This month’s How They Do It interviewee is living the genealogist’s dream. As Corporate Genealogist for Ancestry.com, Crista Cowan lives and breathes genealogy for her living. I’ve heard Crista speak at a number of genealogy conferences and know her to be thoroughly knowledgeable about genealogy and so great at sharing that knowledge. I hope you enjoy reading her thoughtful and thought-provoking answers to my questions as much as I did! I especially loved her answer to the question of public and private trees on Ancestry.com.
How They Do It: Crista Cowan
How long have you been doing genealogy?
I was born into a family that has been very interested in genealogy for generations. So, I grew up going to family reunions and looking through shoeboxes of old photos with my grandma and taking trips to Utah to visit the Family History Library with my dad. When I turned 12, he setup a home computer with one of the first DOS based genealogy programs on it. I started entering all of our family’s paper-based genealogy documents into the software and I was hooked from then on.
What’s your favorite part of doing genealogy?
I think what I love the most is discovering the connections. We live in a world that is more electronically connected than ever before in history. But, I think this has created more emotional disconnection than ever before. I feel like genealogy helps restore some of what has been lost. It gives us an emotional and biological connection to history and to each other in a way that very few things can. For example, while researching the descendants of one of my 3rd great-grandfathers, I discovered that one of my college roommates was actually my 4th cousin. I hadn’t talked to her in almost seven years. This gave me an excuse to reach out to her and rekindle our friendship in a very real way (meaning outside of Facebook) and to share with her and her children the stories I had uncovered about our common ancestors.
Do you consider your genealogy research well organized?
I like to think that I am an organized genealogist. I have spent the last few years going totally paperless and that has helped. When I relied on so many paper files, things got out of hand very quickly. (I think anyone who has been doing genealogy for any length of time can relate to the piles and piles of papers that tend to accumulate.) Now I scan everything and only save digital files (as opposed to printing off my discoveries). I find that without all that paper not only am I much more organized but I am much more successful in my research as well.
What type of software do you use for organizing your genealogy research?
I use Family Tree Maker 2017 as my primary software program. I sync it with an online family tree at Ancestry. This helps me keep my family tree, my photos and documents, my DNA matches, and my research notes all easily accessible and organized.
Do you keep a research log? If so, what format?
I keep research notes on every person in my family tree. I use the NOTES space in the software to transcribe records that I discover, record failed searches, keep a to do list for future research, and write out my genealogical proofs. For me, it is most useful to have this information attached directly to the person and/or families in the software I’m already using instead of trying to incorporate another software program (or more paperwork) into my workflow.
Do you have a tree on Ancestry? If so, is it public or private? Why?
I do have my entire family tree on Ancestry and it is public. It was private for several years. I kept it private because there are mistakes in my tree – the mistakes of a teenage girl who was overly excited about her new hobby, the mistakes of generations of family historians who latched onto a source and ended up climbing the wrong family tree, simple mistakes of data entry errors. I was afraid that if my tree was public, those mistakes would be copied. I was even more afraid that people would discover those mistakes and think less of me as a professional genealogist. I figured I would make my tree public “some day.” Some day when I had gone through my tree with a fine tooth comb and discovered all my mistakes and corrected them.
But then, five years ago, I took an AncestryDNA test. And, I realized that without collaboration, my DNA matches and I were never going to figure out how exactly we were related. We were never going to be able to use our DNA results to break through our brick walls if we weren’t willing to share more openly. I made my tree public. The very next week I received a nasty email from someone who found an error in my tree. My initial reaction was to make my tree private again. But, I discovered that she was right (even if her tone was wrong). I corrected the error, thanked her, and had a major epiphany in the process. So long as my tree is public, people will find my errors. Then I don’t have to. When we freely and openly share, family history becomes this truly collaborative environment that helps us make discoveries quicker and helps us be more accurate. I’ve never looked back.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing your genealogy?
My biggest challenge with organizing my genealogy revolves around old photographs. I have inherited five generations of family photo albums, slides, home movies, and pictures. My mom helped me get them all scanned and digitally organized into folders. Going back through those digital files to identify each photo and upload it to our tree, however, has taken a back seat to other research projects. I worry about the thousands of images sitting in digital files (well backed up mind you) that I still need to sort through.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to beginning genealogists in terms of keeping track of their research?
My biggest advice to new researchers is to keep track of the origin of every piece of information you enter into your family tree. If grandma told you what her parents’ names were and when and where they were born, make a note in your tree that you got that information from grandma. If you found an old book that listed seven generations of your ancestors, make a note of it. Nothing is more frustrating to me 30 years later than to go back to a branch of my family tree and look at information I entered and have no idea if it is accurate or not because I have no idea where that information came from.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to do to stay organized when it comes to family history research?
