Top Tools I Use: Time-tracking

Whether you take clients or do genealogy as a hobby, I highly recommend you track your time on various tasks. I keep track daily of all my time spent on working (clients, administrative, marketing, writing proposals, etc.) and on volunteer tasks for the various societies I’m involved in. Then I can determine where I’m spending too much time or not enough time. My favorite tool for time-tracking is Toggl.


Above is the main workspace for Toggl on the website version. You can use the timer or enter time manually. You can set up clients (I have clients by name as well as the societies I’m involved in), set up projects, and then describe the particular task you are working on. You can see the top item on my example is “Blog post” (writing this very post), the “project” and the “client” both being GenPants, my business. You can see some other examples as well.

On the left are some options, the one I use most is “reports” which allows me to see how much time I’ve given to any given client or project over a period of time. You can choose by week, month, or year, or input a set of dates. I tend to do this at the end of the year or quarter when I reevaluate my goals and where to spend my time.toggl-desktop

Toggl also has a desktop application which I have open usually in the bottom right of my screen. I simply click on and off as I change between tasks throughout the day.

Keeping track of what you’ve done throughout the day, whether for work, personal, hobby, or volunteer, can help you tighten up your productivity or convince you that you did get some things done even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the end of the day. And it can help you reevaluate where you spend your time.

Top Tools I Use: Screenshots

As a speaker, I often find myself needing to make screenshots, and annotate them with arrows or underlines. I also often use screenshots in client reports to help educate or inform the client. It is also handy to be able to add screenshots to emails, research logs, notes, and more. My favorite screenshot tool is Snagit by TechSmith (not an affiliate link).


In the above screenshot, you can see the interface. In the large part of the screen is the working surface. The screenshot can be annotated by adding arrows, boxes, text, blur (to retain privacy), and other shapes. Along the bottom is a deck of previous screenshots. And along the right side is the menu where you can choose your tools, determine how wide or narrow the lines should be, the colors, and so on.

One of the things I use it for in my personal research is to create a list from a database, such as a list of hits in a census search, and then using the screenshot tool to keep track of what I looked at and which can be eliminated. The following is an example from a search for “Renfro” in Barren County, Kentucky in the 1850 census.


There are other features that I have not used as much such as video capture, that could be used if you wanted to demonstrate using a website or something along those lines. The TechSmith website has excellent tutorials and help pages.

I find Snagit to be very easy to use, intuitive, quick, and handy. There are probably others screenshot tools out there that you enjoy. The main point here is not necessarily to use Snagit itself, but to bring attention to how useful a screenshot tool can be. I use it nearly every day, largely to create slides in my presentations.

The screenshot can enhance whatever you are working on by providing more explanation to your audience or yourself through the use of arrows, lines, boxes, text, and more.

Top Tools I Use: Note-taking

I have had people ask me about various tools when I teach classes or deliver lectures/seminars that I thought I’d share some of those through my blog along with any tips I think of along the way. To read last week’s post click here. Enjoy!

Genealogists take a lot of notes. Notes from a research project. Notes from presentations and institutes attended. Notes on DNA projects. Notes on recipes, Christmas lists, quilting patterns, books to read, movies to watch, and so on. I have notes in a lot of places: notebooks of varying shapes and sizes, binders, napkins and scraps, and on my computer in a variety of programs. However, I have made a concerted effort to get all of those old notes into one location: Evernote.

Evernote allows you to title, tag, create notebooks, stack notebooks, add PDFs and images, create tables, and more. All of this functionality allows for many different ways to keep your stuff organized. You can also do a keyword search in Evernote so even if you don’t have a tag on a note, you can search by keywords and find what you are looking for. You can also create links of notes so that you can link one note to another. I love this feature for my research plans and logs (plogs I call them) and allows me to keep the log in one place, and notes on findings in another so all I have to do is click on the link I created to pull up the note with the images I made or the notes I took.


In the image above there are several links, those in green link to another Evernote note whereas the blue links point to webpages. Evernote also has “dark mode” which is much easier on the eyes.

Evernote can do so much. There are many helpful resources out there. They have an excellent help and learning section of their website, a YouTube channel, and a blog. At they have an Evernote category with four webinars on the topic.1 Lisa Louise Cooke of Genealogy Gems has a YouTube playlist with her videos all about how to use Evernote for genealogy. I have even written about Evernote before here.

