Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How Do You Keep Track Of It All?

At one of the first genealogy seminars I attended, I explained that I was just starting out and wanted to be an organized genealogist which led me to ask the following questions:
  • How do you keep track of everything - the paper, the scans, the photos? 
  • How can you set up your genealogy information so that you have as little paper as possible? 
  • How do you organize yourself to make the best use of your time and effort?
  • How do you actually use a research log or plan in real life - like when you are at your computer or in the library?
After everyone else at the seminar either chuckled knowingly to their neighbors or laughed out loud, the speaker said (a) paper was a big part of genealogy and that a good filing system and some bookcases or boxes were a "necessity" for any good genealogist, (b) you need to make a research plan and stick to it, and (c) you need to stay focused (she did not answer my questions and gee thanks - stay focused!).

During breaks throughout the seminar, various people came up to me and had one of two reactions to the speaker's response - either "she's right, just clear a room in your home and realize that genealogy requires paper (and lots of it) and as to planning or organizing, it is a process of trial and error, I still am not there yet" or "you know those are some of my continuing questions and no one seems interested in answering them." 

As luck would have it, I started working on my family history only a few years back. I have the greatest respect for all those who went before me and prepared their pedigree charts, family group sheets, and published books with a combination of handwritten and typewritten pages!  Prior to the 1990s people were sending written letters asking for information and patiently waiting anywhere from a few weeks to a few years for a response!  Most research was done either through mail requests or actual research trips to a library, archive or government building. 

Thankfully, technology has given us the ability to send emails, scan documents, telephone and text people anywhere in the world, and self-publish our family stories either via blog or book.  Today we make use of genealogy programs (complex databases) that are able to spit out on demand our pedigree charts, family group sheets, chronologies, to-do lists, charts and reports.  Even better, when we make changes or additions, it is done with the touch of refresh or update button!  We access genealogy websites that are able to find everything from indexed census records, birth, marriage & death records, to military records and city directories.  We connect with potential relatives via Facebook, Rootsweb, blogs and personal websites.  We are able to view and (heaven forbid) download others' family trees.  We can Google various ancestors' names and places.  Mapping software virtually takes us to far-off places or pinpoints places in a historical context. 

On the other hand, we probably have too much information at our fingertips as many things are just a click away!  We may fall into the trap of thinking if it is not online it doesn't exist.  Many of our brickwalls arise because we don't always thoroughly read what we have found before we continue our search.  It is worth remembering that what is online is just the tip of the iceberg.  Indexes and abstracts are great but they are only the starting point, bricks & mortar research is always necessary.

If you are like me you have a genealogy database program, scans or photocopies of various papers and photographs, research folders on various people and places, spreadsheets or word-processing documents relating to your research, and perhaps a reader service or webpages of blogs you follow. So with all the available information and a few years genealogy experience under my belt, back to those questions:
  • How do you put it all together? 
  • How do you organize your work in a useful way so that you can find it, use it, and not do it again a few months or years later? 
  • What do you file cabinets or bookshelves look like? 
  • How do you organize your computer files? 
  • Do you use a research log and, if so, is it computer-based, paper-based or a combination of both? 
  • How does your organization system work in real life - do you have a great plan and keep up with it or is great in theory only?

Next time ~ how I'm approaching it ~ suggestions welcome.

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