I promised photos in the last post, of my actual binders so you could see what I was referring to. I want to again reiterate that MY system may not work for you. You may think completely differently about organizing and how to locate your ancestors’ information in an efficient manner. You may not do paper at all. That is entirely ok. (I will not be offended if you skip these posts until I start talking about my digital files!)
Here is a view of the binder spines:
The front of each binder has a family group sheet so I can see at a glance which family that binder holds:
In each binder, I include a timeline of the documents that will be found inside. You can easily update this when you find a new document. (I personally will add them in by pen until I get several and then I will reprint it.):
I have the children of this couple in the back of the binder, in chronological order, EXCEPT my direct line ancestor (the child I descend from). I create my own dividers with card stock and use sticky labels that you can write on:
You might see colored sticky notes and other things sticking out if you examined my binders in detail. Those are generally items that are WIPs (works in progress). Those might be things I didn’t have time to write the citations for but I wanted to get it in the binder rather than put it in a stack. They might be items that need more research and the note indicates what that research might be. Primarily, they are there to get my attention next time I have time to work on them.
That’s basically it. Every document is “processed” (which we will go over that in another post), printed, put into the document timeline, put into a sleeve and put in its place in chronological order in the binder.
Next time we will go over the digital side of this. I mentioned before that I do both, paper and digital. I know it might be duplication of my effort, but it is what works for me. Again, DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU. I can’t say that enough.
First and foremost, you need to decide on YOUR system. Figure out what is going to work best for you. Do you think about your ancestors’ documents:
by document type
by family group
There are many ways you can organize your papers. All that really matters is that it makes sense to you, that it is organized, that it preserves your documents, and you can find what you need in a reasonable amount of time.
I think of my ancestors in terms of the timeline of their life. I organize my files (both paper and digitally) chronologically by couple. I’m going to address my paper files first, we’ll look at my digital system in a later post. As I’ve expressed before, I’m a very tactile person. I like to read, organize, and think about my research on paper. It just makes more sense to me. So, I organize my research in binders. Each binder contains:
a family group sheet for the couple and their children
all of the documents for that couple’s life
separate section for each of the children (except for the one child I’m descended through), their documents in chronological order
a document timeline (like a table of contents that gets updated after I add new documents) – see image below
A question I usually get is: what about the husband or wife, where do their documents go? In my system, they go with their husband/wife, and not with their parents. I put an indicator page where they should go with a note to “see X binder.”
A few logistics: I typically use 1″ binders. However, there are some families I’ve done an absolute ton of work on that I have 2″ or 3″ binders for. There are some families that I have not done that much on yet; several generations of those families might be in one binder. I also use those white binders with plastic covers that allow you to slip paper down into. So, the front of the binder has the family group sheet, and I utilize the binder spine to label the binder for which couple (birth and death dates) and their children. I also note on the spine something like “except William Long, see Binder X” or something like that to tell me at a glance which binder I need.
The next post will have more photos of my actual binders and discuss some other organizational logistics as it relates to paper.
The first post in this series last week garnered some comments on the post itself or on my Facebook page relating to digitizing your files. Some are completely paper free which is great. Others still like paper. I say there’s no superior system. The only superior system is the one that is working for YOU. So if paper makes more sense to you, then keep your files on paper. If you cannot stand the clutter, then perhaps a digitized system is yours. Personally, I use both.
I grew up in a world before the Internet (it seems so long ago) and I struggle to really connect with my ancestors when “they” (their documents) are entirely digital. My paper system organizes their documents in chronological order so that when I am looking through a person’s binder, I have a visual timeline of their life, at least in terms of the documents they left behind. (We’ll cover this in more detail in a later post.)
Before you can organize paper or digital, you have to decide HOW you’re going to organize. Find a system that makes sense to you. Spend some time thinking about how you think about your ancestors, their documents, accessing their documents, and so on. You’ll want to match your filing in a way that matches how you think about the documents. The possibilities are endless! Here are a few ideas:
by family line
by event (marriages, deaths)
by document type/repository
Or a combination of any of the above.
As I mentioned, I organize my documents in chronological order. It’s more detailed than that, and it is the subject of the next post so stay tuned!
