Monday, November 16, 2009

Inherited Research

I recently received the following question from realbeale about organizing inherited research and genealogy files.

My mother was the family historian and completed 2 or 3 family genealogy books when she passed. I inherited 5 bins of primary research. Any advice on what I should keep and how to organize it?

Thanks for the great question! While no one system of organization works for everybody, hopefully, I can offer some tips that might assist you as you sort through those bins of research.

For starters, know that this is going to be a huge project. Don't expect to get it done in one weekend. If you're a super genea-ninja, a weekend might be enough. However, it took your mother years to collect all of that research. It will likely take you several weeks or even months to go through and organize it all, unless your mother was super-organized. If that is the case, all you need to do is inventory what is there, and you can stop reading now. You also might want to buy a lottery ticket because you've got to be one of the luckiest people alive.

Otherwise, my next suggestion is to try and see the big picture of what is in those bins. Spend a little bit of time just thumbing through each of the bins and getting a general feel for what is in them. This will help you as you start to dig into the details of how to organize it all.

When my grandmother's boxes were passed to me, she had not only research in there, but photos, scrapbooks, heirlooms, and other various things. If that is the case for you, the next step would be to organize by those groupings. I put all of the photos and scrapbooks in one pile, papers in another, and then a miscellaneous pile to hold everything else. Since this is a big project, you might want to pick up some bankers' boxes from your local Walmart. Put your initial piles into those boxes and label them. Then, as you get some spare time (as we all have loads of that, right?), you can select a box and start working on it bit by bit.

For photos, you'll want to sort those in a logical way, and if they haven't been already, you'll want to digitize them and preserve the originals. You can scan them in and clean them up yourself (see my previous post Digitizing Your Own Photos). Or you can use a service to do it for you (see my previous post Affordable Digitizing...).

Preserving heirlooms is a whole other topic in and of itself, which I won't get into here. However, you can find some good information on this online.

Now, all that should be left is the research. (I say that like it's a piece of cake, don't I?) I would organize my research into two different sections, as well. The first would be what some researchers would call "primary records." What constitutes a primary record is so subjective that I don't even like to use the terminology. Basically, you'll pull all of the vital records copies, newspaper clippings, census abstracts, journals and letters, etc., into one group. Nothing from this group will ever be thrown away. This is the stuff you'd want to pass on to someone else eventually. These are your "original" information documents.

Your second section of papers would include research notes, pedigree charts or family group records, and maybe even photocopies of some of the papers in the first section of research. This group of research you'll want to go through piece by piece at some point. If there are duplicates of pedigree charts, photocopies of original vital records that you already have, or notes from a family history seminar your mother attended that you don't need, those would be the things you'd add to a trash pile. However, don't throw anything away until you're absolutely sure there is not even a remote possibility you will ever need it again for research in the future. In other words, if it has a name you don't recognize that might be an ancestor or possible dates for a family member's death, don't toss it. What's left will require you to go through and decide what to do with the information. Much of it you might already have in your genealogy files. Some might be new information you can type into your genealogy program and then toss the paper copy. Other things might be somewhat cryptic research notes from your mother's visit to a cemetery in Massachusetts, and for now, you'll just file that away in a logical system of some sort. You may need it in the future.

Hopefully, these ideas can help get you started on sorting through all that you inherited. I think you'll discover not only some new things about your ancestors as you dig through those bins, but perhaps about your mother, as well. Good luck, and happy ancestor hunting!

Genealogists and Macs

I've gotten some emails recently from readers of my blog with specific questions so I'm going to use the next few blog posts to respond to those questions.

A few days ago, I received the following question on my previous post of New Family Search and Your Software.

I am moving from a PC to a Mac before the year is over. I like everything I have been introduced to the Mac by my son, grandson, and granddaughter. The Mac appears to be so much more reliable. The only hesitation I have is my obsession with family history - I have to stay on top of it. I will have windows running parallel just because of PAF. Any suggestions before I sign on the bottom line??


First, let me say welcome to the Apple side of the force. It sounds like you are going to be purchasing a Macintosh (or already have by the time I post this response). Whether it is new or refurbished, Apple will include the latest version of their operating system, which is Snow Leopard. With Snow Leopard (and the previous version of Leopard), you will also get a software program called BootCamp. This allows you two options for your genealogy work.

