I’m delighted to present a How They Do It interviewee from Europe! Barbara Schmidt is a communication specialist and genealogy researcher in Frankfurt, Germany, whom I met at RootsTech in 2017. She’s active in social media for both her work and her genealogy. Her blog Connecting the Worlds is doing exactly that: Connecting her worlds of genealogy, corporate history (she is a member of the historical association of Deutsche Bank), and everything around being and living digital including Working Out Loud.
Barbara speaks at genealogy events on topics like how to connect with other researchers through forums, social media, blogs, and how to travel safely through this new digital world. She blogs in English and German with the same overall topics but different angles.
How They Do It: Barbara Schmidt
How long have you been doing genealogy?
I started with researching my family tree when I was about 20 years old. That makes it now 25 years, It’s amazing, how time flies. Sometimes it feels like I just started. There are still moments today where I act and research like a rookie.
What’s your favorite thing about being a genealogist?
When I started I just wanted to get an overview of my big family at the usual family gatherings like weddings, baptisms and funerals. As a child I never really understood who was who and who belonged to whom. All those aunts and uncles and siblings of my grandparents who were called aunt or uncle. All of them having three names didn’t help either. But throughout the years my motivation to keep going is coming from the small and big stories I learnt about my family.
And my biggest highlight is always when I “meet” new family members. I re-connected my father with his cousin after 42 years, that was really emotional for me and his cousin’s wife. They behaved like they had just seen each other the week before. It was so typical northern German – not a lot of words.
I learnt about a family branch that emigrated to the United States and got in contact with one of the descendants. And just later I realized, he is a real cousin of my mom. Or I met a distant cousin of my Dad last year who was on a Germany visit from Australia. Those are the big moments. But there are lots and lots small ones. Too many to mention them all.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing your genealogy?
I tend to re-invent my organizing system every couple of years. I haven’t really found THE system yet. I always want to go digital because I cannot stand paper. It takes up too much space and I always get lost in the paper piles and files. The bigger my family tree and the more documents I had to store the more I got overwhelmed with finding the “perfect” system. Until I realized there is no perfection in organizing my genealogy. I had to find MY system. That took about 20 years until I found something that really worked.
What is your favorite technology tool for genealogy?
Definitely my scanner! I mentioned before I want to go digital. Which means I either only order digital copies of documents or if I receive paper copies I scan them and destroy the paper. Only copies of course. Originals get stored in specific acid free binders. No paper clips, no glue, no rubber bands. [I asked Barbara what kind of scanner she uses and it’s an HP MP500 flatbed/sheetfed scanner. — Janine]
If you were starting out new as a genealogist what would you do differently?
I would ask more questions and would research more within my own family when they are still alive. I spent way too much money ordering documents from archives to receive information which would have been easily available if I would have just asked.
Do you keep a research log? If so, what format?
Upon your recommendation I actually started using a research log but I don’t really keep up with them, to be honest. Again, I haven’t really found a system yet how to really incorporate it into my research. I tried various templates, on- and offline. In the cloud or on my desktop but I find myself not really using them. Although I really understand that they are helpful. But I’m not there yet.
How do you keep track of clues or ideas for further research?
I use Evernote a lot. I take notes of ideas not only for further research but also for my blog. I travel a lot, therefore I need something that synchronizes on all my devices like notebook, smartphone and tablet. I am also a heavy user of audio notes on my smartphone. For me that is the best way to set reminders for myself when a thought crosses my mind.
How do you go about sharing your personal research with cousins or other interested parties?
Unfortunately, my family is not really interested in my family research, except for my direct family like my parents and some of my siblings. But for interested parties I share my family tree online via Ancestry and wikitree. I am all for sharing and exchanging information. I make one exception though and that is pictures. Most important for me when we talk about a platform to share is the possibility to synchronize on all my devices. That’s why I work with the ancestry app.
What’s the most important thing you do to prepare for a research trip?
Portable battery chargers (powerbanks)! No kidding. When I started going digital in archives it happened more than once that I had to stop because I had no way to charge my devices. Now I always carry at least 2 powerbanks with me and make sure I have all the charging cables. I have a special tupperware for those. I always check for opening hours of archives. You never know what changes there might have been since the last visit. Another important thing? Comfortable shoes 😃
What’s your biggest piece of advice to genealogists in terms of organizing their research?
Don’t expect perfection. There is none. Find a simple system that works for you and don’t change it too often. Just because someone tells you of something different that works for him/her that doesn’t mean you have to change your way of organizing. If it’s not broken – don’t fix it. Leave enough flexibility for your family tree to grow. My first mistake was to make it too specific with colour coding and filing. It became way too complicated as my family tree grew.
Do you have a dedicated space in your home for doing genealogy research? What’s it like?
Not anymore. I just moved houses three weeks ago. I still have to find my spot in my new apartment which is a bit smaller than the one I previously had. But that is good in a way. It forces me to sort out everything which I don’t need and to digitize even more. I have to downsize my storage and filing.
Thank you so much, Barbara, for your wise words. Your caution about not chasing perfection in a genealogy organizing system particularly resonated with me. It’s nice to see that genealogy research and organizing seems universal no matter where in the world you are!