I’m moving from tech tools for being organized to actual organizational tips and systems for our genealogy (research, notes, files, and more). I’ve always worked on the principle that if you can’t find something in less than a minute, your system is not working.
If you are like me, you are busy and there are never enough hours in the day! Being organized is a key component to getting the most out of our time. Consider the following:
You should be able to find your documents in a short period of time. If you can’t find what you are looking for quickly, then your system isn’t working.
Your system should be understandable to others. What will happen to your work if someone else has to take over?
Your system should preserve your documents. You don’t want your descendants (or whomever takes over for you) to have to relocate all of the same documents.
Your system should reflect your purpose for your research. Ask yourself, “What is my goal?” and “What am I going to do with my stuff?”
In this series, I’m going to discuss some of these thoughts as they pertain to my own system, share with you some of the ways I keep organized, tips on research plans/logs (or “plogs” as I call them), and so on.
I’m hoping that the act of writing up this series will also help me get organized again. I’ve let it slide lately because I’ve been so busy! Stay tuned for some excellent tips and thoughts on getting organized!
I recently received a helpful packet in the mail from the Board of Certification of Genealogists that my renewal application would be coming due soon. Where did five years go? (Well, four and a half, but still.) It seems like just yesterday I was putting the final spit and polish on my first portfolio!
Luckily, the renewal application process is not as rigorous as the initial application. You only have to submit one to three items as long as one meets the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The main goal is to make sure you are continuing to grow in your journey as a Certified Genealogist, that you are keeping up your education, and that you are applying the standards to your work.
I have been working steadily to improve everything from my first portfolio and am not too worried, except for the lack of time I have to work on it! So I’ve been working hard to finish up and clear out some responsibilities I’ve had and to block time out in my schedule to work on it. Time management is such a trick sometimes!
I will keep you posted. In the meantime wish me luck and few interruptions!
I am heading off to Georgia to attend the Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research (IGHR). I am excited to finally take the writing course from Tom Jones, “Course 4: Writing and Publishing for Genealogists.” This has been on my educational “to do list” for years and I’m finally getting to it!
These days, we are saying good-bye to paper more and more. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE PAPER. Ask any of my students, discussion group attendees, family, or friends. I still print all of my research documents and organize them into binders. I also like taking handwritten notes. However, those institute binders really add up and for many of us, space is at a premium. Plus, it keeps the costs down if an institute doesn’t have to pay to print and organize all of those syllabi. Of course, you can still usually buy a printed syllabus or print it on your own. And if you do, do not worry! I’m not here to be down on anyone’s system. However, in order to use less paper, and utilize the electronic syllabi more effectively, I have come up with a system that works for me. Maybe you’ll find something in here that can work for you too.
Before I go to any institute, there is an amount of prep-work I do with the digital syllabus so I’m organized and ready to take notes. I utilize a combination of a PDF-splitter and Evernote. What I mean by a “PDF-splitter” is using a bit of software to make one large PDF into several small PDFs. I believe the full version of Adobe Acrobat will do this (but I don’t use it so do some research first), as will several other programs. I use a Mac and have found “PDF Toolkit+” to meet all of my needs. It has a lot of features, but today I’m focusing on the “split/extract pages” portion of the software.
Basically, I sit down with the class schedule, the large PDF, the PDF-splitter, and Evernote. Using the splitter, I extract the pages for each class and then create their own note in Evernote, dropping in just that portion of the PDF. This allows me to have each the syllabus material for each class split out into one small file. Then I can type my notes into each note or take handwritten notes on paper to scan/type in later (they say the brain retains information better when you take notes by hand). Evernote also has tools that allow you to highlight, add symbols, draw, or take notes directly on the PDF.
I organize these notes into a new Evernote notebook titled appropriately for the institute I’m attending. You can organize them in whatever way works best for you. I number them according to the order they should be taught based on the class schedule. See my example below.
As the week moves on, I open the note for the appropriate class, and either use the syllabus visually and then take handwritten notes or I type my notes above the PDF. I take handwritten notes most of the time for the reasons already mentioned) but I do also use the mark-up tools available as well, especially if I don’t want to forget something in particular mentioned in the syllabus. Often, it just depends on how I feel when I get up in the morning. Evernote notes are word searchable, and there is a tagging system to help you be organized as well.
