Letting go of should

shouldgraphicIt’s natural to ask about questions about organizing (your genealogy or anything else) that start with the word “should.” Should I organize my documents this way or that way? Should I store things here or there? Should I focus on this or that?

When I try to answer a question that starts with should, the answer is almost always, “It depends.” Because it’s all about what will work for you.

I encourage my clients (and anyone else who w’ill listen to me) to let go of the word should. And to also let go of asking questions that start with, “What’s the right way to…” or What’s the best way to….”

Because here’s the thing: I can’t tell you what you should do. Only you know what’s right for you. It can be much more beneficial to think in terms of what you’d like to do, or what you think will work best for you, rather than what you should do. Especially when it comes to organizing your genealogy research, the thing you should do (in my opinion) is the thing that works well for you and that you can keep up.

For example:

  • Maybe you’ve always heard that you should store your paper documents in binders, but you have trouble keeping up with that. Let go of that should and consider using file folders or scanning your documents.
  • Maybe you think you should print every document for the sake of posterity but you’re overrun with unfiled paper. You can let go of that should, particularly if your electronic documents are already organized.
  • Conversely, maybe you’ve heard you should scan every bit of paper and store files electronically, but you’re overwhelmed by the prospect. Bye bye, should. You can let your paper files be sufficient. Or just start storing new files electronically and leaving your papers unscanned.
  • Maybe you’re told you should keep a research log, but you just can’t get yourself to do it. A research log can be hugely beneficial. But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have one just because you think you should.

In other words, set yourself up for success and do what works for you. Decide what your priorities are (accessibility for you, accessibility for others, ease of use, etc.) and focus your organizing systems on those priorities. Don’t do something just because someone told you you should if it doesn’t seem like it will work for you.

All that said, there are some genealogy shoulds that I think you should pay attention to:

  • You should cite your sources so you can find them again and know where your facts came from (but you don’t have to cite them perfectly if that’s getting in the way of citing them at all).
  • You should back up your electronic data in case of a crash (I use an external hard drive an automated cloud storage).

Genealogy is supposed to be fun. Don’t let the shoulds drag you down. Make your own choices and own them. And keep yourself open to new ways of doing things. (See what I did there? I told you all sorts of things I think you should do, without using that word. Take what works for you and let go of the rest.)

Gravestones can contain errors

gravestones can be inaccurateI know this isn’t news to most of you, but the fact that gravestones can contain errors was brought home to me after my mother passed away last month. As I posted at the time, her obituary contained an error, even though I (a professional writer) had written it myself.

Somehow I felt that more care was given to the accuracy of gravestones, since they are, literally, engraved in stone. But I learned otherwise when my father and I went to the cemetery office to make arrangements. The office worker handed me a printout of what the grave marker would look like (it’s the covering for the niche in which her cremated remains were placed) and my mother’s birth date was wrong. She was born May 2, 1933 and the marker proof said May 5, 1933.

I caught it handily and made the correction. And of course it was simple human error. But what if I hadn’t been there and my grieving father hadn’t caught it? The gravestone would have been wrong. I wonder how many times that has happened in generations gone by. I would imagine our ancestors didn’t have the benefit of seeing proofs.

The experience has led me to take less stock in the “proof” that I had thought a gravemarker provided. It’s simply another secondary source that needs to be verified through other means.

It’s a great reminder of why it’s important to have multiple sources for any facts we track down.

Third edition of Evidence Explained is available!

New edition of Evidence Explained is out!The newest edition of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, by Elizabeth Shown Mills, has just been released. I ordered mine from Amazon last month and it arrived last week. Very exciting!

Evidence Explained is the gold standard for source citation. This new volume is a hefty 892 pages. It’s hardcover. And heavy. (And also available in an electronic edition.) But it contains within its covers the answers to knotty problems of how to cite a source. This edition includes updated information citing genetic sources as well as sources from the Internet.

