I’m excited to present the third installment of my How They Do It series, which I publish on the first Tuesday of each month. For this series, I’ve reached out to genealogy luminaries whom I admire and asked them to talk about how they organize their own genealogy research. If you missed the first two Q&As from the series, with Thomas MacEntee and Denise May Levenick, please check them out!
Today’s Q&A is with Michael Lacopo, known to many for his Hoosier Daddy blog. Michael is a professional genealogist, a non-practicing veterinarian, and a thoroughly enjoyable (and knowledgeable) lecturer. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak at several genealogy conferences.
I found myself nodding a whole lot when I read his responses to my questions. I agree with his advice (and I especially agree that you are organized if you can find what you’re looking for). I love that he, like me, uses Reunion. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
How They Do It: Michael Lacopo
How long have you been doing genealogy?
I started doing genealogical research before I knew there was a name for it. I had a bunch of great-great-aunts, and I was always asking, “HOW are they my great-great-aunts?” So I was making basic trees as long as I remember. In 1980, I found a book at the library about genealogy and realized there was a name for what I was already doing. I was a nerd child. I still am.
What’s your favorite part of doing genealogy?
I love the problem solving; the analysis. I am drawn to the most difficult research quandaries that nobody else has solved.
Do you consider your genealogy research well organized?
I can mostly find what I am looking for, so I would say yes…. mostly.
What type of software do you use for organizing your genealogy research?
I am asked often about software for a great number of genealogical tasks, and frankly I don’t use a lot of programs. I am a Mac person from way back, so I use Reunion as my family tree software. Since the note field for each individual can hold an infinite amount of characters, I tend to keep my notes, research logs, and source citations within that program. When I want to make timelines or spread sheets, I used Microsoft Word or Excel. I keep it simple.
Do you keep a research log? If so, what format?
As stated above, my log is mostly kept in my family tree software. I also have separate surname files in Mac Mail, so any correspondence regarding a certain family is kept in easily sorted files within my mail program.
Do you have a tree on Ancestry? If so, is it public or private? Why?
I have a very basic tree on Ancestry that is public.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing your genealogy?
Sheer volume. I am constantly downloading, searching, creating, note-taking, etc. People are appalled at the sight of my computer desktop, as any new material I am working on or have obtained goes there before I put it into computer files. I wish I could say I am an “organize as you go” kind of person. I am not. I tend to do a lot of my organizing when I am sitting on long flights or in airports on layovers.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to beginning genealogists in terms of keeping track of their research?
I try to preach the five-step mantra of the Genealogical Proof Standard, and not just for problem solving, but for genealogy in general. One of those is accurate and complete source citations. I try to tell beginners this is the drudgery of genealogy – making sure you always note your sources and what you found and what you DID NOT find. Organization is a very individualistic thing, so I don’t care how you organize it or file it or retrieve it… just make sure you DO it.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to do to stay organized when it comes to family history research?
Well, I should say “organize as you go,” but I just confessed that I don’t do that very well, so I can’t very well preach what I don’t practice. It may be a bit off the topic of the question, but I urge genealogists to be more than “information collectors.” I want them to be be “information analyzers.” Having 100 pieces of information on your ancestor John Smith means nothing unless you can interconnect those 100 pieces and make sense out them, or let them lead you to new information. No matter how you organize, make sure you keep sight of the fact that your connecting, not just adding to. Timelines are a great way of doing this.
If you were starting out new as a genealogist what would you do differently?
I’d probably do what I already preached above. I would document, document, document. There are so many times I will come across a date or a name I added to my family tree decades ago, and I will think, “How do I know that?” There is no documentation. No source citation. The same goes for negative findings. You have to keep track of what you looked at and what it did NOT tell you as well. That will keep you from looking at the same thing again long after you have forgotten you have already looked there! I think it is also important for genealogists to make notes regarding the sources they use that are more physical and descriptive in nature. This is not intuitive, and it is something I do not hear taught very often. For example, is it a typescript or is it hand-written? Is it chronological or alphabetical? Are there pages missing? Is coverage complete or spotty? Is it indexed or did you read it page-by-page? Is the handwriting different or uniform throughout? Trust me, these are things that DO make a difference in your analysis, and you WILL forget them years later unless you write it down.
Do you keep paper or electronic files (or both)?
I keep both. Many of my pre-computer era documents and notes are in paper files. I add to them periodically when I have tangible documents that need to be filed. I would love to find the time to scan all that into computer files, but I do not see that happening any time soon. Much like my email folders, I have folders on my computer dedicated to surnames. Subfolders exist within those folders that may be, for example, “Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, Deeds” or files for individuals within that surname.
Are you folder or binder person for your paper files?
Folder, definitely. I started with binders in the 1980s, but I had so many it became burdensome.
Do you use Evernote, One Note or any other electronic organizing system for your genealogy? If so, how do you use it?
Evernote appears to be a fantastic tool. I don’t use it. I probably should. Unfortunately, I am one of those perfectionists who want to understand all the aspects of something before I use it. I don’t like trial-and-error. I need five instructional courses, a couple online seminars, fifteen YouTube videos, and a manual before I feel I can tackle something. So I stick with what is working for me so far…. until it stops working.
Do you have a dedicated space in your home for doing genealogy research? What’s it like?
I have a full basement that is mostly finished. It is large enough to accommodate two computer stations, five monitors, about 7500+ books in an organized library, a sitting area, and a bar (that was there when I moved in). It is an AMAZING workspace…. but it is a basement. It gets a bit claustrophobic at times, especially when you lose track of whether it is day or night.
Do you have anything to add?
This is where I will probably be preachy, but if this interview reaches those new to the genealogy world, I want them to know that the Internet is a bittersweet trap. You will never solve your tough genealogical problems by using only online sources. There is so much more out there that will never see the light of digitization. Furthermore, with great Internet power comes great responsibility. Much like advocating for persistent and accurate source citation, you must never fall into the trap of family trees that look great but lack the citation or the thought processes behind them. The Internet has brought amazing things to the fingertips of genealogists, but it has also perpetuated garbage at a phenomenal rate. Don’t duplicate, replicate, copy-and-paste, or blog about something until your own research has proven it to be true. And call out others (nicely, of course) when they publish a connection that is obviously false. Genealogy used to be about sharing, but the Internet has unfortunately made it a bit more anonymous. Help each other, say please and thank you, ask for advice, accept well-meaning criticism. That is how we make progress.
There is so much wisdom in Michael’s delightful responses. I particularly love this bit of advice to genealogists: “Help each other, say please and thank you, ask for advice, accept well-meaning criticism.” If you haven’t yet read Hoosier Daddy, this little peek at Michael’s genealogy life will make it even more enjoyable. (Be sure to read from the blog from the bottom.) Michael has taken a hiatus from blogging but mentioned to me that his plans are to make 2017 a blogging year: “There is more to tell. Genealogists have good stories.” Let’s hope he recommences regular blogging soon!
P.S. Michael’s Facebook page, Roots4U, lists his lecture schedule if you’re interested in hearing him in person.