The most important thing is that you find a system that works for you. If digitized notes and syllabi are not for you, I hear you! It really has taken me a long time to get to this point…and I’m not completely digital myself and probably never will be. But, to save on costs and space, this is one of my systems for eliminating paper.
It happens to everyone at some point. Something big. Something that just really knocks you off course. I know it’s happened to me several times. But in genealogical terms, there have been a few times when I just didn’t want to do it anymore, or at least for a while. I’m positive this has happened to almost everyone. You are happily living your life and something happens that just changes your whole attitude. Everything you had in place was somehow changed, your thoughts and plans seemed superfluous and unnecessary. Whatever the “thing” was that changed your outlook, it takes some time to get the wind back in your sails.
One major thing that happened to me as far as genealogy life goes, was the death of my mentor Birdie Holsclaw in 2010. I know I’ve mentioned her before in my blog. Sometimes you just meet people who stick with you long after they are gone. Birdie was one of those people. She gave me the confidence and encouragement to move forward with genealogy beyond being a hobbyist. When she died, many of us were devastated. She left us too soon. I know a lot of those feelings are selfish. It was her time. It was the will of God or the Universe or Science… whatever you believe. It was just her time. Many of my thoughts about her are really about me and what I miss from her, what I would like to talk to her about, her opinions I want to hear about genealogical topics of the day and I wasn’t done learning from her or enjoying her company.
After she died, I really just did not want to do genealogy. The wind was definitely gone from my genealogical sails. It was approximately 3 or 4 months before I got myself back up again. I would look at a unique record I found and think about tell Birdie about it, or get confused on some problem and want to ask for her opinion or guidance, or I would see a new movie and wonder what she would have thought about it (she loved movies). And when the realization that I couldn’t would flood in, well, I would just not want to do the work. This still happens actually, but I’ve moved passed the pain and the not wanting to do it into a place of doing it in her honor. I think of the encouragement that she gave me, the belief she had in me, and think that I need to be doing what I’m doing to be a good steward of her memory, to fulfill what she saw in me.
There have been minor things that have happened that steal my thunder. Clients not wanting to do more research, projects falling through, checks lost in the mail, critics, online arguments, seeing colleagues not be nice to each other, hearing complaints over things that are super minor, having to go through a lot of revisions on a small item, general negativity… When too many of these things that happen everyday, sometimes I just turn the computer off and go do something else. It is just too much and it is not worth getting stressed out over. I can usually deal with these small crises better when I’ve had time away. If I want to keep the wind in my sails, I have learned that I have to protect myself from the negative.
Few things are as devastating as the loss of a loved-one. Learning skills to deal with these times and “get back on the horse” can be crucial to long-term success. Sometimes, you might just need to do a complete overhaul of your genealogical life. Sometimes you may just need a break. After I turned in my BCG portfolio, I don’t think I did anything genealogical for almost 3 weeks. And that’s ok. The important thing is to take care of yourself and get back in the game.
I mentioned previously that I had the opportunity to attend the British Institute in Salt Lake City. Following that week, I stayed another week to spend coveted research time at the library. I was so busy leading up to that trip that I didn’t have time to prepare. I spent a lot of time while there doing things I could have done at home. That week in the library reminded me of all of the things I should have done but didn’t. I have written before on planning for a research trip beginning with this post. I did not do most of the things I mentioned in those posts. This trip was a reminder that I still need to practice what I preach.
I did not REALLY have a research plan in place before I left. That’s not to say I didn’t have some shred of an idea of what I wanted to accomplish that week or that I didn’t know at least some microfilms or books I wanted to look at before I got there. I have what I willingly call a “half-assed research plan” system using Evernote. When I find something I want to look at next time I’m at the library I do one of two things. I either make a completely new note in my “FHL Research Trip” notebook with a screen shot or a link. If I am really on top of things I will even make a note about what exactly I wanted to find in that book, which surnames or individual, or even topic. Usually not though. Or I may add it to my ever helpful checklist notes that may fall in my surname notebooks under a useful note title like “Dimick – To Do” or I have a master checklist in the aforementioned “FHL Research Trip” notebook that is usually less helpful than the notes in that it is usually a film number, usually the title of the film and MAYBE what I’m looking for… again, usually not. Why do I always believe I will remember what I wanted out of that film or book when I get to it?
