Banishing the stubborn pile

Banishing the stubborn pileFor the past few months, I’ve had this one pile on the corner of my desk that contains primarily genealogy items. When I’m hurriedly putting away the stuff cluttering my desktop, I just keep straightening that pile and leaving it there. It’s almost become a feature of the landscape of my desk. Somehow I’ve adjusted my thinking so that I have been considering my desktop clear even with that pile sitting there.

I think one of the reasons that I wasn’t dealing with it was a perception that it would take some time to really process the information in it. I was afraid that if I rushed it, I might lose valuable clues the pile might contain for my genealogy research. And I simply wasn’t taking the time to do it. (Work has been very busy lately.)

I know if I take some focused time and go through that pile, I will further my research and I won’t have an unsightly pile on my desk. But it hit me this morning that if I start but don’t finish, I’m still better off than not starting at all. So I took a photo of the pile, and wrote all the text above this line. Then I set my timer for 15 minutes and started going through the pile.

Here are some of the things I found in the pile:

  • Notes from my research trip to Kentucky and Alabama. I added tasks from those notes to my Genealogy To-Do List for the appropriate surname. Then I filed the notes in my paper files.
  • A packet of information I’d sent for from the the State of Alabama Archives pertaining to my great great grandfather, Laban Taylor Rasco. I put a sticky note saying “Analyze/process” on the packet and added that task to my Rasco To-Do List. Then I filed the packet in that couple’s file.
  • Notes from my notebook that I took on the research trip. One page had notes on Adamses on one side and notes on Rascoes on the other. I scanned the Rasco side, printed it and put in in my Rasco file for later reference. I filed the original sheet in the appropriate Adams file.
  • Notes written on several pages of two notepads I keep on my desk. I tore off the notes, logged any tasks on my To-Do list and filed or tossed the notes. Then I put the notepads where they belong.
  • A random list of how common my family surnames are. Some time ago, I found myself on a website (which I didn’t source) where you can enter a surname and see how common it is. I typed the data into Evernote so I can find it later if I ever remember it.
  • A small sticky note with a list of death certificates I’d found recently that needed to be added to my Reunion software. I checked each name to see which certificates had been entered already.  Two out of five still needed to be added and I noted that on my to-do list. I threw away the sticky note.
  • Some brainstorming notes about this blog. I filed them and made a note on my business task list to review them.

When the 15-minute timer went off I had just a few more pieces of paper to deal with. So I went ahead and finished, them did the filing.

Eliminating that pile took no more than thirty minutes. This is a pile I’d been looking at for several months. It had been mildly stressing me out, because I didn’t know its contents and it was in the way.

Now I feel in control of my research, I have clear next steps and I feel more eager to work on it. Plus I have a clear desk to enjoy. That’s the best 30 minutes I’ve spent in awhile!

What could 30 minutes of pile busting do for you?

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!

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.

Third quarter research report

My strategy for focusing my genealogy efforts in 2014At the beginning of 2014, I created a research scheme in which I’d focus on a different branch of my family tree each quarter. First quarter was the Adamses, (my father’s father’s family); second quarter was the Browns (my mother’s father’s family). The third quarter’s focus was on the Rascos, my father’s mother’s family. The final quarter of the year, which just began, I’ll be focusing on the Jeffries (my mother’s mother’s family).

I didn’t plan it this way, but my research schedule has dovetailed nicely with events. In the second quarter, when I was researching the Browns, who lived in Missouri and Nebraska, I paid a visit to the Midwest Genealogy Center and also attended the Brown family reunion in western Missouri. Last quarter, when I was researching the Rascos, I took my cemetery research trip and did some library research in the Alabama stomping grounds of the Rascos. I even met a woman at the library who had grown up next to the Rasco homestead!

So in the third quarter I focused what little research time I had on the Rascos (along with members of the Adams family who are buried in cemeteries I visited on the September trip). I’m still processing the information I gathered on that trip, so research on the Rascos will extend into the fourth quarter.

Now that the year is three-quarters over (how did that happen?) I can reflect on the pros and cons of the quarterly scheme:

Pros

  • It helps me stay focused
  • It mitigates frustration a bit by giving me an organized way to shift gears when I hit tough spots
  • It helps a little with the “what should I work on now?” question that sometimes gets in my way
  • It gives me a deadline (and I love a deadline)

Cons

  • It limits the amount of progress I can make on a given line over the course of a year
  • It might stop me from pursuing leads on other lines (but of course I can research whatever I want)
  • If the research on this quarter’s line is frustrating, it discourages me from shifting focus (though that’s not necessarily a bad thing)

I had originally hoped to include organizing my records on a given family in the quarter’s endeavors and I was good about that in the first quarter. I have to admit those efforts have fallen by the wayside in recent months when my organizing business has has been so busy (giving me less genealogy time). I hope to give the quarterly scheme another try in 2015; I think the pros outweigh the cons!