Shiny Objects) that tend to distract me. Anything I do will link back to my general research plan and goals, which I explore in more detail during Week 2.

Shut Down
As much as I would love to spend all my time engaged in genealogy work, there has to be a stopping point and it is much better when planned. Going forward, I will attempt to time-box my work so I do not have to worry about other pending tasks. I will close out what I am working on, back-up files if necessary and make sure everything stored away so I know where to find it next time.

I know this is not a perfect system and will change over time as I learn what works and what does not. This system establishes a foundation for better habits. Over time, my genealogy results should improve. I can hardly wait until we get back into work mode so I can try it out.

If what you do is not working, try something new. George Bernard Shaw said it best:

 “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”