I have found that I can stay most organized if I research one family group at a time. Jumping around the family tree tends to cause the most confusion and the most disorganization, both in my files and in my brain. So, for example, when working with Ancestry Leaf Hints, I never use the All Hints list. It’s just a random list of hints for people in my tree. Instead, I use my family tree, find a family I want to work on and then methodically review hints for each person. Sometimes I have to look at groups of hints together to determine if they are for the right family or not. Sometimes I have to go up or down a generation on that branch to find the clues I need. Once I have worked the hints, then I can create a research list about what other records I need to discover and what research questions I need to answer for this specific family. This work habit has kept me organized and on track in a way that little else does.
If you were starting out new as a genealogist what would you do differently?
When I first started doing family history, I figured that if someone had printed it in a book, it must be true. I received two (very large) family histories and entered everything in them into my family tree. Over time, I have proved most of the information in these volumes to be true. However, I have also discovered some real errors. Some of the errors have been minor details about dates or places. Some of them have been major problems that have led to incorrectly identifying someone’s parents and climbing someone else’s family tree. If I was just starting out again, I would be sure to check the published information against other sources.
Do you keep paper or electronic files (or both)?
For decades I kept both paper and electronic files. However, for the past several years, I have been slowly going through all of my old paper files and purging them. I had lots of copies of census records and other documents that are now readily available online. After verifying that I have attached them to my tree, I have thrown away the paper copies. Other things, like certificates that I ordered from vital records offices, I have digitized and attached to my tree and then thrown away the paper copy. There are still a few treasures, like my great-grandmother’s baptismal certificate, that I have held onto because of the “heirloom” value but I try to find ways to display those instead of keeping them locked away in a filing cabinet. All of that said, I do, occasionally, print out a chart or a bound book reflecting the research I have done on a specific branch of my family tree so I can share it with family or display in my home.
Are you folder or binder person for your paper files?
When I had paper files, I used both folders and binders. When the folders and binders needed a room of their own in my house, I knew it was time for a change.
Do you use Evernote, One Note or any other electronic organizing system for your genealogy? If so, how do you use it?
I use OneNote when I am working out a genealogical problem but don’t yet have a person to put into my tree to whom I can attach that information. For example, if I am trying to discover the parents of a particular ancestor and doing so requires identifying all of the individuals of a certain surname in a specific county. I copy URLs for documents that I want to review later in more detail. I make notes and table to correlate and analyze data in a table format or some other comparative manner. If I end up with too much data, like with DNA matches, I might switch over to using a spreadsheet. I also use PowerPoint, specifically the org chart template, to figure out relationships with DNA matches when there are unknown variables. I have a digital folder with dozens of those kinds of charts and spreadsheets.
I used to use tons of little pieces of scratch paper but that got out of hand. So, I went to a craft store and bought a little hard bound sketch notebook. I use that now when I need to sketch out information or jot down quick notes to keep me on track while I am in the process of research.
Do you have a dedicated space in your home for doing genealogy research? What’s it like?
As the Corporate Genealogist for Ancestry, I’m lucky to get to do what I love every day as part of my job. So my work desk is my genealogy desk. I use a laptop as my primary computer and for years have had a large monitor attached to it so that I have double the screen space. Recently, however, I added a 2nd monitor so now I have three screens. I don’t know how I ever did without it. I can have Family Tree Maker open on one screen, Ancestry on another, and Newspapers.com on a third. It makes comparison and analysis of records so much easier. And, it ensures that my data entry is more accurate than if I had to flip back and forth between screens. I know this isn’t possible for everyone but even if you can just get a USB plug-in, portable monitor, it is totally worth it. That’s what I do at home – my laptop with a portable, plug-in monitor.
Also in my workspace, both at home and at the office I have a few books and quick sheets that I reference often. These include: The Source, The Redbook, Genealogy Standards, Evidence Explained and accompanying Quick Sheets, and the Shared cM Project Cluster and Relationships Charts.
Do you have anything to add?
Every Sunday night my dad and I get on the phone with one another, he from Oregon and me in Utah, and we work on our family history research together. Every day at work, I sit with some of the greatest genealogists in the world, and we collaborate on research projects for various television shows and marketing and PR campaigns. Several times a year, I go to a family reunion, or sit with my grandma or my cousins and share the discoveries I have made in our family tree since we were last together. For me, family history is about making fascinating discoveries in the lives of those who have gone before and feeling the connection to them and to the past. But, family history is also about the living. That realization has helped me to be more organized in my approach to research than any other thing – that knowledge that I have to be able to discuss and share and explain at any moment. And in that sharing, we rediscover and reaffirm our connections to each other as well the past.
Thank you, Crista, for your thorough answers! I feel like we’re kindred spirits. I loved reading about Crista’s transition from paper to digital files, her focus on one family group at a time and the connections she’s made through her genealogy research. Most of all, I think, I love the image of her working over the phone every week with her father on family history research. Genealogy really is about connection. If you’d like to hear more from Crista, you can access Crista’s weekly YouTube show, The Barefoot Genealogist, here.