The Importance of Good Note-Taking

courthouse-hardin-iaAt one of my first repositories [1] I visited on my 6 week Midwest trip this summer, I realized I had not really thought about how I should record the findings or lack thereof.  Realizing I would visit a large number of repositories, I stopped and gave it some thought. Here is how I took notes and gathered documents from courthouses, libraries, archives and other repositories.

I record my findings in a Word document. For my Midwestern research trip just completed, I created a separate documents for each geographic area where I researched: northern Iowa, southern Iowa and Illinois. Each document became a journal of my journey. At the top of the page, I titled the document with the name of the region and then I listed the repository and office name, if appropriate, and location, e.g. Hancock County Courthouse, Clerk of the Court, Garner, Iowa. This is in bold and dated. It also might include names of individuals who were particularly helpful along the way.

I then typed what I was looking for (e.g. deeds from 1895-1954) and the name of the person(s) of interest. This exercise formulated the research question for that particular repository and forced me to focus on the individuals who I might find in that particular repository. It also served as a reminder if I went off topic to do some “bright shiny object” research! All this could be done in advance.

Early in my journey, I mostly looked for deeds and I found many. For deeds, I recorded the grantee, grantor, the date of filing, the volume and page number and sometimes the locational information from the index entry.  I did this for all the dates of interest for each of the person(s) of interest. Then, I  gathered the deeds themselves.

An aside:
Most of the courthouses I visited preferred me taking a photo rather than making a photocopy.  A photocopy bends the bindings too much on fragile documents and a photograph can be taken in place and takes no staff time– or paper and ink. That was not true in Illinois courthouses where I could not even take my computer or phone/camera into the building.

If I took a photo, I always asked if they wanted me to pay them for the number of photos taken as if I had made a photocopy. Two courthouses willingly took my money.  Most did not want to be bothered, but I think they appreciated my asking.

But, back to the recording…. Once I found the deed based on the information I had obtained from the index, I would copy it or take a photo,. I then changed the color of the index entry to green. If I didn’t find it (rare), I changed it to red.  It stayed in black type if I decided not to pull it.  I didn’t pull all the deeds I identified. Certainly if there were any anomalies to the deed or it’s recording, I would expand my notes.

For each document type, I made sure I had all the information necessary for a citation by taking a “stab” at writing it up. Then I made sure I captured all the necessary info in the photo for each unique deed.

In Iowa, the county courthouse is the repository for many of the documents genealogists seek.  It was usually my first stop.  The Recorder holds the deeds and the vital records.  The Clerk of the Court holds the naturalizations, probate records and court filings.

Sometimes the office does not have the record but the records has instead been moved to a historical society, genealogical society or even in one case, to a person’s home to be indexed. I make a note of that and the contact information.

I record positive and negative findings.

If I were to start again here are some recommendations:

  1. I would create a separate Word doc for each repository and if a courthouse, for each office of the court.
  2. I would be as diligent about recording negative findings as I was at the end of my trip at the beginning.
  3. I would note if I took a photo of a particular document.
  4. I would be more prepared to take advantage of access to vital records.  (These could only be transcribed; no photos.)
  5. I generally did an online catalog search the night before visiting, but I still made some rookie mistakes such as trying to take my computer into the IL courthouse or arriving 30 minutes before they opened.
  6. I would do more organizing of the past day’s findings at night–but I admit, I was exhausted!

I hope these experiences help you.  Perhaps you have some recommendations to share with me?  I would love to hear them.  Just make a comment in the comment section.

You also might like to hear about how historians record their findings.  Check out this episode of Ben Franklin’s World, hosted by Liz Covart, one of my favorite podcasts which I listened to while driving. I was happy to hear that of all the many systems discussed, a Word document seemed to be the best for Liz and her expert guest.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post: yoga, cleaned out the car and getting charged up to work on my KDP tomorrow.

[1] Hardin County (Eldora, IA) Courthouse, 2016; photograph taken 9 August 2016 and privately held by Jill Morelli, Seattle, WA. Ms. Morelli took the photograph on her genealogy research trip to the Midwest in July-September 2016.