So, I spent precious library hours using the online catalog that I could have used from home and created a REAL research plan before I left the comfort of my slippers. (I’ve been known to wear slippers at the FHL on particularly snowy and cold days.) I spent time in my hotel room on terribly slow internet doing online research filling in gaps needed to even decide which films or books I wanted to look at. I even did the whole go-to-the-section-in-the-stacks-and-pull-out-all-of-the-relevant-books system.
I’ve regrouped since that trip and set up better templates in Evernote for future research trips. Cyndi Ingle of Cyndi’s List has graciously posted some great Evernote templates on her website for organizing research and creating research plans. I’ve downloaded and customized some to meet my own needs and preferences. I’m working to go through my old “half-assed research plan” system of notes to add them to the new template, trying to figure out what some of those notes are even about.
While I won’t say that trip was not successful, I cannot help but wonder how much more I would have gotten done if I had somehow been more prepared. We’ve all probably been there. Too busy to get a research plan ready. It doesn’t make us bad genealogists, but reminds us about why we should be planning in the first place and perhaps renews our energy for doing that prep work.
One of the most frequent questions I get through my website relates to how I “became” a professional. What educational steps did I take? When did I feel “ready” to take the step beyond being a hobbyist and into the realm of being a professional? I’m always more than happy to offer a few suggestions from my experiences on this path. My path is going to look different than your path, of course. But these are just some of the things I’ve learned along the way and am sharing so that perhaps you can take one less step than I took to get here.
Before you decide to take the plunge, you will need to determine how much time and money have to devote to the educational process. If yours is the main income for your family or situation, your path is going to look a lot different from someone who has the luxury of having a spouse whose income can take care of the family needs. And of course these are two points on the spectrum and everyone’s situation is going to be unique. Examining your time and financial situation will determine which courses, programs, classes, institutes and so on you might consider in the future.
If you want a “fast track” I would look at something like the Boston University program in genealogy or the National Institute of Genealogical Studies where you can earn a PLCGS (Professional Learning Certificate in Genealogical Studies). They have higher price tags up front, but I’ll bet that if I tallied up all of the money I’ve spent on the educational events I have done, their price is probably comparable if not less expensive. My educational funds were spent in smaller increments over many years. Taking a more condensed course like those above will require a larger upfront commitment.
These online courses were not available when I got started. I took a longer, slower road, finding educational opportunities when and where it was convenient. The whole paradigm of online education was not available to me yet and all of these great webinars that are not online… Woah! And even though I have crossed some imaginary line and have “become” a professional, I still partake of any online class, webinar, and study group I can fit into my schedule. A professional never stops learning and should never be so arrogant to think that they can’t learn something new everyday.
If you don’t have as much time and/or funds to put into it at once, you could do something closer to what I’ve done which is to take less expensive but just as effective courses over a longer period of time. This might be more effective if you are needing to remain employed at your “day job” while taking the necessary educational steps toward professional genealogy. I would highly recommend the peer to peer study group “ProGen” based on the book Professional Genealogy. (If you don’t have that book, get it. It is a little outdated, but only a little. All of the principles are still sound and valid. The rumor on the genealogical street is that an updated edition on the way but I have no idea when it might be published.)
Another great way to get an in-depth education is by attending week long institutes. I’ve written some blog posts about these and other relevant topics:
In addition to this I recommend attending every weekend seminar, online webinar, local genealogical society meeting, and any other online or in person study group you can fit in your schedule and budget. Read anything you can on the topic. There is no shortage of reading material when it comes to genealogical study. I have a steady stream of blogs, journals and books that pile up on my desk. I recently saw a quote by Earl Nightingale that claimed if you read one hour per day in your chosen field, you will be an international expert in 5 years. I don’t know if that is true but it makes sense. The more you read the more you learn, boost your analytical thinking, and improve your memory (or so says the internet). I know that if I didn’t read NGSQ articles, I would lack understanding of how to analyze my research findings and how to present it in a coherent proof argument.
