Before you start building your locality guide, you may want to make a few decisions. Primarily you will want to decide what format you want your guide to be in. Do you want to use a spreadsheet, word processor, or note-taking software such as Evernote? Do you want to use paper and pencil/pen? Where do you want to store it? On the cloud, in your desk, on your laptop? These are decisions you will have to make and they will depend on how you work and think and organize your resources.
I have traditionally organized my locality guides in a word processing document creating my own “quick sheet” for that location. However, I have begun moving them into Evernote (a note-taking software system that can sync between your devices) so that I can access them anywhere if need be. I prefer an electronic system over a paper system because:
You can add clickable links directly to databases, e-books, websites, etc.
You can use the “find” and “search” features for locating keywords in your guide.
You can add information, copy/paste, and insert graphics quite easily.
You can save it to the cloud and access it anywhere with your phone, laptop, or tablet.
If you prefer paper and pencil, I’m not one to judge. I still love reading things on paper. If I were to make a locality guide entirely on paper, I would use index cards whereby each card is its own entry. This will allow you to sort and organize your index cards in any order you like, and add new information to the set as it is found.
If you decide to use a word processor for your guide, you may consider saving it to the cloud either through a service such as DropBox or by compiling it directly in a service such as GoogleDocs. Both of these will allow you to access your guide anywhere.
Next we will discuss what to start putting IN your guide…
Last week I described why a research plan/log or PLOG, is a good idea. This week, let’s get into some of the nitty gritty of what a research PLOG looks like.
First, you will want to have several research plans. They should be based on a particular project you are working on. Remember, we are past the “collecting” phase and are now into the FOCUSED phase of our research. (Refer back a few weeks to the post on Getting Focused.) Your research plans and logs will want to reflect that focus. I have a research plan for each individual project I’m working on. And my projects are generally driven by my research questions. So, I have a PLOG that holds research tasks and findings relative to a particular research question I am trying to solve.
You can create these PLOGs in any platform that works for you: word processor, spreadsheet, Evernote or One Note, Scrivener, and so on. Even paper. I’m not here to tell you which one to use. But I will share what I use: Evernote. Now there was a recent Evernote update that had a lot of people upset, they didn’t like the changes. Well, who likes change? I know I don’t. I am still working with the new update and forming my opinions, but so far, everything has been working ok with a few minor hiccups.
I like Evernote because of its ability to sync between my laptop, my phone, my iPad, and a web version, so I literally have access anywhere I have the internet. I can also access my notes offline as long as I synced everything before I left the land of the internet. It also acts like a word processor and I can add tables, images, links to other notes, and more. I can also search my notes by keyword or tags (if I added them).
When I create a research plan/log in Evernote, I put the research question at the top so that I remain focused and my notes are categorized and organized. I then have a table with the following column headings: Call#/Location, Title/Description, Names/Information I’m looking for, Results (notes, or a link to another note that holds the scanned images), Notes reflecting my thoughts. See the example below:
I have several variations, and they change depending on circumstances. Sometimes I add a column for the date or the repository if it is a PLOG that covers many repositories. Most often, I have another note that contains the actual contents of what I found, usually photos I took with my phone and uploaded to Evernote. On those Evernote notes, I will write out the citation for that item, so they are together.
I also have research PLOGs that are repository focused. Pre-pandemic, there were repositories I visited on a semi-regular basis, so as I worked from home and identified things I wanted to examine at a particular repository, I would add them to those PLOGs, with a link to the overall log for that research question.
You can do a similar thing in other platforms. In a spreadsheet, for example, you can have multiple tabs in one spreadsheet. Perhaps you have a spreadsheet about your John Smith family and organize those tabs by the particular generations, brick wall problems, repositories, and so on. Or, if you prefer word processing documents, organize your hard drive in a similar way: a folder for each surname, then perhaps broken down by generation or research problem, and then the various documents within that pertain to that problem. The sky is really the limit in terms of how you organize.
The main point with the research plan and log is that you create a system whereby you can collect what you plan to look at and what you found, in an easy, effective, and efficient way that works for you. Then, when it is time to sit down and really analyze what you have, it is all logged in one location.