There are other note-taking apps and systems out there. Primarily I wanted to share what I use. But if you prefer another method, by all means. As Nike says, Just Do It. Get your notes organized. Well, maybe Nike didn’t have notes in mind, but you get the idea.

1. This is an affiliate link to When you click it, and IF you make a purchase, I get a small percentage back. This is a great way to support my blog. Thank you in advance!

Top Tools I Use: Charting

I have had people ask me about various tools when I teach classes or deliver lectures/seminars that I thought I’d share some of those through my blog along with any tips I think of along the way. Enjoy!

Once you get past your basic pedigree or family group sheet, and especially when working on DNA projects, genealogists find themselves wanting to make a chart that is more complicated and/or more customizable than most genealogy software offers. I have used simple text and boxes in Mac Pages (same can be done in Word), Keynote (same can_LucidChart be done in Powerpoint), and various drawing programs. A friend introduced me to LucidChart and I’ve never looked back! (NOTE: This is NOT an affiliate link or anything. I do NOT get any kind of compensation for sharing this information.)

Lucidchart is very easy to use, intuitive, versatile, and did I say easy? The workspace is very intuitive.


You can easily add shapes, put text into those shapes, fill the shapes with color, connect the shapes with lines, put text onto the lines, and so much more. There are options for what file type to download your chart as, sharing with others, creating slides for a presentation, and many other fancy options.

I won’t go into the details of how to do everything. There are many resources for learning more about Lucidchart. They have an excellent help section on the website and they have a YouTube channel that features helpful tutorials and some funny videos that demonstrate Lucidchart features.

In genealogy, we run into “pedigree collapse” quite frequently. Pedigree collapse happens when cousins marry cousins such that on two (or more) branches of your family tree you find the same ancestral couple. For example, my parents are fourth cousins. Back in the tree the Meeker family lived next door to the Avery family, and four Avery siblings married four Meeker siblings. So two ancestral couples are actually the same ancestral couple, I have Mahlon Meeker and Frances Cooper on both my mother’s side and my father’s side.parentsrelated

Sometimes this sort of thing gets much more complicated. I am currently working on a project to figure out how the Higdons and the Renfros (and the Renfros) are related. Take a look:


Now, I know you probably can’t read that text. The point is not to help me with my research project (though if you have Higdons or Renfros in Missouri and Kentucky please email me), but to show you how complicated a chart can get and how easy it is to demonstrate it with Lucidchart. (The yellow boxes are Higdons, the blue are Renfros, and the pink are Willetts. Several Higdons married the Renfro cousins and several Renfros married their Renfro cousins.) And I also know genealogists and you probably REALLY want to see that text. You can see this chart on Lucidchart here.

I use Lucidchart nearly everyday when I’m working on projects for my personal work and for clients. I don’t know what I’d do without it. There is a free level and a subscription level as well. I did very well with the free level for quite some time.

Lucidchart is not the only charting game in town. You might have a tool you prefer. But if you have been struggling with charting, you might give Lucidchart a try. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: New Church Records Book!

ChurchRecordsBookI have recently had the privilege to read and review the new book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide by Sunny Jane Morton and Harold A. Henderson, CG (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2019). Back in 2015 I attended the course “Problem Solving with Church Records” at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP) with Rev. David McDonald, CG as the instructor. It was a fantastic course (highly recommend!) and I have used the information from that course time and again but have longed to have a text with the information learned laid out in a concise manual. This book is the answer!

The book has two parts, the first is methodological and the second addresses twelve different denominations: Anglican/Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, Dutch Reformed/Reformed Church in America, German Churches: Reformed and Sectarian, Latter-Day Saint (Mormon), Lutheran, Mennonite and Amish, Methodist, Quaker (Religious Society of Friends), Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic.

The meat of the book is in the first part, the methodology. This is an excellent, concise, and thorough section that delves into various techniques to identify your ancestor’s denominations, to determine if any records exist for that denomination, for working with old church records, and for expanding your research to include information for contextual understanding.

