If you watch Genealogy Roadshow, you’re probably familiar with D. Joshua Taylor, a regular on the show. If you’re a member of genealogical society, you’re probably familiar with him, since he is a past president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. If you go to genealogy conferences, you may have heard him speak, since he’s a popular speaker in our field.
I had the pleasure of hearing him present four talks at the Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois’s annual conference in 2015. I blogged about his substantial time management wisdom shortly after the conference–and in that post revealed that I learned through one of his talks that Josh and I are cousins!
Josh obviously has a very impressive resume. (And he’s in his mid-thirties!) He is currently the president of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, America’s second oldest genealogical association. I was thrilled when he accepted my invitation to contribute a How They Do It interview. I bet you’ll be as impressed as I am that he took a year away from his research to focus on organizing his research materials. Enjoy!
How They Do It: D. Joshua Taylor
How long have you been doing genealogy?
More than 20 years at this point – though on a professional basis for the past 12.
What’s your favorite part of doing genealogy?
The unpredictable nature of “what’s next” in the process. Solving one question always leads to more – resulting in a perpetual process of discovery.
Do you consider your genealogy research well organized?
Yes! But only because I took a year away from research to focus specifically on organizing my materials. I find it impossible to conduct thorough research without a structured organization system in place.
What type of software do you use for organizing your genealogy research?
A variety of things. I use apps such as Trello to organize specific research projects; software programs like Roots Magic and Heredis to manage my family tree database, and a variety of spreadsheet and database tools to track my notes and documents.
Do you keep a research log? If so, what format?
Absolutely. My research log is part of a customized database I built for my research notes. However, it all started as a spreadsheet and then grew from there.
Do you have a tree on Ancestry? If so, is it public or private? Why?
Yes, though not a complete version of my tree. I keep a few online trees online at a time – all of which are strictly based in projects I am actively researching. These projects are largely private (though I don’t mind sharing when asked).
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing your genealogy?
Maintaining consistency within my organization system. The quantity and variety of materials can easily become overwhelming. My unwritten personal rule is that a research “trip” or “session” is never complete until I have spent the time analyzing and filing the materials I located. This forces me to consistently keep my materials orderly – but sometimes life gets in the way and the piles start to slowly build.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to beginning genealogists in terms of keeping track of their research?
Avoid being too specific. Why? Because your family history journey will eventually cross other geographic regions, multiple surnames, various record types, and other items that won’t easily fit into a strict tracking system. Leave the breadcrumb trail wherever possible.
We often narrow our focus too much on a single family or trying to find a particular maiden name. For example, we sometimes become so focused on finding a specific maiden name or a birth date but in reality, those might be very difficult (if not impossible) to find. So as such, we have to realize that we will need to venture “away” from the path we have planned as researchers.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to do to stay organized when it comes to family history research?
Never lose sight of the legacy you are building. Your research notes are just as important (if not more so) than the actual documents you uncover. Therefore, it is key that you find ways to organize and preserve those materials alongside the records you uncover.
If you were starting out new as a genealogist what would you do differently?
I’d avoid trying to research so many lines at once. The need to focus on a few families changed the way I could tackle specific research problems. A pedigree can be nearly unending, so taking it a piece at a time from the very beginning would have been a much better approach.
Do you keep paper or electronic files (or both)?
Both. I love paper and I also love the convenience of electronic files. My organization system allows me to keep a current paper file alongside a digital version of every document. While it requires diligence to keep both in sync, the payoff is well worth it.
Are you folder or binder person for your paper files?
Well…both. My documents that I know are attached to the tree end up in binders, organized by number. However my research notes for active projects are all in folders. I consider these to be active research files, while the binder is a more permanent solution.
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 both One Note and Evernote in the past and will sometimes use Evernote for specific projects. To me, the ability to tag notes by specific surnames, localities, and repositories was the key way I used Evernote – as an active storage place for my notes, thoughts, etc.
Do you have a dedicated space in your home for doing genealogy research? What’s it like?
Yes. In addition to my computer, my space includes binders of all my documents (to my left), key research aids and books (to my right), and my file cabinets of active research files (behind me). In addition, I have a dry-erase board on the wall I use to keep track of active research notes, projects, etc. My desk consists of an “inbox” where new documents and other materials are placed until they are filed.
Do you have anything to add?
Only this – the need to create an organization system that works for your research project is so essential. Different projects require varied approaches. The search for an individual’s parents might require a different approach than a complete study of an individual’s descendants.
There are lots of great nuggets in there, but one that really jumped out at me was “My unwritten personal rule is that a research “trip” or “session” is never complete until I have spent the time analyzing and filing the materials I located.” I know that in the past I’ve happily gathered new documents and information without properly processing it, though I try hard now to focus on analysis, not discovery. Josh’s discipline in analyzing and organizing all his research materials is inspirational!