If you are a longtime reader, you know a phrase I often say in this blog and when I’m presenting to an audience: “Do what works best for you. But do it!” So, go get a system set up that you think might work for you. You’ll end up modifying it as you learn and grow as a researcher, but just get started.
I like to write in “bits.” By ‘bits’ I mean short thoughts, a couple of paragraphs on one idea, or a page at a time. My ‘bits’ can be found everywhere: notebooks, margins, on my phone in the notes app, in emails or texts to myself, slips of paper on my desk, sticky notes sticking to all kinds of things, in Evernote, and in other places. This is not very organized! Unfortunately, many writers that I’ve talked to are like this. When an idea hits you, you have to take a moment to write it down wherever you can.
How do you manage all of those ‘bits’? Here are some ideas I’ve developed over the years:
Keep a notebook on your desk. I have a notebook that I use as a holder for my writing ideas of whatever kind. I prefer paper most of the time. I find it easier to jot my ideas down rather than finding my phone, opening an app, being clutzy with the typing and dealing with autocorrect, and so on.
Evernote. I already use it a lot for research notes. This one is easy for the mobile aspect of note-keeping. I may not always have my notebook, but I’m rarely without my phone. Now, instead of texting myself or emailing myself or using the notes app, I try to put thoughts into my Evernote app in a folder called “writing ideas” if it is a general idea, or in a particular folder if it has something to do with something I’m already working on. And if you aren’t an Evernote user, use your software/app of choice.
Use timelines and tables. When working on certain research projects, especially trying to determine if I’m working with one man or two (or more), timelines and tables can be helpful in organizing the evidence I’ve found and then make a reasonable determination.
Use note cards. Yep. I said it. Use that old-school item, the 3×5 notecard. I use them when I’m working on how to organize my evidence items. They help me decide when to introduce a new evidence item, concept, or individual when working on a larger writing project such as a case study.
When you accumulate a lot of ‘bits’ you need to do something with them to keep them organized. Some of the above might work for you, or you may find another system that speaks to your way of doing things. However you do it, your system should help you keep your ‘bits’ in a logical order, contained (to avoid tangents), and on topic or theme.
I find that over time, that I can take those ‘bits’ and put them into a larger writing piece. And nothing is better than getting a larger writing piece put together!
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.
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.
Before you embark on any research trip, it is wise to give yourself the time to comb through the repositories’ online catalogs and finding aids. Almost every library, archive and courthouse is going to have some kind of information online to help you plan your trip. My favorite thing to do (and the task which I usually short change myself on) is looking at online catalogs and creating a list of what I want to look at when I get there.
Salt Lake City’s Family History Library is a great example of an online catalog that is informative, easy to access and simple to plan from. If you have thought out your research goals and have a plan, then accessing the catalog and creating a “to do” list is the final step (well, before packing and filling up the car). It is like drawing a map for your visit in the library. We only have so much time before we have to leave any research trip so getting the most out of your time is essential.
There are several ways to collect the data and create the list of records, books, or micro-materials you want to access. Back in the “old days,” and by “old days” I mean before smart phones, tablets and even the wide-spread use of laptops, I used to access the catalog, print the page containing the description of the item, write on the blank space of the page or on the back who or what I was hoping to find in the record, and then would store it in a 3-ring binder. Each page was in a sheet protector and when I printed the corresponding records, they would be slipped into the sheet protector along with the catalog page. This ensured I had all of the data I need to create a source citation later.
Now, the microfilm readers have thumb drives. I can copy and store the catalog materials in Evernote. I can take photographs of the pages (even microfilm projections) with my smartphone directly into Evernote. I can sit next to the film reader with my MacBook Air (tiny, lightweight) and take notes in a spreadsheet or on Evernote. There are a million different ways to do this. Use whatever works best for you and your process.
Before you leave on your trip, but once you’ve identified what repositories you’re visiting, get online and see what online resources they have. Google is excellent at this. Just search for their catalog. One small local library I often visit is the Wood County District Public Library in Bowling Green, Ohio. Their online catalog is very helpful, allowing researchers to know ahead of time what they have in their collection. Their catalog is connected to a larger database, so if they don’t have what you are looking for you can search surrounding area libraries and see if they have the item nearby. WCDPL also has an excellent collection of newspapers on microfilm which are what I usually access when I go.
