Document everything

Document everything in your genealogy researchReason number 33,662 that you should document everything in your genealogy research: You can’t rely on your memory.

Today, I was trying to verify which ancestor of mine had fought in the Civil War as a substitute. I remember finding his records on Fold3.com and seeing the document that designated him as a substitute for an individual of means who could afford to pay my ancestor to fight in his place. I thought it was Benjamin Franklin Igleheart, my great-great grandfather. But when I looked at his record in my software, I found no notation whatsoever about that.

At least I remembered having found a substitute soldier, even if I couldn’t remember who it was. So I looked through the records in Reunion of all my male ancestors who were born at a time where they might have served. Nothing. I tried searching on Reunion but got nowhere. So I finally walked across the room and pulled out B.F. Igleheart’s paper file. There it was: all the info that I had printed out, but not otherwise documented. Bad researcher!

If I had finished going through the paper files of the Adams ancestors, I would have found this info and documented it. But that process probably won’t be finished for quite some time.

I’m so glad I have committed to documenting everything by entering information into my software, with source citation, and creating electronic files of the digital images of the documents. I am conforming to my file naming convention and I’m tagging the digital files so I don’t have to have my papers file to find something.

I used to believe that I would never forget certain facts I’ve learned through my genealogy research. As those facts add up (and my research grows), I know that’s just simply the case. Now all I have to remember is to enter everything into my Reunion software and tag and properly file all my electronic files.

The Research Tracker in Springpad

researchtrackersampleOne of the features of the Family History Organizer custom notebook I created for Springpad is the Research Tracker tab. Since I started getting serious about family history research about 18  months ago, I knew I needed to do a better job of keeping a research log. I tried a spreadsheet, but failed to keep up with it. I think the problem was that I had so many columns to fill out, it felt overwhelming.

So when Springpad asked me to create this notebook, I requested a place to easily record research sessions. It includes headers that can be copied and pasted into a fresh note for each research session. (I made up the headers that make sense to me, but you can easily edit them so that you’re copying and pasting headers that work better for you.)

I’ve been using the Research Tracker for a couple of weeks and have found that it’s really helpful. I start creating a new note at the beginning of each session, which helps me identify the information I’m looking for in the session. I like that when I finish filling it out at the end of the session, I identify next steps in the research.

I think what I like most about it is that it’s simple and non-intimidating. It may not be as thorough as a formal research log, but it’s way better than what I was recording before (which was nothing). Since I’m trying to do research five days a week (or at least work on organizing my research), I have plenty to enter and am feeling optimistic that this will keep me on track.

If you’re interested in trying it out, simply download the Family History Organizer notebook into your free Springpad account. (Or learn more about the notebook before downloading.)

Pin the tail on the family tree

igleheart1900Today I had a little time to do some genealogy research, but I couldn’t decide what to work on. So I opened my family tree in my Reunion software, looking for inspiration. I noted the right sidebar had a listing of people on my tree, sorted alphabetically by last name.

I closed my eyes, scrolled up and down a few times on the sidebar and then clicked. The person I landed on was Martha Jane Ellis (1845-1919), my great great grandmother. I set to work looking at her record, looking for missing information. I pulled out the file folder for Martha and her husband, Benjamin Franklin Igelheart (1845-1913) and continuing the process of marrying my paper and electronic files. I also started adding information on siblings into Reunion, something I didn’t do in my first recording of data.

Randomizing my selection feels like a nice piece of serendipity. I sometimes prefer that to a systematic approach. It feels more fun to me and this is all about fun, right?

Marrying my electronic and paper files

Store census documents by pressing Print, rather than SaveI used to be a paper gal. But when it comes to my genealogy records, I’ve stopped pressing the Print button. At the moment almost all my genealogy research is being done online, so I’m really understanding the utility of clicking Save rather than Print.

Part of the reason I’ve been able to make the shift is that I’ve set up a good electronic file system. That gives me confidence that I’ll find what I need on my hard drive.

Switching from paper to electronic has ramifications in at least a couple of areas. It means that it’s changing how I do things from this point forward. That’s no problem. But it also means I have a backlog to deal with. In the past, I’d print and file census documents and other resources I found online, rather than save them electronically. While all the information are recorded in my software (I use Reunion), the source documents themselves might be in a file or might be on my hard drive.

So this week, I’ve been working on marrying the two systems. It’s going to be a long process. What I’m doing is taking out a file folder for a couple and going through the documents, making sure they’re included in my software and seeing if they’re on my hard drive. If they’re not, I’m finding them online and saving them within my file structure.

I’m also taking the opportunity to do one other thing while I’m in there. As I look at census documents, I’m adding siblings of my ancestors to my family tree software, something I blogged about doing a few months ago.

This may sound really tedious to you, but I’m having a good time. It’s allowing me to reacquaint myself with various couples and really pay attention to all their kids, not just my direct ancestor. It’s also giving me the chance to clean up my hard drive and re-file errant files (and move some documents that accidentally ended up in my Genealogy folder). I’m not going through each line systematically. To keep it interesting, I’m jumping from family to family, choosing file folders as my whims take me.

Since I’m no longer printing newly found documents, I guess I’m slowly phasing out my paper files. And that’s okay with me. My hard drive is fast, spacious, orderly, and backed up both to an external hard drive via Time Machine and to a remote computer via Crash Plan Pro.

I’m looking forward to the comfort of having everything on my hard drive. Since I store my paper files in a closet a few steps from my desk, I also love that my data will be at my fingertips whenever I’m using my computer. It’ll be great when I travel, especially if I take research trips, to have all that information available to me. I believe this will be time well spent.