How to Use Microsoft Onenote to Organize Genealogy Research Notes

Gone are the days when all genealogy pedigrees were kept on paper charts, when all correspondence was done by snail mail, and when all your research was copied neatly onto lined paper and piled on top of the foot-tall stack of genealogy papers. Now that there is genealogy software for pedigrees, such as PAF, Legacy, and RootsMagic, family historians no longer need to keep everything on hard copy. But finding a good genealogy notes software program is difficult. Try out Microsoft Onenote for keeping your research organized, and you'll never go back to paper.

Microsoft OneNote is basically a digital notebook; you can have different notebooks, different sections within each notebook, and different pages within each section. The only limit to how much you can keep in your notebooks depends on the size of your hard drive. The real beauty of using Microsoft Onenote for your genealogy research lies in the fact that you'll be able to pinpoint pieces of information literally in seconds. The notebooks organize the research so easily that there is no longer any shuffling through masses of paper to find one line of notes.

To get started, we're going to use an example of keeping genealogy notes with OneNote using a surname filing system. Open Microsoft OneNote (we will be using version 2007 for the example); you'll see several notebooks on the left side toolbar. Create a new notebook by clicking "New" on the top toolbar and select "Notebook." We will be creating a different notebook for each surname. A file box will appear, requesting that you name your notebook and select the type. Type in the surname, and select "Research" for the type. OneNote will create a sample research notebook automatically. To clear the ready-made sections, right-click on each tab and press "delete."

You are now ready to create a section group. Again, click on "new" and then click "section group." A section group is kind of like a folder within your notebook; under the section group you will have different tabs, each containing several pages of information. When the section group is created, you'll have to name it. This will depend a little on your filing system and the size of your genealogy research. I personally name each section group by the head of a family unit. So if your great-great-grandfather's name was Billy Jones, you would name the section Billy Jones. Within that section, there will be tabs for each immediate member of Billy's family. Another section group might be named "John Jones" for Billy's father's family.

After you've named the section group, click on it. Not much will change; Microsoft OneNote will simply bring you into the section group. Now it's time to really start entering your genealogy notes and seeing what the program can do for you. You need to create a new section for each immediate member of Billy Jones' family by clicking on "New" and then on "Section" (you can also just click the "New" button; it is set by default to create new sections). Name the section "Billy Jones." Then create another section for Billy's wife, Matilda Jones. Create a new section for each child as well. (In the case of a couple having many children, I sometimes just name one section "Children" and have different pages for each child.)

Now, return to Billy Jones' section. On the right hand side of the screen, you'll see little tabs sticking out. These are your pages, and you can create as many as you'd like. Decide what different pages you want to use under each person. For example, I have one page titled "Research History." This is where I keep a chart of my searches (date of search, what was searched, what I found, etc.). I use another page for "Correspondence." Here I keep a record of every email or letter I write regarding Billy Jones. Another page is used for "Summary" where I keep a detailed outline of my ancestors' life as I know it. One of the most useful pages I have is labeled "To Do" where I keep a checklist of tasks I want to perform regarding this person. The possibilities are endless.

To create a new page, click the small page icon above the tabs on the right-hand side. A new page will automatically be created. When you type a title onto the page, the title of the page also becomes the title of the tab, so that you can easily flip through different pages. Notice too that if you click on the arrow beside the page icon, there is a whole menu of options. You can choose pages with different backgrounds and pictures; you can choose a custom to do list with check boxes; and you can also create template pages that you can use again and again. I use a template for my "Research History" pages so that I do not have to keep remaking the table.

Now that you've made a few pages, go under each person in your group and create pages for them as well. Each person can have their own Research History, their own to-do list, and their own pages of general notes. And you don't have to stop at notes for ancestors. You can create a separate notebook for lists of contacts and organizations, general genealogy information, or local histories. You can create sections for people that you are researching whose connections you have not yet proved.

These are the basics for keeping genealogy notes with Microsoft Onenote. They are digitized and organized. Now let's take a look at a few of the great features of Onenote that will really simplify your note keeping.

Search function. You'll notice on the top right side of the Onenote screen a small search box. Here you can search all your notebooks for just one word, or one phrase. You know you typed somewhere that Billy Jones died in 1850; search 1850, and it will bring you to all instances of the phrase. Great for tracking down information.

Clip feature. On the toolbar of the Onenote screen, you'll see the button labeled "Clip." This is a great tool for keeping genealogy notes and pictures in Microsoft Onenote. If, for example, you are on a genealogy website, and there is a lot of information that you want to put into your notes, but it would be hard to paste and copy, just click on "Clip." It will bring you back to the website you were just looking at, and you can drag the marker to highlight the part you want to bring into your notes. Once you're done highlighting, click on your Onenote page again, and it will automatically paste your screenshot into your notes.

Tags. You can click on the "Tag" button on the toolbar to mark certain important notes. There are many icons to choose from the drop-down Tag menu. You can mark notes as important, to do, critical, or address. You can then search for these tags by clicking "Show all tagged notes."

You can easily see what an incredibly powerful and useful software program Microsoft Onenote is, and what an excellent tool it can be for keeping your genealogy research notes organized and digitized. Be sure to always create a backup copy of your Onenote files, and soon you'll be chucking your foot-tall stack of genealogy research papers.

Published by Tanya B.

Tanya Bomsta is a freelance indexer and likes to write in her spare time. She enjoys genealogy, biking, reading, and researching.  View profile

  • Create a different notebook for each surname.
  • Search for words or phrases in all of your notebooks.
  • Create to-do lists for every person in your pedigree.