While I’m in Bowling Green, there are a few other repositories and locations I like to visit:
Zoar Lutheran Church (though a large portion of their records have been moved to Way PL)
These towns are within about a 45 mile range from each other, stretching north/south on the I-75 corridor in NW Ohio. There are countless cemeteries and historical attractions in between. By accessing data online before I go, I can create a plan that makes the most of my time there. When you are planning a trip, widen your range and figure out what you can reasonably visit and research with your allotted amount of time.
The FGS conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana is about a month away. I am leaving for GRIP this Saturday. I will be going on a research trip to Salt Lake City in September. My summer travel plans are ticking by. Regardless, I do have a checklist for what to bring to any given event that’s genealogy related.
Bring a sweater. I don’t know about you but even though it might be 90 degrees and 99 percent humidity outside, being inside can sometimes be like the arctic. For that matter it can also be 90 degrees and humid. My point being bring a sweater and dress in layers. There is nothing more miserable that being too hot or too cold. Be prepared.
I have a small zipper pouch of essential office supplies: sticky notes, sticky flags, pens (1 ball point and a few colored felt-tipped), pencils, a few paperclips, highlighters (I prefer yellow), etc. I don’t use this as much as I used to, but I am one of those people who write in the books that I buy so I use these items a lot.
Business cards. I will be milling about with fellow genealogists and potential clients, so it’s important to have some cards on hand at all times.
I used to always bring my laptop, but since I got a blue tooth keyboard for my iPad, I am loving the lightweight portability of just carrying around a small bag rather than my backpack or rolling suitcase. (Don’t forget the chargers for all of the electronic devices!) When going on a research trip, I make sure that I have all of my files synced with my iPad, mainly my latest Reunion file. I also put all of my travel itineraries, hotel, air, car reservations in Evernote, which syncs to my iPad/iPhone.
Pre-planned list of the programs I wish to attend. I will copy the syllabus to my iPad to have with me at the lectures. I have a .pdf viewing app that allows me to highlight and make notes right on the syllabus pages. No more need to print them out ahead of time, only to realize you printed the wrong pages, or carry around the giant books they used to give out at conferences.
Leave extra suitcase space for the books you might buy and the free swag you will pick up.
Of course, the above list is in addition to all of the socks, undies, t-shirts, shorts/pants, and toothbrushes needed to have an enjoyable trip. Good reading material is a plus as well. I usually have the latest NGSQ or other genealogy book with me for the plane ride. I hope to see you at FGS or any of the other amazing genealogical conferences and institutes available throughout the year.
So, I went “on the clock” (for BCG certification) in December 2012. In the meantime a lot of “life” has happened but a lot of “life” is going to happen when you take a step like this. I’m the type of person who needs a deadline, so I went on the clock. Once I sat down and tried to locate a family/problem for my case study, I got concerned. One look at my office, my binders, my computer files, told me that I was horribly unorganized and I needed to do a lot of catching up, fixing, data entry (I have a thumb drive with scans from Salt Lake City from 2009 that I haven’t worked with yet!) and organizing, before I could even make an educated guess on the case study.
Well, in the last week, I went through a very large pile of notes with “to-do” items on them, some dating back to 2003. They said things like “find tombstone for …” or “locate obit for …” or one sticky note “I am not convinced that ––– is really –––’s father.” (Names being left out in case this REALLY is my case study.) That one sticky note sent me on a swirl of reviewing documents, notes, computer files, quick look-ups on Ancestry and FamilySearch. I MAY just have found my case study. I have a few pieces of indirect evidence but nothing conclusive that says who the parents of my subject are.
This project is so counter-intuitive for the genealogist. If you’ve never reviewed the Case Study requirements for the BCG portfolio, it basically requires that you use the genealogical proof standard to solve a problem of conflicting evidence or by using of indirect evidence. I know that I have many of these in my family research, but finding a good one can be challenging. And then, what happens when you start to work hard on it and then find that piece of direct evidence? … ah … back to square one.
I did get through my pile of to-dos and either figured out that they had been done (recycled), or if they were easy to do (just did it), or they went into my Evernote to-do list (then recycled). Now, on to some research! So pray for my project, that I find no direct evidence on this man’s parentage and instead am able to locate a lot of really good indirect evidence!