Family history is a lot like gardening. You plant a little bit of information and watch it grow. You cultivate the clues found in letters, photographs, artifacts and documents, to discover more about your family.

Sometimes you need to prune a branch when you get the information wrong.

As you gather more data about your direct ancestors, are you also adding new branches with every new family member? A new son-in-law means an entirely new branch to research. If you are lucky, his relatives might be avid genealogists. In that case, you can add an entirely new tree to your family orchard. Otherwise, you have more work to do.

Are you regularly adding data for all the life events in your family? Births, marriages, deaths, adoptions, divorces, graduations, new jobs and such? Sometimes we get so preoccupied with looking for our ancestors that we forget to add the new descendants. In the past five years, I’ve added a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law and three grandchildren. Every time I add a person, I gain a new branch.

Your genealogy research is a gift to others, whether you have children or not. Consider what you want to leave behind as your family history legacy. You won’t always be around, but you should make sure that your research is relatively complete, accurate and preserved.

The best way to do that is to make sure your research is current, your sources are well cited with more than just hyperlinks, and that it is accessible to others. Have you identified a beneficiary of your research? Does that person or organization know how to access your data?

How do you keep track of that data? Do you have bits and pieces of information all over the place? Do you have Post-it notes stuck to the wall above your computer? Do you have some research on paper in a file cabinet? Are some items only attached to an online tree? If you can’t remember best practices for keeping track of your data, please review the May 2020 article from this column called “Organizing Your Genealogy Files.”

Here are my top five tips for keeping track of your data:

1. Keep a research plan (those items you need to locate or order).

2. Keep a research log of your findings.

This should include what you found, where you found it, when you found it, and a summary of the data.

3. Download any documents to your hard drive and label them.

After that, back up to the cloud. Just because a document is available today doesn’t mean it will still be available in the future. Case in point: I found a marriage record from a Catholic church in New York. When I went back to download it, the image was gone and only the transcript remained. Why did this happen? The availability was only meant to be temporary. Now I need to order that record directly from the church, but at least I recorded what church it was from. Another time, I found a will online; not only did I not download it, but I didn’t write down where I located it. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

4. Share your findings often and widely.

Make copies of your research notes, scan photos, and don’t be a genealogy hoarder.

Let your friends, family, and community members benefit from your research. This is a bit like sharing the cuttings of your favorite plants.

5. Decide how and where you will keep your data.

Many subscription databases ($), such as Ancestry or My Heritage, allow you to create family trees. FamilySearch has a free shared tree that allows you to collaborate with others. The drawback to a tree on FamilySearch is also its biggest advantage: it’s a shared tree and people can edit your data. Be careful about only keeping your research in an online service. If Ancestry or My Heritage shut down, what would happen to your data?

Many genealogists use software1 such as FamilyTreeMaker, RootsMagic, or Legacy Family Tree. Wikipedia has an article comparing software. I’ve been using Family Tree Maker since the 1990s, but I’ve also used RootsMagic. The advantage of having a software program is that the data can’t be altered by someone else. If you have an Ancestry account, you can sync your software to the subscription database.

Software programs allow you to easily create charts, reports, and books, at the simple click of your keyboard.

Even if you keep your tree in a software program, you should still retain your notes, research logs, and documents/photos in separate files. Think of this as genealogy insurance for your hard work.

Regardless of how you choose to cultivate your genealogy garden, keep it current, prune it if necessary, add data to make it grow, and share it with others. In the next column, we will review the importance of citations.

Do you have a question about family history that you would like to see answered in this column? If so, please send an e-mail to

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 of the Nichi Bei News.


“Comparison of Genealogy Software,” Wikipedia
( : accessed 3 May 2024).

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