This month’s How They Do It interview is with genealogist and blogger Randy Seaver. I’m willing to bet you’re familiar with Randy Seaver and his popular GeneaMusings blog, which he has been writing more than ten years. GeneaMusings offers so much content and analysis; Randy posts multiple times per day. Randy is a prolific researcher and writer and a true luminary in the genealogy field.
When I read his interview responses I was blown away with the sheer quantity of research he does–he spends eight to ten hours every day on genealogy-related activities! I really enjoyed reading about how organizes his voluminous research.
How They Do It: Randy Seaver
I finally read Roots in 1987, and watched the TV series, and figured “I can do that.” I started in early 1988 using information from my father’s Seaver siblings and my mother’s collection of papers and photographs. My paternal grandmother told her children that we were descended from Peregrine White, the baby born on board the Mayflower in 1620, so proving that became a goal. My Aunt Marion, who had been a schoolteacher, had a Seaver genealogy from a town history book, but I found errors in some of the information. I visited local libraries and the Family History Center, and quickly filled out the “easy” part of my family tree. Then it was on to research trips to New England and ordering microfilms from Salt Lake City to find more and more information about all of my ancestors.
What’s your favorite part of doing genealogy?
It’s twofold for me: THE HUNT – finding more records, and especially new ancestors, or solving a thorny research problem. THE COUSINS – finding new cousins through research and DNA testing.
Do you consider your genealogy research well organized?
I am mentally well organized. The genealogy cave has a desk, a computer, and is full of paper with 50 linear feet of bookcases, file cabinets and stacks. Half of it is genealogy magazines and conference syllabi. The balance is printed books, genealogy periodical articles, family research notebooks, local society stuff, and stacks of folders and papers. I have not spent a lot of time weeding out unnecessary papers in recent years. My descendants may have that task. I fear I’m a pack rat at heart.
The computer digital files are well organized – I have a file naming system, a file folder filing system, and I can find a specific document, or file a new one, in seconds. See My Genealogy Digital File Folder Organization. [See a photo of his digital filing system below.]
What type of software do you use for organizing your genealogy research?
I used Personal Ancestral File from 1988 to about 1995, then Family Tree Maker until 2006, and now I use RootsMagic 7 for all of my data entry. In addition to the data entry, I use the Correspondence feature, the To-Do list feature, and the Research Log feature in RootsMagic. I also have Family Tree Maker 2017 and Legacy Family Tree 9 on my computer and use them occasionally for specific tasks, especially report-writing and charts.
I have entered all of the information about my ancestors from my collected books, periodicals, correspondence and vital record certificates into my RootsMagic family tree database. I have collected digitized books, periodical articles, genealogy and family history records, and much more and entered the text information, image and source citations into my database. I have digitized the paper certificates, family letters, and family photographs and added that information to my database.
A lot of the digitized information finds its way into a blog post – I post a transcribed document on Monday, extract data from documents on Tuesday and Thursday, post family photographs with comments on Wednesday, write an ancestor biography on Friday, and review one of my specific ancestral surnames on Saturday on my blog, www.GeneaMusings.com. All of that comes out of my RootsMagic database.
Do you keep a research log? If so, what format?
I started out keeping a Research Log on paper – one sheet for every surname. That became time consuming and overwhelming quickly. At present, I use a To-Do List and a Research Log only for a thorny research problem – of which I have many! I update them before I go to the Family History Library or another repository.
Do you have a tree on Ancestry? If so, is it public or private? Why?
I have about 15 trees on Ancestry.com. Some are Public, some are Private. My public DNA tree is limited to the ancestral families of my wife and me. Another public tree is a “cousin bait” tree that has all of my research for my ancestral families and descendants of my key surnames – Seaver, Dill, Buck, Carringer, Auble, Vaux, etc. Now that I can TreeShare my RootsMagic database with an Ancestry Member Tree, I have a public “Record Hint” tree that generates Hints for records as I add new people, and information for old people, to my database. I TreeShare every day now. I have several private trees for past client work, and for “testing” things.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing your genealogy?
In the 21st century, genealogists are inundated with records that apply to their ancestral families – the record providers push Hints and Matches to you to work on. I have fallen behind on dealing with Ancestry Hints for my 48,000 person Ancestry Member Tree – there are over 40,000 Hints now and I will never be able to deal with all of those in my lifetime. I work on them almost every day as I receive them and try to keep up. Sourcing the Hints using EE-quality citations, takes the most time, especially census records.
