by Juliana Smith
One of the biggest challenges faced by family historians is how to keep the growing collection of records, charts, and forms in order. I thought weâ€™d address some of those problems in this weekâ€™s newsletter. This is a topic that I feel qualified to discuss, since I have made pretty much every mistake possible in this area at one point or another.
1.) Cut Back the Forest of Family Trees
Over the years, Iâ€™ve used a variety of genealogical software programs. I experiment with many of them both for work purposes and for my own family history, and over the years, this has caused some problems. I would export data to program A, work a little, export it to program B, discover I didnâ€™t like program B and go back to A, etc.
Going back and forth a couple of times isnâ€™t particularly bad if youâ€™re careful. However, if you lose track, you end up with multiple databases with varying levels of information. (Been there, done that, took years to fix it.) This can also happen if you have information loaded on both your laptop and your desktop computer or perhaps a PDA.
For these reasons, I learned early on to stick to one program when it comes to entering data. Choose one computer and one program to be the main place you enter your information. If you want, you can export it to another program–perhaps one that has different charts or some other functionality that you like–but remember to be consistent in where you do all your data entry.
The same applies if you were to take your laptop or PDA with your genealogy loaded on it to a library. Use the program on that computer as a reference, but rather than entering the information directly into your database there, put it in an e-mail or save it to a file you can transfer to your â€œhome baseâ€ computer and enter it there. It may seem simple enough to say, â€œOh, Iâ€™ll remember to export this file back to the home software.â€ However, if you get sidetracked from your research for a time, itâ€™s easy to lose track and you risk losing information.
2.) Note Stages of Processing
When new information is found, there are several steps involved in processing that information. First, I do a little happy dance. Then once Iâ€™ve gotten that out of the way, I put the record in an archival plastic sleeve and I do a little analysis ensuring I have the correct individual or family and savor the new tidbits Iâ€™ve found. I ask myself, â€œWhere can this lead me? Is there a next step?â€ Next steps should be noted immediately on a to-do list before they escape my brain.
Then I enter the new data and source information into my family history software (in the â€œhome baseâ€ program of course). I also maintain timelines for each family I am researching, using a word processor. Significant information needs to be added to that as well.
Finally, I file the document in a binder for that person/family.
Invariably, before I can get through those steps, life intervenes and the new find is set aside until I can get back to my research. The problem comes in when I havenâ€™t noted where Iâ€™ve left off and the paper morphs into a pile of records in a similar state. Now I have a tangled mess and a looming pile that appears more menacing than promising.
Iâ€™ve tried several elaborate coding schemes to keep track of the process–color coding with dots, initials, separate files, etc., only to find that the most successful is a simple one. I keep a pad of post-its on my desk and manila folders for each of my grandparents. Finds that donâ€™t make it through all the steps get a post-it note on the plastic sleeve telling me where I left off and stashed into the appropriate folder until I get a few minutes to file. No post-it means nothing was done with it. No more backtracking and trying to figure out where it stands. Ta-da!
3.) Saving Files and E-mails
My mother and I exchange a lot of information via e-mail. She has been researching since the early 70s and we still have many handwritten notes she has gathered over the years that we are slowly but surely transcribing into electronic formats to sort through. Trouble is, for a long time, I kept the e-mails in my e-mail program and my own transcriptions in word processing documents on my hard drive.
The e-mails ended up getting moved to archive folders where they were promptly forgotten, and when going back to assess and analyze my findings, I wasnâ€™t seeing the whole picture. Now I have my electronic files organized by surname and then given name, and the smaller files are given descriptive names (e.g., Millers in 1870 Census, NY, Kings).
E-mails are saved as text files and filed in the same manner. This ensures they wonâ€™t disappear into the archives and be forgotten and as an added bonus, the e-mail header that gets saved with it gives the date of the e-mail–which brings me to my next point . . .
4.) Date Everything
Weâ€™re all about dates in family history, but too often we focus on the dates in the records and not the dates that we discovered and processed the records. Why is this important? By dating the information you find and dating any added notes when you revisit the record, you create a kind of trail of breadcrumbs that will allow you to retrace your steps. Knowing what information you have and when you got it can help you greatly when a conflict necessitates a closer analysis of your research. What information was available to you when you came to a conclusion? Did you have all the facts when you first searched unsuccessfully for James Miller in the 1870 census? Did you have that address back then, or did you acquire it more recently–an address that perhaps could differentiate your James Miller from the other eight kazillion James Millers?
5) Letting It Go
As family historians, we are programmed to preserve our family history–but sometimes we can take that too far. How many photocopies do we really need of your ancestorâ€™s 1930 census record? Maybe instead of cluttering your files, you could share those extra copies with family members–perhaps a family member who might have information to share with you in exchange for your kindness? Go through and get rid of the papers you donâ€™t need. If youâ€™re not ready for this big step, at least put them in a â€œpapers I donâ€™t need, but am not ready to dispose of just yetâ€ file. (Yes, I have one too.)
Organization is a constant process. As you grow your family tree, it changes shape and the shape of your filing system may need to be changed with it. Take small steps, and adapt to conquer the problems that arise and youâ€™ll soon find that youâ€™re more organized than you thought.
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Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight 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 of American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.