The next interviewee for my How They Do It series is Donna Cox Baker, the blogger behind The Golden Egg Genealogist and the co-founder of the Beyond Kin Project. Donna has a PhD in history and is editor-in-chief of Alabama Heritage magazine. Her first book, Views of the Future State: Afterlife Beliefs in the Deep South, was published in January 2018. One of my readers suggested I invited Donna to participate in this series and I’m so glad! I found myself nodding in agreement as I read her insightful responses. Enjoy.
How long have you been doing genealogy?
I first got hooked on family history around 1986 at the public library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I lived briefly. Far away from family for the first time in my life, a local advertisement for “family history” caught my eye, and I was captivated. Since then, I have gone through long periods when I had no time for it, especially when I was pursuing graduate education while working full-time. As soon as I put the last touches on my PhD dissertation, though, I pulled out the old dusty genealogy box, and it was back to my first love.
What’s your favorite thing about being a genealogist?
At the risk of sounding corny, it is a spiritual thing for me. Oh, I love the thrill of the hunt, like everybody else. I love filling in the blanks that time has left. But there is something mystical-magical about reaching back to restore to memory the people without whom I would not be. It is an act of gratitude for those who came before, and an act of service to those yet to come. There is a grounding quality to the act of writing in birth dates and death dates again and again, person after person. You become truly conscious of the brevity of each life and want to make every day count.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing your genealogy?
In the highest stress years of my career, I finally realized that I was psychologically allergic to paper. Piles and piles of sheets to remind me perpetually that the work was never done. That things had been forgotten. That I would never find what I needed. After a tornado wiped out 7,000 structures in my town and all the hoarded materials in them in 2011, I determined never to depend on paper again. Had the storm shifted two blocks north, every piece of paper my team had collected over 25 years would have been gone in three seconds. I make every effort to be paperless—for my sanity and the security of my research. The challenge, then, is in doing that in a smart way.
What is your favorite technology tool for genealogy?
My favorite tool is the one that got me through a PhD dissertation without giving up: Zotero. This free tool, developed by George Mason University, allows me to have everything I would have stored in paper files with me, wherever there is WiFi. I love it more than the unstructured tools like Evernote and OneNote, because it blends structure with free-form capabilities. It allows me to find a source online and click once to put all of the bibliographic information into its database. It can extract every comment and highlight I make in a PDF. It’s amazing and is the subject of my next book. I’ve written a number of blog posts about it on The Golden Egg Genealogist.
If you were starting out new as a genealogist what would you do differently?
I would get formal training. I was arrogant enough to think I didn’t need it for the first couple of decades. But then I went to the Institute for Genealogy and Historical Research. I took the beginner’s class, just in case I had missed things along the way. And BOY had I missed things along the way. I had been making mistakes that rendered whole branches of my family tree questionable. This summer will be my fourth trip to IGHR.
Do you keep a research log? If so, what format?
Zotero replaces that for me. It gives me everything the traditional logs give, but in a much more efficient format. If I was doing genealogy for others, I might need a log to keep up with time spent, but I don’t have that need. With Zotero, I know what sources I consulted, where I found them, and what I extracted. It keeps up with the date I first added the source record and the last time I modified it—the only two dates I really care about. And unlike the traditional research logs, I only have to add the source and repository information once—no matter how many times I might return to that source and gather new information. In my notes, I make a habit of including a statement about what I was looking for at any given time—say, “All Mayberrys,” or “Ransom Payne.”
How do you keep track of clues or ideas for further research?
Again, Zotero is my hero. I have a master To Do folder, in which I add subfolders for places I might need to visit to do future research. As I encounter a library catalog record or some other notice of a source I want to see at that repository, I create the Zotero source record and drag it into the folder for the repository. That way, I’m collecting a to-do list for a repository and have it waiting when I have the time to make that trip. In fact, if I happen to find myself at a repository unexpectedly—say a meeting ends early at the state archives, and I have an hour—I can find a computer there, look up my to-do list in Zotero’s cloud, and get to work. I am also able to drag and drop the same source record into folders for the person or family I’m researching. So the record exists only once, but I can find it in multiple places.
How do you go about sharing your personal research with cousins or other interested parties?
I give them access to my Ancestry tree, which is syncing with Family Tree Maker. Because I still have some of that old questionable research that I mentioned in my largest tree, I keep that one private. I caution the curious cousin up front that they need to check everything behind me. My research is a clue, not the gospel. I have a couple of public trees that represent more recent (post-IGHR) work. I’ve had little time to work on the general family tree there. I am spending most of my time on a tree that is a slaveholding branch of my family that serves as a prototype for the Beyond Kin Project, which represents our method of documenting enslaved populations.
What’s the most important thing you do to prepare for a research trip?
I go through any available catalogs or lists of what the local repositories have, and then determine what specific research questions I need to try to answer. I also try to determine which of the local records might be available online through FamilySearch or Ancestry or are in a library in my vicinity. I want to spend my time on the sources I will not find any other way. I make sure I have my smart phone and laptop and the ability to keep both charged. My phone becomes my scanner, and I am often keying things directly into Zotero, as I work on-site.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to genealogists in terms of organizing their research?
Get rid of the paper. You cannot carry it with you on your research trip with any ease. If a piece of paper mentions twenty different people, will you make twenty copies of the page to file in twenty folders? And here’s another really important reason to break the paper habit. Your descendants will not want your file cabinets and boxes. If you depend on paper, your research may stop with you. Don’t let that happen. Now for those who have twenty years of paper piled up and wonder how they could possibly go paperless now, I say start today with a paperless ethic. Make everything you work on from now on paperless, and slowly work backward through the paper mountains in your home, scanning them as you are able.
Do you have a dedicated space in your home for doing genealogy research? What’s it like?
The beauty of paperless genealogy is that I can do 99% of my work at home on a laptop. Everything I’ve gathered has been scanned and can be accessed there (being backed up faithfully to the cloud at all times). I have a great little office in my house, but it feels too much like my day job. I usually work in an armchair with headphones on, so I can enjoy the company of my husband and cat-children. When I retire someday, maybe I’ll be willing to sit at a desk again. But more likely I’ll want to be on a lounge chair on the deck. Now all of this is possible because I’m not a person who wants to be the keeper of my family’s precious documents and photographs. If you are that person, you have to be able to preserve things in acid-free boxes, fire-proof safes. And I salute that person, but it will not be me.
I hadn’t heard of Zotero before hearing about it from Donna and now I’m excited to check it out. Her enthusiasm for it is contagious! I’m also intrigued by the Beyond Kin Project and can’t wait to learn more. And, finally, I agree completely with Donna about paper. (I love her phrase “psychologically allergic to paper.”) Eliminating paper creates such freedom and her advice to start with from this point forward with going paperless then chip away at the backlog is spot on. Thank you, Donna, for taking the time to answer these questions!