Probably the biggest thing that happened to me that caused me to “become” a professional was that nudge from my mentor, nationally known and well-loved Birdie Holsclaw, who told me I could be and I should be doing more with my genealogy. Having someone of that caliber believe in you really is a confidence booster. So, I try to pass those messages on to others in Birdie’s honor: You can do more, you do have something valuable to share, and you can make a difference in someone’s career. It is difficult to find a mentor, I have found that mentoring just kind of happens. But you can leave yourself open to it happening. Volunteer at your local or state society, attend local events, forge genealogical friendships, don’t be shy, and allow yourself to be available to a mentor.
The imaginary line I referred to above, is really just a mental decision that my work was going to meet a higher standard than it had been at before. I would put citations on everything. I would follow the Genealogical Proof Standard. I would adhere to the standards set forth by my colleagues in regard to professionalism in my work, behavior, online presence, writing, and so on. It had nothing to do with taking clients, making money, getting the post nominals, or landing a national speaking gig. It was a mental decision. That’s when I “became” a professional.
I hope these little bits of information help you with your path to becoming a professional. Realize that your journey is different and if even one of these thoughts helps you find your path, then it was worth it.
Have you ever attended a genealogical event, conference, institute, or seminar where you had the opportunity to sign up for a personal consultation with the instructor or a professional genealogist? These are sometimes offered at events like a national conference or during week-long institutes. I recently participated in two such events that got me thinking about how to be prepared for such an opportunity. I was on the opposite sides of the desk for each event so I now have perspectives as both the participant and the professional.
In September, I attended my first ever course through the British Institute from the International Society for British Genealogy and Family History (ISBGF) [http://isbgfh.org]. I took the course on researching in England. I have done a lot of research in United States records on a particular family line leading back to England, but only recently decided to work on the family in more detail. However, I only have minimal experience in records created and kept in England, hence the need to take this class. One of the unique features of the British Institute is that since it is held in Salt Lake City, the instruction time takes place in the mornings and then the afternoon and evening hours can be spent utilizing what you’ve learned on your own research in the Family History Library. Also during those afternoon hours, you have the opportunity to sit down with the instructor(s) and receive a personal consultation; I had about 20 minutes to ask the instructors anything.
In October, I had the opportunity to participate in the “Ancestors Roadshow” giving free 15 minute consultations to members of the public as a part of the “Genealogy Lock-In” hosted by the Central Texas Genealogical Society in Waco, Texas. It was a fantastic event. I met a lot of new people in the Texas genealogical community and had a lot of fun helping a few lucky participants in the roadshow. As part of the roadshow, participants could fill out a questionnaire about research questions or problems they were having and then we (the professionals) were supposed to go over this with them and give suggestions for further research. The participants had the opportunity to fill this sheet out ahead of time. It was made available through a website advertising the service. They could also fill it out at the event and be assigned a time with a professional.
From both of these events, I realized that the person coming to the consultation could get so much more out of the short amount of time if they were a little more prepared. During the roadshow, I was handed the questionnaire and introduced to a person and then only had 15 minutes to help them with their questions. Most of the time, the questionnaire would list a person, perhaps their birth or death dates, maybe a location. They were asked to tell us where they had previously searched and/or give us a list of documents they had pertaining to the problem. Most participants didn’t write much down. Many wrote that they had searched Ancestry.com, which is not very specific at all. Ancestry contains a lot of material. When they got to sit across from me at the event, most of them spent a lot of time telling me their story rather than getting very specific about their problem. This took up most of the 15 minutes we had together. I was not much better as a participant when I had a chance to talk to the instructors at the British Institute. Honestly, I had not done much work yet on the family I was researching and should have spent more time analyzing what I had and preparing specific questions for the time I had with them.
My advice for anyone who has a chance to sit down with a professional for a quick consultation:
1. Decide what you want to ask – be focused.
2. Be specific – the time will go by fast
3. Know what you’ve already done and what documents you already have.
4. Keep the background story to a minimum. Don’t waste your precious time giving unnecessary information.
It is up to you to get the most out of the experience. The professional may be doing this as a volunteer (like I did at the roadshow) or as part of their overall fee (like the instructors at British Institute). You can’t expect one of these consultations to just give you the answer to your research problem. The time is too short. These consultations are designed to give participants guidance and maybe some ideas you hadn’t thought of or weren’t aware of.
I hope that these thoughts help you if the opportunity ever presents itself. I know I learned a lot about the process from both sides of the consultation table and will definitely be more prepared the next time.