Over the last few years that I’ve been doing more serious genealogy research on my family it has become very clear that citing and analyzing sources is the key to doing accurate, reliable research that holds up over time. Great source citation also helps other genealogy researchers who may want to use the data I’ve gathered because they can tell it’s reliable and find it themselves if they want. It may feel like extra work to create a proper source citation, but it’s the kind of thing that can pay dividends in the future. The hefty source I created for my ancestor’s Civil War pension records will allow me or any researcher to be able to find the source again. And its validity is apparent by the citation.

If you’re serious about your genealogy research and don’t have Evidence Explained on your bookshelf, the publication of this third edition might be just the reason to invest $54 to have it at your fingertips. If you already have the second edition, you can trade it in at Amazon for $29.74 credit and use it toward the third edition! (Thank you to Thomas MacEntee of Geneabloggers for this tip.)

I haven’t had a chance to use the third edition since it arrived last week, but as soon as I get a break from clients, I’m going to read Chapters 1 and 2 on basic principles and plan to consult the work frequently when I’m creating source citations.

Processing Civil War pension files

Processing civil war pension filesAs I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I received my 3d great grandfather’s Civil War pension files from the National Archives in record time. I’d been prepared to wait 45 to 120 days and it arrived the week after I submitted the request online.

I dug right in and started processing the information. I was so grateful that I had attended the class Anatomy of a Military Pension, presented by Certified Genealogist Julie Miller at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference that month. She provided step-by-step instructions of what to do with a military pension.

So the day after I received that 65-page pension file, I did what Julie suggested. I put the documents in chronological order and I assigned a number to each. Then I figured out a citation for the overall file and a  citation for each of the numbered documents.

Coming up with a proper citation was a bit of a challenge and I emailed Julie, who was kind enough to share the citation she uses for these files. (She had given us that info in the talk, but I hadn’t written it down.)

Here’s the citation I’m using for the overall pension file for my ggggrandfather, Richard Anderson Jeffries:

[278] Jeffries, Richard Anderson (1st Sgt., Company D, 13th Regiment, Missouri Volunteer Infantry, Civil War), application no. 567612, certificate no. 529585, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veteran Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

278 was the next number in my source list in Reunion, my family tree software. Each of the individual documents is numbered, starting with 1, and has its own citation. My intention is that when I enter a fact into Reunion, I’ll use Source 278, but I’ll include in the memo field which of the 26 individual documents that particular fact came from.

I created citation labels for each of the documents and affixed them to the appropriate pages. (That’s the citation for document 16 above.) Then I scanned the whole document into a pdf. (I elected to have one pdf, rather than 26 individual ones–time will tell whether that was a good choice.)

The next step, according to Julie is to transcribe the documents. Yes, I’m going to type word for word exactly what is on the documents. Julie urged us not to skip that step because when we transcribe, we learn things we would not otherwise learn.

After I transcribe, I will abstract the documents, so I can tell at a glance what they are and what info is contained within each.

Then I’ll analyze the documents and enter the new-found facts into my software.

That’s a lot of work, but I’m delighted to have learned how to be thorough with it. And I know I’ll learn so much about my ancestor.

I am so grateful to have this structure, because just a few days after receiving Richard Anderson Jeffries’s file, I received the pension file for my gggrandfather, George Washington Adams. That file is over 100 pages; I had to request and pay for the rest of the file (another 80 pages) to be copied–I’m still waiting for part two. That same week I received the third and final pension file, for another gggrandfather, Benjamin Franklin Igleheart. All three pension files, probably 250 pages, came within two weeks of my request.

If I did not have the structure Julie provided in that talk to thoroughly process the information, I know I would feel overwhelmed. I would probably skim the documents, pluck out a few easy-to-find facts, and put them away intending to get to them later. And I don’t know when later would be.

I have skimmed the most recently received pension files to get a preview what I’m going to learn. (G.W. Adams had a big dispute about the amount of his pension–an adversary in the Soldier’s Home turned him in for saying he was more disabled than he was!) But I’m not going to analyze them until I’m finished with Richard Anderson Jeffries. So that will be motivation to go through the process.

I think these pension files are going to be a great learning experience not just about my ancestors, but also about doing proper genealogical research. This feels great!