Genealogical Tip #6: Get Organized or Get Screwed Over.

August 10, 2016

“Organization is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up.” – A.A. Milne


There are times in life when I say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Not many, but a few.  This, you will find, is one of them.  It’s not out of any misplaced sense of superiority; quite the opposite, in fact.  It’s out of a genuine desire to protect anyone who might be reading this from the unpleasantness I encountered. 


In other words, I screwed up so that you don’t have to.


You see, in my younger days, I was not such an organized person.  I lived happily in a state of mild chaos.  Papers and books stacked high on nearby tables didn’t bother me, and clean laundry lying crumpled in the hamper, waiting to be folded, could easily be ignored for days on end.  I wasn’t a slob, mind you.  I didn’t live in filth.  I was simply one of those people who would cheerfully say, “Oh, I know it looks messy, but I promise you that I know where everything is.” 


That’s who I was when I started doing genealogy, and my daily habits reflected themselves in my research.  My collection of scanned family photos all had non-descriptive and rather unhelpful file names, and were all tossed together in one big computer folder simply labeled “Family.”  I had no hard copies of anything, and if I had printed off copies of records from the internet, they would probably have just wound up in a single manila folder in no particular order, maternal side and paternal side documents mingling in a happy mishmash.  And that folder? Likely would have spent its life lounging on a coffee table until my poor husband was finally driven into a cleaning frenzy by my slovenly ways. 


Worst of all, I had no documentation of my research.  I would find a piece of information, quickly integrate it into my family tree, and then come back to it a year or two later, scratching my head and muttering, “Where did I get this from?” I had no research logs to keep track of the angles I tried, when I tried them, and what the results were.  I had no citations of the records I found.  I had no pedigree charts or family group sheets, and constantly had to refresh my memory as to precisely which family branch I was dealing with at the moment. 


And then I learned how to do family history, proper family history, and I nearly had a heart attack when I realized just how much catch-up – several years worth – I would really have to do in order to bring my personal family project up to snuff.  I won’t lie to you here… That process is still not complete.  I was simply way too far behind in order to really successfully make something out of my family history that is not a complete mess.  I’ve made some progress, but life is busy and doesn’t slow down just so that Leah can do something she should have been doing from the very beginning.


Be like this guy, not like me.

Jan Steen, "Scholar at His Desk." Oil on oak, 17th century. 


Here are some things you can do to do as I say, not as I have previously done:


1) Have more than one copy of your research.  Many people keep one copy on their computer and one hard copy somewhere in their house.  It would also be a good idea to have a back-up of your computer copy somewhere other than your house.  After all, your house probably won’t burn down… but it could.  And then both your computer copy and your hard copy are gone, unless you have a tertiary back-up.


2) Figure out an organization scheme that works for both your digital copy and your hard copy, and be consistent.  I’m preferential myself to grouping by family name, and then by generation within that subcategory.  Some people take a more strictly chronological approach and group by generation first.  It boils down to whatever makes more sense to you.


3) Decide how to maintain the hard copy of your research.  There are a variety of possibilities: three-ring binders, accordion folders, file cabinets, archival storage boxes, and I’m sure, more than I haven’t even considered (I’m a binder gal myself, but I also have the available room necessary on bookshelves to house them). 


4) Make sure that all of your computer files are named something descriptive, or, failing that, that you have additional information in the metadata.  Instead of “MomandDadDating.jpg,” try something like, “1973-DavidMcGrathShellySanders.”  Go into the photo’s info and add everything else you know about the photo… Where was it taken? What were they doing? Do you know who took the photo? And, for goodness sake, organize the pictures into subfolders by family and person.


5) Graphic organizers are amazing and will help you keep your information straight in an easily digestible form.  Find them (online for free), print them, use them.  Pedigree Charts (also known as Ancestral Charts) and Family Group Sheets are absolutely required materials.  There are a wide variety of other forms you can use, with such exciting names as Correspondence Record Forms, Source Summaries, Census Charts, Genealogy Book Wish Lists, Oral History Interview Records, and so on.   


6) Make/find and USE a research log (this could have fit with the bit about graphic organizers, but it was so important I wanted to give it its own number).  A research log is exactly what it sounds like: a record, usually by person, of what search you tried, where you tried it, the date(s) you tried it, for what intended purpose, and what the result of the search was.  That way, you don’t wind up doing the same redundant research over… and over… and over again, not remembering that you’ve already tried searching the 1910 census on for Great-grandpa Jake under the names Jacob, Jack, Jock, and Jakey at least twice already over the past several years, or that you’ve already written to NARA about his father’s naturalization records.  Believe me, you will forget what you’ve done, and if you don’t have a log of it, you’ll waste a lot of time unknowingly re-creating your unsuccessful efforts.


7) Don’t roll your eyes at me.  This stuff is important.


8) Put together a citation for every record you acquire (a bibliography of the record, if you’re not familiar with the lingo) and make sure that it’s attached to its record somehow.  A citation should consist of the following basic information (and sometimes more, depending on the source): author, title, repository, date, and page.  Or, to put it another way, a citation should be able to tell anyone looking at the record where you found it and how they can trace your steps and find it themselves.  It not only lends your research legitimacy (we’ve all learned the importance of citing our sources in school, yes?), it can help concurrent or future researchers to continue and expand your research.  If you’re forgetful, it also has the added benefit of being able to remind you of where you found a given record.


9) Start now.  Today.  If you do it as you go, it will take a whole lot less time, energy, and effort.  You don’t want to wind up a decade down the road, staring at a stack of messy and jumbled papers with the vague desire to just set the whole lot of them on fire so that no one else will ever see your secret shame.


Good luck and godspeed.

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