Quite possibly my favorite part of the first section is the survey of WPA (Works Progress Administration) resources available regarding church directories and church record inventories. The WPA inventories of all kinds can be so helpful to understand what records did exist during the 1930s and 1940s and give clues about what might exist now. Another enjoyable portion of the book was the discussion about other records that might discuss church life, these would be the items that give more context to our ancestors’ lives and communities. Beyond the baptisms, confirmations, burials, and such are a number of other resources to use, such as: denominational newspapers, church histories, denominational encyclopedias, administrative papers (membership lists, Sunday school records, membership lists, donors for various projects, pew rentals, ministers’ records, and so on.

Part two of this book delves into the specific history, practices, records, resources, and access instructions for the twelve denominations mentioned above. Each denomination’s chapter starts with a helpful “Quick Stats” section that gives you some at-a-glance information such as when the church was organized, its dominant region in the US, the dominant ethnic origin, and its affiliated faiths. I appreciate each section’s bibliography directing you to some helpful resources for a deeper understanding of that denomination.

In conclusion, this is a fantastic resource every genealogist needs on their bookshelf. As stated in the book’s introduction, church records are “a surprisingly neglected resource” and this book leaves very little room for excuse! Get this book, learn about church records, and then get out there and access them!

The book is $29.95 and available at

FGS Week was a Success!

I know this is going to come out a little bit late to my readers… but frankly, I was exhausted after the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) conference that took place in Washington DC. I serve as the VP of Membership for the organization and so that came with some responsibilities. I was in charge of the Society Showcase area. Despite a few minor hiccups in the beginning, we got it all looking good! I worked the FGS booth quite a bit, I also volunteered at booths for the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG). I was able to attend three lectures!

The big news out of this conference was the planned merger between FGS and the National Genealogical Society (NGS). NGS’s general focus is on genealogy education, methodology, their scholarly journal, and other aspects for the individual genealogist. FGS’s focus has been on society management and support. Both have held national conferences and focus on Records Preservation and Access (RPAC). To read the official press release, click here.

Personally, I am excited about the merger. As a board member, I have seen our strengths and weaknesses and believe that we can be supportive to each other rather than separate and competitive entities. I believe cooperation and collaboration is the direction we need to move toward. Helping each other and coming together rather than having a separation in the field. I often found that there were people who were “team FGS” or “team NGS” rather than seeing the two as complementary. So I do think this will be good for the field.

However, I don’t have a crystal ball and don’t really know what the future holds. Time will tell, for sure.

Accessing Archives from a Distance

I’ve tantalized you with what you might find in an archive in previous posts here and here. And I’ve given you some tips on how to find a collection that might apply to your personal research through the use of ArchiveGrid. Now, what happens if you find a collection in a repository that is far, far away?

You have three options:

  1. Create a research plan or list, saving all of the information you need to access that collection someday when you are nearby. I do this quite a bit for areas I think I might be visiting in the next 1-3 years and if it is on a personal project that is not time-sensitive. Save the URL to the collection, repository name, address, hours, and so on. I use Evernote for such a task. I have notebooks for various locations or repositories titled “Family History Library,” “Ohio Research Trip,” or “Washington DC.” And I just drop notes in there to access later. A word processing document, spreadsheet, or even a spiral notebook would work as well.
  2. Hire an on-site researcher. Many repositories have lists of proxy researchers because they do not have the staff or resources to do research for individuals. If a repository does not have such a list, check the directories for the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), or International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGEN). These directories allow you to search by location or by specialty. You might also consult with the state or county genealogical society for the area of interest as well. You might also find a cousin, hobbyist genealogist, poor college student, or some other person who would be willing to go to the repository for you.
  3. Ignore it. Now, I don’t recommend this one, especially if you are interested in not only the coolest possible finds out there, but also in conducting “reasonably exhaustive research.” I would at the very least put items in a list and get to them eventually.

I hope this series has convinced you to visit archives and manuscript collections. And if you weren’t sure about how to even go about it, I hope I gave you some helpful tips to quell your anxieties. Where else would you find a petticoat worn by Lizzie Johnson from 1865-1870? (The answer, of course: at the Southwestern University Special Collection in Georgetown, Texas.)

Use ArchiveGrid to Assist Your Search

One of my absolute favorite websites for helping with the task of locating items of interest to MY research project is ArchiveGrid.


