Creating a genealogy to-do list

gentodolistsampleI know I have two big impediments when it comes to making progress with my genealogy research. One is that I often don’t know where to start in a particular session. The other is that I think I need a huge block of time and that huge block rarely comes.

But I know better. I am a big believer in grabbing snippets of time to complete discrete tasks. For me, this is true in life and in genealogy research. But my reluctance to start a short session still rears its head.

Yesterday, as I was pondering this situation, I came up with a strategy that might be helpful. I created a form for myself where I can separate tasks by the amount of time I think they’ll take. That way, when I find myself with 30 minutes to spend on family history research, I can scan the “30 minutes” section (or the “15 minutes or less” section) and hop right into a task. The form I created has seven sections: 15 minutes (or less), 30 minutes, one hour, two hours, half day, full day, and weekend.

Since I’m trying to focus on one branch of my family per quarter, I decided to make a separate list for each branch. That way, if I come across some leads for families I’m not working on this quarter, I can put them on the appropriate list, and when that quarter rolls around I’ll already have a task list to get me started.

If I manage to use this form consistently, it should serve a few purposes:

  • I’ll be able to jump right into my research without feeling overwhelmed
  • My sessions should be more focused and productive
  • I’ll research more frequently, because I won’t be waiting for large blocks of time to emerge
  • If I hit a dead end, I can go right back to my list to refocus

I can’t wait to give this a try. I’ve started with a short list for a couple of family branches. I’m going to figure out a way to include routine tasks on the list (like updating my progress tracker and making sure that all paper documents are also properly stored on my hard drive) so that they get done relatively painlessly. I think this will definitely be a work in progress.

In the next week or two, I’ll create a template for you to use in your research and include it in the Printables section of this site. I’m going to wait a little while to do so, so that I can refine it a bit, based on my use. (An excerpt of my one-day-old version of the form is what’s pictured with this post.) I’m thinking that I may drop the final two sections, since I want to include smaller tasks, not large projects, on the list. But I’ll use it awhile before deciding.

I’m curious: Do you find it hard to figure out where to start when you have time to do genealogy research? Or is that something peculiar to me?

Documenting the failures

Document your research failures as well as successesHave you ever been pursuing leads on a thorny research problem and found the time just slipping away, without much progress made? I just experienced that. I was trying to fill in some blanks on an ancestor and actually managed to stay pretty focused, but two hours later, those blanks are still empty. I wouldn’t mind keeping going on this challenge, but I need to stop, because I have other things I need to accomplish this morning. Plus, I’m getting kind of frustrated.

It’s easy to spend a lot of time pursuing leads in genealogy research and feel like you’ve wasted your time. But I think there’s a sure-fire way to make the time spent more valuable. And that’s by recording what you’ve done and the results–even if the results are nil.

That’s where a research log comes in. I’ve not been diligent in keeping a research log, though I know that it can be very valuable. But my frustrating time this morning has me appreciating the effort of keeping a log, because I don’t want to repeat the unsuccessful searches (or if I do, I want to do so knowing that the searches have failed in the past).

When Springpad was around, I created a research tracker template that was included in the Family History Organizer notebook on Springpad. That form works with the way I think, so I’ve been continuing to use the template, only now it’s in Evernote. (Feel free to email me if you want me to send you the template–that’s the corner of today’s entry in the photo.) It’s simple and allows me to record the pertinent data without turning it into a big chore. I need to use it more diligently, after every research session, rather than waiting until days like today when logging my research feels absolutely imperative.

My way of keeping a research log is far from perfect. There are much more complete ways to do it–Thomas MacEntee offers an amazing research log template, it just doesn’t feel right for me. (I find it a little intimidating.)

If you’ve been contemplating keeping a research log, but got bogged down in trying to select the best format or you just weren’t sure how to do it, I’d suggest you let go of making it perfect (or even great) and just get into the habit of writing something down. Any information about your research session that you document at the end of the session is better than none!

Making my Ancestry tree public

Making my Ancestry tree publicBack in July, I was pondering uploading my family tree from my Reunion software to Ancestry and trying to decide whether to make the tree public or private on Ancestry. I invited comments on that question and was really thrilled to see a robust discussion about it, with advocates on both sides.

So I uploaded my tree, making it private initially. I was disappointed to see that the sources didn’t update as hyperlinks, so while my facts are sourced, others don’t have easy access to the sources.

After careful consideration, I decided to make the tree public. For me, the good of helping others with their research and potentially attracting connections with distant relatives outweighed the risk of my data ending up in incorrect trees.

The decision was made, but then I stalled. The perfectionist in me didn’t want to make the tree public until the source problem was fixed. But I haven’t made fixing that problem a priority. (It kind of overwhelms me.) Today, I decided to not let perfectionism get in the way of progress and I pulled the trigger and made my tree public.

Having done this gives me the impetus to do several things:

  • Create a checklist and schedule for systematically going through my Ancestry tree and hyperlinking the online sources included in the tree (and simultaneously making sure I’ve saved them on my hard drive).
  • Add the information and sources I’ve found offline in recent my recent trips to my Ancestry tree.
  • Come up with some sort of schedule for updating the Ancestry tree. (I keep the Reunion software on my hard drive up to date–it’s my primary database.)
  • Check out Family Tree Maker for the Mac, which I’m told automatically updates to Ancestry, and consider switching to it from Reunion.

I’m hoping that making my tree public will help others and, potentially, lead to some fruitful interactions. I’m looking forward to seeing where this might lead!

Using a timeline to solve a problem

Use a timeline to solve genealogy problemsIn researching my great great grandparents, Laban Taylor Rasco and Margaret Dye Rasco, whose graves I saw last month in Alabama, I realized that I was seeing marriage indexes that listed their marriage date as March 14, 1865, but in my Reunion software, I’d listed May 14, 1865 as the day they wed. The source for the May date was the Alabama Census of Confederate Soldiers from 1921, a wonderful, information-rich form that had been filled out by hand by (I think) my great great grandfather himself. (I’m basing that on the handwriting in the form matching that of the signature.) Since I haven’t yet seen the original documents that were indexed, I was inclined to take my ancestor’s word for it.

But then I used the Ages feature in Reunion to see at what age Laban Taylor Rasco was when the various events I’d entered took place. And that’s when I realized (a palm-to-forehead moment) that his marriage took place while he was serving in the Alabama Infantry during the Civil War. Thanks to the amazing Civil War records from the National Archives available through Fold3, I knew he had a 60-day furlough starting January 31, 1865. He was residing at a hospital for wounded soldiers in Mississippi (courtesy of a shoulder wound he’d sustained at the Battle of Jonesborough), and his furlough papers listed his residence as Shelby County, Alabama. He returned to the hospital on March 28 and listed on the rolls of prisoners of war paroled at Talladega, Alabama, on June 3. The marriage indexes indicate that he and Margaret were married in Shelby County, Alabama, so the wedding must have taken place during that furlough. (So much for a honeymoon!) May 14 clearly isn’t within that window. So I’m changing my records to say March 14.

Laban would have been 77 years old (and still married to Margaret) when he filled out that Confederate Census form in 1921. So I’m willing to cut him a little slack if we mixed up month of his anniversary.

This was a great reminder of the value of using a timeline (and applying a little logic) when trying to resolve conflicting information.