It’s been a very long year (and more) of sheltering-in-place, wearing masks and working remotely. Most family historians have actually enjoyed the opportunity to research from the comfort of their homes. Free access to’s Library Edition during the pandemic has been a great perk, which will continue through at least December 2021.

As vaccination rates increase, more of us are venturing out into the world again. Perhaps that means hugging loved ones or dining inside a favorite restaurant. For others, that means researching in a library, historical society or other repository. Many archives and libraries are beginning to reopen, albeit with restrictions.

You are probably as eager as I am to plan a research trip, but before you do, it’s important to take the time to get organized. In this column, we’ve discussed organizing files, creating research plans and writing your story. One topic not yet covered is using timelines to better understand and evaluate your research.

Why Timelines?
Organizing your data in a simple chart is an effective way to identify gaps in information. Was a family member absent from the 1920 census? Are you missing the incarceration files? Did you forget to order a birth or death certificate? Which sources are more reliable than others? Will adding historical events to the timeline give more context to the lives of your ancestors? Can you flesh out the stories with more research?

Getting Started:
Timelines can be as simple as a handwritten note, a typed word document, or a chart drawn on a whiteboard. You can enter the data in straightforward tables or detailed spreadsheets (try Excel, Google Sheets, or Airtable). Even Mind Maps ( can be used to organize data chronologically. You can create a timeline for an individual, an entire family, or even for a surname or location. Some genealogy software programs include the option to sort data chronologically.

Start by evaluating the data you have so far. Look at each document and extract ALL of the particulars, putting each bit of information into chronological order. As you enter the details, you will begin to notice gaps in your research, as well as conflicts.

Maybe you realize that you don’t have a certain record, or you find that a census indicates that your ancestor immigrated in 1907 while the passenger manifest tells a different story. As the family historian, it is your job to unlock the mysteries and resolve conflicting information.

Extracting the Details:
Some documents offer clues to multiple events over time. For example, the 1910 census lists the family members and their ages, their relationships to the head of household, marital status, number of years married, number of marriages, number of children born to a mother plus the number of living children, and (approximate) year of immigration. A passenger manifest may indicate more than just the dates of departure and arrival; you might discover a birthdate or previous travel dates. City directories are particularly useful for identifying residences and occupations in between census years. Combining all information chronologically helps you to place your ancestors in specific times and locations. This step will help you to write your story, but it will also come in handy when you plan that long awaited research trip.

What to Include in Your Timeline: 
You can include as much or as little in your timeline as you want, but at the very least you should include categories for:

• Date (dates of the events within the document; there may be multiple dates referenced in one item)

• Location (where the event/s took place)

• Description/Notes (the event/s and what you discovered)

• Source (this can be a proper citation or it can be a simple reference to a document which is described in greater detail in your research plan/log)

• To Do (recommendations for further research)

The timeline below is for one individual, Masaki Nakabayashi, though some family members are noted. It is very basic and references only a small number of documents. By creating a chronological list of events for this person, it is clear where there are gaps and conflicts, and where research is incomplete.

By creating a chronological list of events, you will be able to determine what research is incomplete. You also will be able to easily follow in your ancestor’s footsteps wherever they traveled, be that in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Japan, or elsewhere.

Have you started your timeline? Why or why not?

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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