It’s not about climbing the tree

One of my takeaways from RootsTech last week was how much one can learn about one’s ancestors by digging deep into the records. I learned techniques for how to use historical maps, military records and tax records to learn more about my ancestors. I can’t wait to dig in.

And that got me thinking: Do I want to learn more about my ancestors or learn about more ancestors? It’s a bit of a quandary. I find myself really excited every time I break into another generation on my tree. I’m anxious to try to verify my initial findings (using unverified sources), for example, that I descend from the Mayflower. I can’t do that if I’m still working in the 19th century.

But I realize that I want to know more about my ancestors than their dates of birth, marriage and death. I’d like to know how they lived, why they migrated, what their military experiences were like, among other things. And that’s going to require locating multiple sources about each ancestor and resisting the temptation to just climb the family tree.

I’m a big fan of spreadsheets and checklists, so I think I’m going to create a checklist of categories of sources to try to find on each ancestor before moving to another. This will also help me when I come back to an ancestor.

I can’t wait to see what I learn!

Photo by Juanjo+Willow via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

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!

Paper vs electronic: What a difference two years makes!

paperpilecroppedI just took another gander at a blog post I wrote on August 16, 2012, called How I organize my family history research. I still organize my research papers the same way I described in that post–my filing system has withstood the test of time.

But what really jumped out at me was this paragraph:

…I have to tell you that I’m a paper person. I know I could (and perhaps should) save documents, like census images, as pdfs and just organize them on my computer. But I really like printing them out and keeping them in files. So that’s what I do.

I’m pretty happy to report that times have changed. I’ve created an electronic file system that allows me to find  documents on my computer easily (though I’m still discovering files that haven’t been properly named or filed). So now I don’t feel the need to print everything and put them in files. It’s positively liberating.

That means my files are available wherever my laptop is. (Or my iPad, since much of my genealogy research is also stored in Dropbox.) I can do research from any room in the house, or any room in the world, for that matter.

Back in May, I extolled the virtues of going paperless. I am so happy that my need to print is vanishing!

Yes, my paper filing system is working well. But these days, I use it only for retrieving documents I filed there in the past. I’m just not adding to it. And that’s okay by me!

 

There’s no perfect way to organize

There's no one right way to organizeIf there’s one thing that I’ve learned in nine years helping people get organized in their homes, it’s that there’s no one right way to organize. Organizing systems that work beautifully for me (or another client) may be seriously flawed for you. That’s why professional organizers can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to organizing…we have to  customize everything for the client.

This is true in organizing a home. And it’s also true in organizing your genealogy research. There are many ways to  organize your family history–just take a look at the many and varied answers for any particular question in the popular The Organized Genealogist group on Facebook.

So that’s why I bristled a little as I read a document called Organize Your Files on the Family Search wiki about how to organize your genealogy research. I actually use the recommended one-couple-per-folder system for my paper records. (I learned about it more than a decade ago on FamilySearch.org.) But the absolutes in the article, the my-way-or-the-highway tone made it less useful to me.

For example:

Computer note keeping. Computers are great for genealogists—but they are not the final storage medium. Keep your research notes on computer if you like, but make a paper copy at the end of the day. Your descendants may not know how to boot your computer, but they will be able to read your paper printouts.

Make paper copies of electronic sources such as Internet sites, email, fax, or telephone interviews.

I don’t agree with making paper copies of everything. For some people, it will feel worth the effort. For others, not. And that’s okay.

The Family Search wiki has loads of good information. But this article served as a good reminder to me that gently guiding, rather than ordering people around,  can be more effective.

I think some people thrive on structure and probably really appreciate being told exactly what to do.  But for others, strict instructions can feel intimidating or overwhelming. Me, I prefer gentler language with options built in. I like to tell you what works for me, but I don’t pretend that it will necessarily work for you. After all, tweaking is a good thing.