It was a genealogical dream night. I had the house to myself with my husband at martial arts class and my daughter at play practice. And even better–Ancestry had just launched a huge collection of U.S. city directories, including some for New York City and Brooklyn. I made a cup of tea and settled in my office chair for an evening with my ancestors.
I had no sooner pulled up the database when my phone rang. It was a sales call. Thank goodness for caller ID. I ignored it and managed to get off one search, when my greyhound came in nosing me to let her out. I put her coat on, let her out and returned to work. As soon as I sat down, in came the cat. He strutted across my desk several times and I was reminded that I hadnâ€™t given him a pill. I got up again, gave him his medicine, and sat back down. Dang, I had forgotten the dog outside. Up again to let the dog in. I didnâ€™t even get to sit down this time when my daughter called telling me to come get her. Play practice had ended early–and so had my evening with my ancestors.
Interruptions are a fact of life, but if youâ€™re organized, even a few minutes of research time here and there can be productive.
I have long since resigned myself to the fact that my research time wonâ€™t always come to an end on my own terms. So I try to find ways to cut my research off in such a way that I can easily go back and pick up where I left off. One thing that helps me is a tray on my desk that is reserved for family history work that needs to be processed or filed.
Sometimes Iâ€™ll come home from a research trip and not have time to file everything right away. Or perhaps I was able to attach a record I found online to my online tree, but didnâ€™t get a chance to enter the information into my genealogical software. Maybe I need to scan a record and save it electronically. Whatever the reason, unfinished business left lying around can quickly lead to problems.
Since I know Iâ€™ll probably forget where I left off when I get the chance to return to my research, I keep plastic sleeves and sticky notes so that when Iâ€™m interrupted, I can slip it into a sleeve and jot down where I am in terms of processing the information. (I use the plastic sleeves to protect the document and then put the sticky note on the outside of the sleeve to keep from damaging original documents.) Into the tray it goes, and the next time I get a free minute, I go right for that tray and pick up right where I left off.
Iâ€™ve also learned the hard way that itâ€™s pretty much impossible to get any research done if it takes you twenty minutes to find what youâ€™re looking for. Take ten minutes each day to go through and clear out that tray and any stray piles you have lying around. Even if youâ€™ve gotten way behind in your filing (been there, done that, got the t-shirt), you can make a big dent in ten minutes.
When I do get too far behind, I add another step. I found a small file tabletop file like this oneÂ that is portable. I have folders in it with each surname and when the filing tray gets overwhelming, I can sit and sort papers while I watch TV with the family, or even while Iâ€™m waiting in the parking lot for my daughter to get out of school. Then when I get a little more time, I grab a surname file folder and file the documents in it properly in my binder. This way I donâ€™t have to drag out all of my binders at once to get my filing done and Iâ€™m not bouncing around between families.Â
Donâ€™t overlook electronic organization too. I have a special folder in â€œMy Documentsâ€ for Family History. In it, there are folders for locations in which I have research interests and for each surname Iâ€™m researching. Within these there are subfolders for each individual. In them I keep all of the electronic records I have for that person, and also any photographs that are available.
To keep my e-mail inbox clean, I also save family history related correspondence to text files and file them in the appropriate folder as well. That way, I donâ€™t have to search in a lot of different places. Did I archive that e-mail yet? Is it filed in a surname folder in Outlook? Or did I leave it in my inbox?Â
When I run across a lead that I donâ€™t have time to pursue, because my memory isnâ€™t what it used to be, I make a note of it on my to-do list. To make this as easy as possible, my to-do list is a Word document that I have saved to my desktop for easy access. (To save a document to your desktop in Windows, just click on File, Save As, and when the dialog box pops up, choose Desktop from the icons on the left. Or you can go to My Documents, find the file, right-click on it and Create a Short-cut. Then make the window smaller and just drag the shortcut to your desktop.)
Now when you get some free time, and your tray is empty, if youâ€™re good about recording your to-do tasks, you can open it up and start right away, rather than spending ten minutes wondering where to begin. I use this list a lot when I see databases being posted that Iâ€™d like to search, but donâ€™t have time because of work or other obligations.
Use Your Digital or Phone Camera
Ever been in a library and been interrupted by the flickering lights and that â€œlast callâ€ announcement that, â€œYou donâ€™t have to go home, but you canâ€™t stay here.â€ (OK, maybe most libraries donâ€™t use those exact words, but you know what I mean.)Â If you donâ€™t have time to record the source information, pull out your digital camera or camera phone and document the source that way. You can copy book title pages, or even copy a microfilm record with the film box positioned so that the film number is showing.
Or take a picture of the catalog card or online catalog screen. Iâ€™ve found this helpful even when it isnâ€™t closing time. Go to the catalog and take pictures of the catalog screen for all the resources you want to check and then when you leave the catalog, retrieving the resources you need is easy because you have the call numbers/film numbers in your phone or camera.
With the holiday season upon us, research time is likely to be a little harder to come by. And with the possibility of family get-togethers, itâ€™s the worst possible time to let our family history slide. Each new discovery can be shared with family members and possibly evoke memories that will aid us down the road. Plus, framed records and family history charts make economical and meaningful gifts for family members. By taking simple steps like these, we can find ways to unwind for a short time with our family history amidst the hustle and bustle of the holidays.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.