Evernote for Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

You can’t carry it (all) with you – how I moved from paper to e-files and put a rocket booster under my genealogical research

Are you thinking about going paperless?

Is the whole idea overwhelming?


Take it from me, a former paper girl (as in, really, I used to be a commercial newspaper printer) and legal assistant (which explored the question what if the only limit you had on paper filing was space?) and I have a total love affair with paper products and office supplies. Put another way, I am a professional paper organizer and paper junkie, and I have managed a LOT of files.

How many? Like this:

The best filing money can buy – rolling cabinets. By Ajuntament de Palafrugell ([1]) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
And like this:

My travel journal collection 1999-2001. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

No more. I am moving away from the paper train. Sorry, Staples – I love you but enough’s enough.

The beginning

It seemed innocent enough.

All the genealogy-for-beginner guides said print these family charts, and do one up for each family group. It was a process I could follow, and I like processes, so I followed it to the letter. I  lost count of the office supply trips I made for binders, tabs, plastic document sheets, more binders, more tabs, flags, staples, etc.  At one point, I considered ~$3000 worth of museum-quality supplies before I got hold of myself.

I thought that if I bought all these supplies, I’d be organized.

Many binders later, I realized the only times I really touched the binders was to file more stuff in them, not do any research. And that wasn’t right, because it seemed like a big chunk of my limited spare time was going to filing, not researching. It was also turning something fun into a chore.

Also, I didn’t like the results. All those census charts were so tiny and unreadable. I could have printed them on big paper – hi again Staples – but the costs were prohibitive. I had a tight budget for genealogy, and things were getting out of hand.

The middle

As well, I was missing SO. MUCH. STUFF. My binders didn’t have URLs, or colour photos (cost, again), and figuring out how to print unprintable web pages was annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t retrace my research steps.

I started, then stopped printing PDFs, realizing I just wanted the PDFs as resources… so…  I started a folder on my computer to keep all the electronic things. Now I had 2 completely separate filing systems, divided by medium. What was worse is that after all this time and money, my filing systems were not helping the genealogical research questions. Every time I wanted to follow an idea, I’d go from journal to binder to folder to website, and it wasn’t efficient or helpful.

There comes a point in every process-lover’s life when she realizes her current processes have hit their limits. I was at my limits. I didn’t know where to find anything I’d stored – email? Journal? Computer? Photos? Binders?

As well, I was wasting valuable research time. I think I hit the wall with my process when I carved out precious family visiting time to go to the Vancouver Public Library’s Chinese Canadiana section and I couldn’t find a document I thought I’d brought with me on my laptop.

I realized that on site research minutes are very precious, and I wasn’t prepared. It was humbling.

The move to Evernote

I moved to a cloud-based electronic document management system – Evernote. It has changed my life. I still have the binders I made – they’re good for storing original documents – but otherwise I rarely touch them.

I have a personal genealogical research library of 2400 files which I can access from any device. I usually use my laptop, but in a pinch I can use my phone. I capture anything useful for future reference on the go. But it’s far more than storage – it’s a research tool.

And it’s not just for genealogy… but I’m getting ahead of myself. See you next week!

Next week: Process – it doesn’t have to be painful, but it does have to work. 

5 thoughts on “You can’t carry it (all) with you – how I moved from paper to e-files and put a rocket booster under my genealogical research

  1. So very true, sounds exactly like ME ! I look forward to your next post to learn how to go about the electronic changes. I have paper files, as well as electronic files at the moment, and look forward to learning how you went about making the change to electronic. Thanks for your post.

    1. Hi Patricia, thanks so much for commenting. I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while, and I’ve got a whole series planned out, because I really think there are a lot of us out there wrestling with these issues. Stay tuned!

  2. I was seeing myself in almost everything you said!! Discovered Evernote via just reading different genealogy sites on facebook. Gave it a try, and it has been a game changer to me, just in the “now where did I put that”/”I have seen that name/place somewhere, but where” category! I am not real computer savvy, unfortunately, and and I know I could use it for so much more if I only knew how. The only thing that I dislike is not being able to ask for assistance.

    1. Evernote is really like my second brain – honestly – people think I’m pretty savvy but it’s really only that I can find my stuff. And in genealogy, if you can find half of what you find, you’re way ahead.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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