One option would be to use Parallels, as you mentioned. I used this option for a while. Keep in mind that you will need to have a legitimate, licensed version of Windows to run in Parallels. If you don't already have one, that will cost you, in addition to the cost of Parallels. Most of the time, Parallels worked fine, but even in Parallels, let's face it. It's still Windows. I had issues with Parallels freezing up on me occasionally and having to be closed. However, since all new Macs also come with a free backup program called Time Machine, I never lost any data so the freezing didn't cause me any major headaches. It was just annoying to have to shut down Parallels and re-open it, and then re-open PAF and all my open windows and find where I left off. The advantage to this option was that I could have Windows programs and Mac programs all open and running at the same time.

Your second option is to use BootCamp. BootCamp allows you to boot your Mac into Mac mode or Windows mode. Again, you'll still need a licensed version of Windows, but BootCamp is free with your new Mac so it won't cost quite as much as the first option. Secondly, Windows will run smoother and be more stable using BootCamp. However, this does have the drawback of requiring you to shut down and reboot your machine into Mac if you want to run any Mac programs. You will not be able to work on your genealogy and be working on something else requiring a Mac program.

I hope that all makes sense. Having said that, neither option is perfect, but I really do love working on a Mac. They are so much more stable, user-friendly, and come with a lot of free software that is actually useful. It is worth it to me to still have my Mac and just wait for some more genealogy-friendly options to come out as Mac spreads into the market more. Truly, when it comes to using a Mac, it hasn't at all inhibited my ability to sit around in my pajamas all hours of the night looking for my 3rd great grandfather's long-lost sister.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Always a Blank Page

My children love to watch re-runs of the children's show Lamb Chop. If you've ever seen the show, one of the things you probably remember the most from it was the ending song, "The Song That Never Ends." Well, with genealogy, it's more like "This is the work that never ends. Yes, it goes on and on my friend." I apologize if that song is now going to be stuck in your head for the rest of your day. However, it illustrates perfectly the approach we need to take with genealogy research. Our family history work is a never-ending mystery, a trail of clues, but we never definitively have a solution. It's like history or science - a new piece of evidence is discovered and the over-arching picture can change dramatically.

There are two points I'm trying to get across here, particularly to beginning or less-seasoned researchers. The first is that there are no comprehensive and final lists of sources to use in your research. The sources available are as plentiful as your imagination allows them to be. Secondly, the big picture of who your ancestors were and what their lives were like is never complete -- a previously undiscovered source of information can change everything you think you know.

In regards to possible sources of genealogical information, there is truly no limit. It's a matter of using clues and looking in places that you might not initially think to look. For example, you can find a birth date on a birth certificate, obituary announcement, military draft card, social security application, or family Bible. You can also, however, find a birth date in a job application, a passport application, a club's membership roster, etc. You can discover new information on a census sheet, in a county land record, or even in an old shoebox tucked away with your grandmother's things. The more information you find and the more sources you attempt to use, the more complete the research picture will become. One piece of information might lead you on to the next. Just think of it is a puzzle that will never have all of the pieces, but each new piece adds to the picture, allowing you to see it just a little more clearly.

However, keep in mind, the picture can change. As my aunt was going through my grandmother's things a few months after she passed away, she found a baby birth announcement. The announcement had been addressed to my grandmother's grandmother and mailed to her, as evidenced by the postmark. Obviously, at some point, it found it's way back into my grandmother's own things. The birthdate on the announcement matched that of my grandmother, Dolores Mae Binney, May 1930. However, the name printed on the announcement was not Dolores Mae, but Willa Binney. All of a sudden, there were new possibilities and new questions. A family rumor had floated around among a few family members for years: that my grandmother had a twin who was given up for adoption at birth because her parents couldn't afford two babies at the height of the Great Depression. Another theory is that my grandmother's mother picked one name, sent out announcements, and then decided she didn't like it as well as another name she had chosen. At this point, we're still making conjectures about the reason behind the baby announcement with the name we don't recognize, but it certainly changed what we thought was very straightforward information about my grandmother's birth.

With an infinite number of source possibilities and genealogy work that is never truly complete, the most important tip I can offer is to be creative and keep an open mind. You never know what obscure piece of information you might find in an unusual place, or what one piece of new data can do when you add it to the research you've already collected. In this regard, genealogy is always a blank page, or at least a page that requires having lots of white-out on hand.