Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Who, Me? Organized?!

People who jump into the world of genealogical research eventually discover their crying need to become organized. There is a serious risk that the paper trail which once tantalized us can turn vicious and eventually swallow us whole—unless we have a plan, that is.

With that said, I couldn't help but chuckle at the thought that someone considered me to be organized. Who, me? Organized? I had to laugh when I saw a reader's comment on Monday's post about research journals. Janet was too kind when she characterized me as "very organized"—but her question about research routines does resonate with many of us, I suspect. So, I promised her I'd take some time to discuss that today—and I hope you will feel free to share your thoughts on this topic, as well.

But first, a caveat: remove any notion that you are reading the words of an organized person. If you want advice from someone like that, consider following certified professional organizer, Janine Adams of Saint Louis, who fell in love with family history several years ago and now not only blogs about life organization, but also has a separate blog dedicated to specific tips for genealogists, as well. Best of all, she has a continuing series called "How They Do It," which features tips from some well-known genealogists.

I suppose I should briefly explain why I don't consider myself a worthwhile example of organizational prowess, at least in the realm of genealogy. First of all, I am an autodidact, but not because of any personal choice; when I first wanted to learn about genealogy, there was no one to really help me learn. That episode occurred roughly at the age of eight, when my halting question to the children's librarian got me pointed in the direction of the adult section of the local library and to the spot reserved for those who were curious about their American-cousin chances of succeeding to the British throne. The verbiage in those pedigree tomes was far too dry for anyone of my tender age, and I soon gave up my desire to pursue the topic.

By the time I was able to strike out on my own, it was following my college years. By then, those general research skills applied to surviving term paper assignments did enable me some moderate success, but in truth, while that could be considered assembling the history of my family, it certainly wasn't adequate to compiling a thorough genealogical proof argument. By the advent of publicly-accessible online resources, even then, my learning was peer-to-peer based, with many of us sharing resources and thinking out problems collectively through online conversations, not necessarily focusing on the proper techniques of genealogical research.

It wasn't until the last ten years or so that I've been able to access serious training on research techniques, mostly through workshops and classes offered in tandem with genealogy conferences and institutes. My collection of genealogy books has skyrocketed at the same time, revealing that persistent autodidactic streak.

That said, while I do have a research routine, you'd have to think of it in terms of its contrast with linear thinking; mine is omni-directional. Instead of simply moving from Point A to Point B, working backwards in time, my line of questioning when dealing with a new research goal first starts by reaching out in all directions. I learn to ask questions—questions about everything I'd want to know about an ancestor. Tracking the progress in answering those questions often takes the form of what is sometimes called mind-mapping.

Then, in pursuing any given research problem, I like to borrow a concept from the world of pedagogy: the contrast, in teaching, between "content" and "process." The content, in seeking information on a given ancestor, might be the details of that person's life: where she was born, where she lived, what childhood and adult life might have been like for a person in her lifespan and community. The process, by contrast, would be the methods I use to wrap my head around understanding that content. Where can I find my answers? Which resources would best address my questions about this research goal? How far afield of the basic B-M-D routine do I want to stray? How long will I have to look until I can read between the lines or find the story on that person's life?

Wandering down that "process" path can use up an inordinate amount of research time, but deciding whether the time expended is "worth it" takes a judgment call which only comes with the experience of doing it in the past. Perhaps there is a sixth sense, when it comes to sniffing out a story—and for me, it's not so much the vital stats I'm after when I research an ancestor; it's recreating that living, breathing person so I can better appreciate that person's life experience that I seek. Such a journey may lead to a government office, but it could just as well lead to a book—or to walking the very same path an ancestor walked to school, or work, or church.

Vital to that process is learning the skill of asking questions—which again requires me to put myself in that ancestor's shoes and follow that meandering, mind-mapping path. Every fact, if we think about it, can prompt further lines of questioning—if, at least, we are open to learning more about the context of our ancestors' lives and not just the surface content. Pursuing those questions can lead to what I referred to last Monday—that "research routine" checklist of go-to resources I can't fail to include. I have some sources I usually consider, and they do reach far beyond the first stops of or Books, journals, newspapers, manuscripts—even (maybe especially) those outside the field of genealogy—can yield much more information than those dusty government documents we are used to consulting.

While all that may seem a rather haphazard approach to research, I do have one aspect to the process which is strictly routine: I periodically review all my work, as captured in my genealogical databases. I regularly take a family line and start from one end of the surname—usually the progenitor—and work my way from parents to children and then to their children, taking each child in age order, to check whether any new resources can be found to add to what I've already discovered. I check the resources I've already attached to each specific person—census records for each decade of that person's lifespan, plus birth, marriage, and death records and corroboration—to make sure I haven't missed any available record. I step beyond that point to scour newspaper collections and other written material for additional mentions of that individual.

And then, I move on to the next oldest child and repeat. Yes, I work on each of the collateral lines as that is sometimes where I can break through a brick wall on a sibling. This may seem like a tedious process—especially considering I have two different trees which each contain roughly twenty thousand individuals—but in the review, I often spot areas which need additional support, or even outright correction.

Does all that sound like one big, hot mess? Now you see why I laugh to think anyone would consider me organized. But I tackle that approach relentlessly—sometimes, just working my way through Ancestry on my phone while standing in line at a store—and ultimately clean up a bunch of tangled research trash.

I've always liked that proverb, "Where no oxen are, the crib is clean; but much increase is by the strength of the ox." In other words, if you want something that looks organized—clean and always orderly in appearance—perhaps the only way you can achieve that state is when no work gets done. In order to tackle those unyielding research problems, sometimes you have to get down and dirty and wrestle the answers out. The brute force of the research process can sometimes get messy. And messy never looks "organized."

Just remember, after the project is finished, to put everything back away in its place—if your project ever gets done. And we all know that family tree is never completed. ;)


  1. Well you are more organized than most people! I still have notes in notebooks...that is better than the slips of paper they were originally on:)

    1. If it weren't for online services and desktop-resident genealogy databases, Far Side, I'd be buried under all those slips of paper!

  2. Actually - although I purchased RootsMagic and have started a filing system - I still have notes on scraps of paper, too.

    1. I think its just the way we all roll, Miss Merry. Scraps of paper serve an important place in this type of pursuit, I think. It's just what we do with them after we write stuff on them that makes the difference.

  3. Belated thanks for this post, which was prompted by my comment that I thought you were "very organized." I still do. We can think of organization as a continuous improvement project measured on a scale of one to ten. Although you do not consider yourself "very organized" you are certainly much closer to ten than I am. Your February 26 blog post "What to Do When that Brick Wall Really is a Brick Wall," illustrates some of the process that I was asking about.
    Working on your brick wall there is 1) checking latest updates on digitized records, 2) snail mail inquiry to local repository, 3) studying the bigger picture of locality (history and geography), 4) write down records attempted to find and outcome 5), note records not able to obtain and note why would be helpful, and 6) write a research plan.
    The most important step you reminded us of was studying the location. Almost all of my research is in Pennsylvania and it is very important to understand county boundary changes to understand where the records may be. Thanks again for sharing your time, your talents, and your research process with us.

    1. Oh, Janet, you are too kind; you would laugh if you could see all the telltale signs of my disorganization! Well, at least I can still think in an organized manner...sometimes. Glad those examples are of some help.


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