Monday, October 2, 2017

Day Two: About That Paper Trail

When it comes to genealogical research, it's a slam dunk that the process will involve paper. Every detail in that family tree is just screaming for proof. You say your grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1897? Fine; prove it. You'll likely pull out a piece of paper to show me the documentation supporting that statement.

It's the multiplied iterations of that proof process that have gotten me bogged down in an organizational impasse. It's likely I have plenty of company in that predicament. And I'm using this month to help alleviate the tangles in my paper trail.

However, I recently stumbled upon a startling revelation about that paper trail problem: things aren't the way they used to be. Some people just have a greater need to touch that paper—piece by piece—than do others.

The other day, I was chatting with some fellow members of our local genealogical society. We were meeting for what our organization calls a special interest group, an informal gathering of peers where we share research resources and try to crowdsource the troubleshooting when a member gets stuck on a specific research problem.

In the course of the meeting, I had brought a list of links to sites which I had found helpful for tracing my ancestors from Scotland and Ireland. One particular resource—actually, it was a blog—included a long article, complete with maps and charts regarding migration pathways to colonial America.

After I described that post, one of the members stated, for such a resource, she would have to print it all out. Somehow, that comment floored me; why print out a web page—complete with awkward page breaks on account of scrolling—when you can simply refer back to the original site whenever you need it?

Yes, yes, of course, there will be the objections about broken links, etc., etc., but even then, there are digital ways around those computer woes. Still, a person could save the material just as easily by cutting and pasting or snipping the article—citing the resource location, author, date accessed and all the requisite attribution details for research etiquette—and file that in one's computer records. I have boxes and boxes of literal file folders stashed away in the spare corners of my home; why add to those woes by printing even more paper records?!

As the other women in the circle nodded their agreement, I realized something: I was odd man out, when it came to this go-to problem-solving mode. Here I was, wanting to cut the clutter when everyone else was blithely perpetrating the crime all over again.

The first woman explained: she wanted to be able to make her own notes in the margins of the printout. True, that would be useful—but couldn't there be a computerized way to achieve the same effect?

That's when I realized something. Some people have a greater need to touch what they are working on than do others. To some, if they touch the page they are reading, it becomes more real to them; it helps them focus on the task at hand—literally.

There is a corollary to that observation. Perhaps—since I'm not quite to the point of making this a full-blown hypothesis—there is an inverse relationship between the comfort felt when a person holds the paper being worked on, and the ease with which that person can transform work tasks into a computer-based solution. There are some people for whom snipping and annotating the discovery found on a web page is a simple process; there are others who still cannot fathom why their email program doesn't seem to work for them.

For those in the former camp (and I'm afraid I'm a hybrid here) it is quite a simple matter to scan everything into digital files, make some notes on a word processing program or database management system, and poof!—blow those paper files into smithereens (or at least haul them out to the curb with the recycling). For those firmly ensconced in the latter group, I can understand their need for paper. It becomes a security blanket as well as genealogical documentation shield in the face of a cyber-struck world.

So, for those to whom the thought of shredding all paper may strike sheer terror, I feel for you. I understand the importance of touching the page you are reviewing. I get that paper makes things seem more real. For that type of person, an entirely different form of genealogical organizing may take place than what I hope to attain in the following twenty nine days.

Bottom line on this organizing thing: foundational to the start of the process is an understanding of yourself and what you feel comfortable with. In my case, I foresee some important documents getting scanned into an appropriately-labeled computer file, but then saving the original as a tangible back-up—like the Davis family Bible with the entry about my grandfather's birth. But for many of the resources I've accumulated over the years, I anticipate confirming they have a place in my digital world, then chucking them for good. And I'm okay with that, because that's the comfort level I've discovered works best for me in this project.

Above: "Moonrise," 1878 oil on canvas by German landscape artist Walter Moras; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. 


  1. Hi Jacqui- I finally tackled part of my paper stash at the beginning of the year by taking the plunge and buying a ScanSnap scanner that has OCR searchable capability. I put it all into Evernote, where I have folder for ancestors. It took a bit of a learning curve to actually use these files like I would with a file cabinets full of folders. It is actually working better than I thought as I can just pull up a page of handwritten notes and see something I might have missed or that is now relevant. In Evernote, I can just type in a search word and it will pull all of the scanned documents with that word. Plus, I have it available with me at all times on my laptop. Now I just have to finished the other half the files.
    I so enjoy your posts. Winnie

    1. Winnie, that's an excellent suggestion--not so much the scanner, as we have three different types in our office, but to link it with Evernote. I've toyed with the Evernote thought so many times, but just not sprung for the service quite yet. I have that tendency of researching something to death, and Evernote is still on my research to-do list. Your technique sounds like a great route to follow!

  2. Dropbox is free up to a point and accessible from any computer :)

  3. I save webpage links in my Toolbox in OneNote. I can type in notes next to link. I can also paste the page in so I see it on the OneNote page.

    As for touching paper, I can understand that. I might work on a digital document for hours (or days), but to really "see" to proofread, I print it out.

    And I think for our descendants to save our genealogy, we have to print out something. Something has to look complete for them to save it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...