Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Using Evernote for Genealogy Research

Could I just say... I pretty much live in genealogy geek paradise.
  • I have covered 4,000 years of family history in my research.
  • I have squirreled away tens of thousands of pages of genealogy related books, photos research reports, newspaper articles, vital records and pages of notes in 700 documents
  • My research includes over 30 years of effort from my grandmother and me
.... and I can find absolutely any of it within seconds.  

I can cross reference the state of Tennessee with the name Yarbrough or find every note, photo or scrap of evidence related to my civil war ancestor, Drew Sinks with a few clicks or by typing a few words.  I can create entire research articles with full citations within hours or days instead of weeks.  I have access to entire digitized books on the history of Kent or North Carolina that mentions my ancestors.

I can do all of that with Evernote.  And it can be done for free!  Evernote is a note taking application that I use to organize pdfs, images, documents and research notes related to almost every aspect of my life - but more specifically, to this blog, my family tree stuff.

Getting Stuff Into Evernote

Part of the beauty of evernote is how easy it is to get stuff into it.  I can add things to evernote on the fly from pretty much anywhere that I am.  This opens up the ability to put all of my research into evernote.  Even research at a cemetery or a library - from right there at the location.  No transcription later.
  • Web app - access your account from anywhere you have internet access to create documents and upload files directly from your browser
  • Browser Plugin - the chrome browser plugin allows me to store any web content anywhere.  Images, pdfs, website text etc. Being able to save the entire page is super helpful in research.  Just yesterday, I was putting together a case for disproving some information in a geneology book, I went back to a site that had had a great case on it and the website was gone, along with all of the details it held.  Luckily, I had the entire page saved in evernote for reference.  
  • Email - your evernote acccount has an email address associated with it.  Anything sent to that email address will create an evernote note.  This opens up the ability to create an evernote note from anywhere that you have email - home pc, work pc, laptops, tablets and smartphones.  Your email could contain images, video, sound clips or just plain text.  You can have your evernote account put all incoming notes into a particular folder or tag them a particular way.
  • Smartphone app - from the smartphone app, you can record a voice recording directly into evernote, snap a picture of something, create a document or edit an existing document. I use this to photograph headstones and documents that I can't make a copy of.   
  • Desktop app - The desktop application opens up a host of functionality that gives you full access to all of your evernote documents, including the ability to back them up to your computer.  I use this to backup my evernote notes to my computer - and then my computer backs that up as part of it's automated back ups.  So I have a local backup of all of  my documents that are in the cloud.
  • Scanner - If you have the evernote desktop app, it's really easy to set it up to automatically pick up anything that goes into your 'scanned documents' folder.  It is usually relatively easy to set up your scanning software to dump scanned stuff into your 'scanned documents' folder.  The end result is that you scan something on your scanner and within minutes, it is in your evernote account.  I used this to scan in documents and notes that my grandmother passed on to me, birth certificates and death certificates ordered from vital records offices and more.
  • 3rd party apps and products - Evernote has partnerships with lots of third parties to create app packages or products that make working with evernote eaiser.  If you are a pen and paper type, there is a moleskine with special lines on it that allow you to photograph into evernote more accurately and stickers that will cause your evernote account to auto tag incoming moleskin notes (it's been on my wishlist for ages) or if you'd rather just seal all your stuff in an envelope and ship it off and let someone else scan it in for you, evernote has a partnership with shoeboxed who will do just that.


  • Evernote is completely searchable - even the text within images and pdfs or audio clips is searchable, which is functionality far beyond any document management service I've used in the past.  
  • To visually organize or categorize your notes, you can add them to notebooks, which are collections of notes and you can add your notebooks to stacks, giving you two levels of 'categorization'.  You also have tags to use however you'd like.  I have a notebook for my ancestry data and within it, I have notes tagged with 'ebook', 'photo', 'headstone', 'documents' to help me isolate 'types' of images very quickly.  So, for example, within the ancestry folder, I can search for all headstones with the surname 'sinks' and get an accurate list of results.  


I can access my research data from anywhere I have internet access, making it really easy to reference information for genealogy forums or to have informed conversation about my ancestry.  Further, I can share an evernote note directly with another person either by email, social network or by sharing the note (and it's pdf or image attachments) and sending out a link to it, much like dropbox.  

The end result of all of the ease of accessibility and organization is that if I type in a name like 'Alexander Yarbrough', I get every note I ever took with that name in it (right) within seconds. It's super helpful when cross-researching and trying to tie people together or finding all notes related to a particular geographical area.


Of course you should use a strong password.  But Evernote Premium also allows optional two factor authentication.  Which basically means that you need the password but also a secondary number generated by an app on your phone or a physical device.  So unless you have your device or phone and the password, you can't get access to the account.  You don't have to use it but it's a nice to have for tech savvy or security minded folks.


At a certain level, you have to pay for more features but with low usage, you might never run into the pay wall at all and can use most of the evernote features for free.  I eventually did upgrade to the paid version because I wanted to use evernote more and also because it's been so great for me and the $45 /year price tag still seems like a steal for me.    

I highly recommend evernote for genealogy research.

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