20 comments on “The Importance of Good Note-Taking

  1. I agree with you about negative findings. Sometime later, I am not sure if I overlooked something or looked but found nothing. Even just using a zero symbol meaning not found, can help.

  2. Karin Coppernoll says:

    Thanks for posting about your experience. I haven’t taken a research trip like you’ve done, but I’ll be prepared to record every finding, positive or negative. I especially liked how you crafted your citations on site, not focusing on perfection. Maybe next time, create your individual Word documents ahead of time with a citation template for each type of document you would expect to find in that repository. Even if you have to tweak it, it would remind you of which elements not to forget! What a great experience, Jill. I’m envious.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Karen, I could have been much more prepared for this trip. I was the thing I worried about the most. I rarely had time to do more than think about where I was going to be in 2 days. My cousin asked me (a week ahead of time) if I was coming into Chicago in the am, the afternoon or evening….shoot, I didn’t even know the DAY I was arriving. She “forced” me to look at my calendar and take a little longer view. It was a good thing I did, because I added a stop at Stephenson County which I had missed putting on the calendar. I did figure out one thing—6500 miles is a LOT of driving. 🙂

  3. Barbara P Zabitz says:

    As a “newbie” family historian, who is just beginning to venture into the bricks and mortar repositories, I really appreciate your tips!! And, I love your adherence to “citing your sources”!

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Barbara, there can certainly be disappointing days but the “happy dance” occurs more frequently when you visit courthouses and other locations. The simple act for me of walking on the land where they were or to sit in the pew in the church where they worshiped are all very moving experiences. You cannot get that experience sitting in front of a computer.

  4. Rachelle says:

    Jill, I too love Liz Covert! I appreciate you describing your process to document all your findings when on a research trip. It’s a struggle to balance the competing drives to see every document in the building that you only have access to that day and documenting your findings well enough that you know what they mean later. You have some great ideas I will add to my process. Certainly prepping ahead of time is the best way to ensure you aren’t wasting time while on the trip, but sometimes there are surprises that you could never have anticipated….like when the 80+-year-old volunteer genealogist for the Historical Society wanted to meet me at his house where all the “real” records were and he handed over a picture of 2X great grandfather that he ripped out of journal he had in his collection! I still don’t know what journal that was…..but I have a great picture of my ancestor now.

  5. Kathryn Andre says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! This is a keeper.  Kathryn B. Andre 2221 Hamilton Drive Ames, Iowa 50014 515-357-5186

  6. Sandra Johnson says:

    Would these repositories, especially in Illinois, allow a Flip-Pal?

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Where I was refused entrance with my phone and my computer, the security guard at the door, said I could bring in no electronics and then I was scanned like at TSA. So, I suspect a Flip-pal would not be allowed, but I am not sure.

  7. emptybranches says:

    Great suggestions, Jill. With the digital age upon us, note taking requires different forms of recording in different settings, dependent upon the conditions and, I agree, negative findings are just as important as positive ones unless we want to be looking at the same sources over and over!

  8. Jade says:

    Nice group of pointers, Jill.

    A Society or **library** may have items on microfilm that are book-indexed at the Courthouse, but have an open-later-hours day that one can take advantage of. Or might have copying equipment for film that works better than the Courthouse setup. Utilization absolutely depends on making distinctions between Courthouse jurisdictions, such as different Courts.

    A hired local researcher had a really great dream reminding of a library-held microfilm series that amazingly included a huge estate file that was missing from the Courthouse. A great citation was provided, too . 🙂

    • Jill Morelli says:

      You are absolutely right. The Seattle GS has an index for the court cases in King County. You can spend $30 at the courthouse to find out if there is a record OR you can spend $5 (non-member) and find out the same info. Duh! It also was my experience in the BYU Library. They had similar access to FHL film (if one did a little better planning), much better equipment and terrific hours. All much better than the FHL.

  9. […] A good reminder about the importance of being a good note-taker by Jill Morelli: […]

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