The pace of discovery has increased significantly. However, those Hints and Matches do not include every record for my ancestral families – I still have to search in online and traditional repositories for records of my families.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to beginning genealogists in terms of keeping track of their research?
It is very important for beginning genealogists to understand the available record groups and repositories, the search and research process including the Genealogical Proof Standard, the art of source citations, and the use of genealogy software programs or online trees. All of this takes time, and beginners often feel overwhelmed.
Experts say that becoming competent in a subject requires 10,000 hours of work and study – that’s 5 years of effort 40 hours a week. So my advice is to set aside time to learn about different record groups, how to search record providers effectively, how to craft source citations, to join and participate in a local society, and to attend workshops, seminars and conferences, etc. It’s a lifelong learning process. Also, always remember that it is not all on the Internet, and it probably never will be.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to do to stay organized when it comes to family history research?
Stay on top of your paper and digital files – find them, obtain them, source them, enter the information into your genealogy program, and file them in your paper and/or digital file system. Try to “touch” each record once, but file it in a place that you can find it so you can review it along with other records in the future.
If you were starting out new as a genealogist what would you do differently?
I figured out in about 2006 that I should be crafting a source citation for every assertion in my genealogy software program – names, events, dates, places, relationships, etc. So I would take the time to add source citation information to my software program. I’ve been adding about 1,000 source citations each month to my genealogy program trying to “catch up” while still doing new research on my families.
Do you keep paper or electronic files (or both)?
As noted above, I have entered almost all (?) of the data in my paper files into my genealogy software program. All new research from online resources is put into my digital file folder system. When I go to a library or other repository, I use digital photographs of records or books and enter them into my digital file system and genealogy software program. I still have almost all of my paper files, but I rarely use them.
Are you a folder or binder person for your paper files?
I have both folders and binders, and the paper files in the bookcases are in binders for a specific surname, or a locality group of surnames. I used DearMYRTLE’s system for binders for a specific family for several of my ancestral families and that worked pretty well. However, I felt that I was wasting my research time putting them together for hundreds of family lines.
Do you use Evernote, One Note or any other electronic organizing system for your genealogy? If so, how do you use it?
I have used Evernote occasionally – usually to save online documents, and to transfer workshop, seminar or conference notes from my tablet to my computer system. I never became an expert at it, and don’t use it much at this time.
How do you “advance the ball” in your research on an ongoing basis?
“Advancing the ball” in my research means:
- Reviewing Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch and Findmypast Hints/Matches on a daily basis, and entering information from them into my software program.
- RootsMagic TreeSharing with my Ancestry Member Tree and matching RootsMagic persons to FamilySearch Family Tree are helpful on a daily basis to keep those trees updated.
- Reviewing what I’m “missing” in terms of records for my ancestral families and then searching for those records. For example, I have searched for and found many probate records of my ancestors in FHL microfilm and online databases, but have searched for and found relatively few land records. A To-Do list is helpful for this.
- Writing about ancestral records, transcribing documents, composing an ancestor biography every week on my blog. I believe in the “chunk” theory – if I add something of value every day, I will have a bigger and better database by the end of the year, but it will never be “done.”
Do you have a dedicated space in your home for doing genealogy research? What’s it like?
Ah, the Genea-Cave!! It’s a 10×12 foot back bedroom with a desk chair, desk, computer system, printer, free-standing lamp, a fan, file cabinets, bookcases, boxes, and stacks of paper. There is very little remaining floor space. It is warm in the summertime – we don’t have air conditioning. The family photo albums are in one bookcase, and there are M&Ms in a container.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Genealogy and family history have been a second vocation for 30 years for me. It is a tremendous intellectual challenge and a lot of genealogy fun. Traveling to ancestral locations and genealogy cruises or conferences are exciting, educational and productive. My family health situation now prevents us from traveling extensively, but I’m able to get out to teach and speak, and to contribute to and attend local and regional society programs. I spend 8 to 10 hours almost every day doing genealogy related activities. Life is good – genealogy rocks!!
Randy contributes so much to the genealogy world with GeneaMusings and I really appreciate his taking the time to share with us how he organizes his own research. I agree with so much of what he’s written, especially the advice to step away from the computer and seek sources that are not available online. And, of course, I share his transition from paper to electronic storage of files.
If you’re not reading GeneaMusings, I encourage you to explore it and learn from Randy’s musings. Thank you, Randy!