You can read in detail about how ArchiveGrid works, its history, and so on, on the website. The summary from the website: “ArchiveGrid includes over 5 million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more. With over 1,000 different archival institutions represented, ArchiveGrid helps researchers looking for primary source materials held in archives, libraries, museums and historical societies.”

It is like WorldCat is to libraries. It is an online catalog of holdings from libraries, manuscript collections, and archives from across the globe. Of course, they have to be participating with the OCLC system to be included, but so many are! And some of the participating collections are not your typical collection you might think about in terms of genealogy. Just reading through the “recent additions” I see Indiana University’s Latin American Music Center, United States Marine Band Library and Archives, the American Bookbinders Museum, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Museum of Flight Archives.

ArchiveGrid is very easy to use. It employs a simple keyword search and then a filter system is available when you click on “Summary View.” There are also more advanced ways to search. As always, read the help pages and “how to search” instructions for better results. For example, if you remember the leather pocketbook from the last post, it belonged to Thomas Jefferson Johnson. If you search ArchiveGrid for Thomas Jefferson Johnson you will get all kinds of hits for the president Thomas Jefferson. However, ArchiveGrid, like many databases, allows you to put the name in quotes. When I did that search, I found a collection of papers down at the Austin History Center that includes family correspondence dating back to 1853. It is very likely that some of those family papers complement the collection I viewed at Southwestern University’s Special Collection.

Access ArchiveGrid, enter some family names or topics relating to your research, and see what you find. You might be pleasantly surprised!

How to Visit an Archive

Some of you might be intimidated by the thought of visiting an archive or manuscript collection. I mean, they aren’t like a regular library usually. They tend to have a lot of rules and they will get after you if you don’t follow them. You can’t always bring in items you want to bring in. Why would you want to subject yourself to all of that hassle? I did feel this way in the beginning…when I was a “baby” genealogist. But I hope the last couple of posts (here and here) have convinced you to get over it and get in there!

Most (if not all) will have a website (such as that for the Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas Campus). Be sure to read it! It will prepare you for what to expect, the rules in terms of what you can bring in, copy policies, photography fees, parking, hours, closings, and so on. They will often have a catalog or finding aids on that website. Some archives have a system with which you can make an account and order your items ahead of time so they are ready for you when you show up. Often you will have to register as a researcher, showing your ID, filling our a form, or some other way for them to identity you. Also, do not be afraid to email the archivist with any questions. Sometimes a repository is behind in cataloging and not everything is listed. The archivist will know more about what is in the collection, or if you are having trouble locating something, they can help you find it.

Briscoe Center Website

Most often the rules are: no loose papers unless they look at them and stamp them with a stamp indicating it was something brought in or they provide you with a colored sheet of paper for notes; no pens, pencils only; laptops are usually ok but they will want to look inside it before you leave; usually photos are ok, some repositories have a photography fee; no drinks. I might have forgotten some, but those are the main rules I’ve experienced.

All of those rules are in place to protect the collection. No one is accusing you of anything when they ask to see inside your laptop or at your papers. Over the years, as you might imagine, items have been stolen, ripped, marked on with pen, had coffee spilled on them, and so on. These items are unique, one-of-a-kind, priceless, historical items. We don’t want to lose them and therefore they are in “protective custody” and you are required to follow these rules so they can survive for many generations to come.

The best advice I have is to read ahead to understand the rules then follow them without complaint, and you will have a great time at the archive. You never know what you will find but you will definitely have a great time in these original records!

Archival Finds

I wanted to share a few more finds from my visit to the Southwestern University’s Special Collection from last week’s blog post. I had so much fun and got to see and hold so many cool things!

Leather pocketbook belonging to Thomas Jefferson Johnson

This is probably one of the best examples for visiting the archives…you truly never know what you are going to find! This leather pocketbook belonged to Thomas Jefferson Johnson. On the inside:

The inside of Thomas Jefferson Johnson’s leather pocketbook.

The transcription: “Thomas Johnson’s pocket book living in St. Louis County state of Missouri this 4th of July 1829 –– Thos. Johnson was born Oct. 8th 1805.”

Ok… when you are looking for those vital records for your ancestors, did you ever think to look in their leather pocketbooks? I didn’t.

Now, will you find your ancestors’ birth information in a leather wallet? Probably not. Will you find some other cool items in an archive near you? Most definitely!