My last post, on the difficulty of organizing genealogical materials, must have hit a nerve, because there have been several heartfelt responses from readers (Thank you!). I was spurred to tackle my mess once more -- it has become a logjam that prevents me from even thinking about any individual research problem.
At a recent meeting of the Sonoma County Genealogical Society, the subject was “Organizing for a research trip.” I always thought I had that down pretty well, but of course I learned a good deal, and was inspired by all these motivated people. Turns out, the suggestions they made can be applied to my current difficulties, even without an out-of-town trip on the horizon (at least not for several months).
I decided to start in on my “work in progress” folders, which have become dumping grounds for notes, census printouts, and other miscellany. (Does it ever occur to you that the workspace resembles an archeologically-defined midden heap, with piles getting higher and higher, so that we just pick off the topmost layer to work on?) For me,“Work in progress” had become a euphemism for “I’ll just put this stuff here for now.”
My first step was to inventory the folders and divide them into categories. In fact, after I made the list the subject divisions seemed to present themselves.
I have several descendancy projects, for various individuals who are siblings of my direct ancestors. It is fun and rewarding to work forward in time for a change, coming down from a known relative and trying to trace all that person’s descendants -- though there are challenges when everyone has girls!
Another set of project/problems I have labeled “mystery persons,” because they deal with individuals who figure in some way in my family history, but I don’t yet know if they are related, and, if so, how. I combined this with a couple of “lost boys.” These are young men who disappear from the records presumably unmarried and childless -- I want to know what became of them!
Then there is the catchall category I call “General Vexations,” for those irritating problems that so far defy solution. An early ancestor’s county of birth, which would lead me to his parents; the whereabouts of a relative in the years before he shows up married in Tennessee, while his brothers all stayed in Indiana; the story behind the disappearance of a little girl’s family in Kansas, which led her to be taken in and renamed (though not formally adopted) by another couple.
At the Genealogical Society meeting we were reminded that planning for a trip involves pulling relevant materials together for particular research efforts, with some background data, and I liked the idea of thaving a thin binder for each one. It can contain a family group sheet, map of the area, a timeline, a research log (my downfall), and of course a plan for doing future research. The most important thing, of course, is to have a well-defined, not-too-broad, goal in mind. It does help to put that in writing.
This can be applied to non-travel as well -- going on the Internet these days is as fruitful as many trips used to be. A binder keeps items in place and encourages you to use standard-size sheets of paper for your notes. A simple matter, but it helps a lot. And if you only have a handful of sheets for a particular project and don’t want to buy three-ring binders by the dozen, try using folders with pockets.
The key here is to be consistent. Have the same kinds of materials for each project, insofar as they are relevant. Be clear on what it is you want to find out, and be sure to include, in the form of timelines or tables and family group sheets, what you already know (with sources). Sometimes just re-arranging all this will reveal clues and suggest new search strategies. If it seems absolutely essential to have family documents at hand, make copies and store the precious originals elsewhere.
That brings us to the next question -- where is “elsehwere”? A topic for another time.