Monday, 12 January 2015

Week 1 of my Genealogy Do-Over

Week 1 of the Genealogy Do-Over is now well and truly over, and people are posting their week 2 comments.  But here am I, still writing up my first week’s summary.  I don’t really mind though - this week was an important one, so I am not going to hurry the tasks.

It was more of a “thinking and planning” week for me, rather than a “doing” one.  There have been many posts on the Facebook group and just reading what everyone else is planning for their Do-Overs could take up days, yet alone trying to follow up putting any of those ideas into practice.  Perhaps I work slowly, or some of the posters have quietly managed to work out how to fit more than 24 hours into each day (Please let me in on the secret, if you have!)  Either way, I have already improved my ability to “skim read” and to focus on what is most relevant to me.

The topics for this week were:
  1. Setting Previous Research Aside
  2. Preparing to Research, and
  3. Establishing Base Practices and Guidelines

 To add to that, and to help me remember the overall aim, I picked out key words to concentrate on – I am building a Firm Foundation, establishing Goals, Procedures and Tools to enable me to Work Smarter, leading to the ultimate goal of Better Genealogical Research.

1 Setting Previous Research Aside

Fortunately, the personal family history that I am “putting aside” for now isn’t my own research, but that of my parents, which makes this part easier for me than the process has been for some people.  The paperwork is still boxed up from when I brought it back from my parents’ house – original documents, mainly BMD certificates, are in specific files, so those will be my first port of call whenever I reach the point of needing to “order” a certificate.  Apart from that, the rest of the paperwork I shall ignore until after the Do-Over, when I will work through it, treating it as “new” sources to be evaluated, recorded and scanned as appropriate, using my improved skills and practices.  [Yes, okay, I did look up some letters Dad wrote, in order to answer a comment from one of his cousins, who I have recently starting corresponding with.  But that’s just checking a historical fact regarding what he did, isn’t it?  It’s not really “research” J ]

2 Preparing to Research 

The suggestion by Thomas MacEntee of “warm up exercises” before carrying out research prompted a few humorous comments.  But the point was to consider our “time, location and tools”, ie the when, where, and how of our research.  For some, this meant things like setting aside specific time for research, clearing desks, stocking up the coffee, and taking a few deep breaths to clear their mind.
My thoughts went to when I was clearing my Mum’s things and found that every bag had in it a hanky, a comb, a small mirror and a nail file or manicure set.  At the time, her organisation had made me smile – but now I realise that most of my bags come equipped with pens, pencils, and a magnifying glass.  And, along with my purse and phone, my little digital camera always gets transferred to whichever bag I am carrying. 

So maybe Mum and I are not so different after all - I just have different priorities.  As I am carrying out a reasonably sized one-name study, I often run into information in unexpected places, so being able to collect data whenever or wherever it pops up is important to me.  But I also know that I am currently not sufficiently organised to make the best use of these opportunities.  The lack of a good documentation process, and ongoing planning, can lead to erratic progress, “disjointed” research and an over-concentration on certain aspects, eg collecting data but never getting it analysed.  So I need to focus on the whole process, from start to finish, for better management of opportunities and research time.  This is where having a good research plan and log, with specific goals listed, is vital.

There’s a balance between setting goals, and setting yourself up to fail by making those goals impossible to achieve.  So I am just going for some “tweaks” to my existing practices.  The Guild’s “7 Pillars” structure for a one-name study is well embedded in my mind (especially the “collect - analyse - synthesize - publish” sequence), even if I don’t always manage to follow it through.  But now, above my desk, I have put up Mark Tucker’s poster of the Genealogical Research Process to remind me of additional details to be added in.  This will help with maintaining an ongoing research plan and log in particular.  [More thoughts on the plan/log below.]

I won’t stop the “anytime, anyplace” attitude but will be working on some tools to improve what I achieve.  Those I will detail on a separate page of this blog, as it’s going to take time to work through the most useful suggestions that have been made and I want a record of my progress with those.

3 Establishing Base Practices and Guidelines  

There has been a lot of “goal setting” going on by those joining in with the Genealogy Do-Over and some people seem to find it so easy to produce long lists of actions they will do.  I know that, unless a goal is written down, I am unlikely to achieve it but goals should also be specific – which starts to get too detailed for me at this point.  I prefer to do as Thomas MacEntee suggested and think in terms of what principles would I pass on to a new researcher. In which case, I have three that instantly come to mind:

1st Principle: Trust nothing, check everything.

2nd Principle: Don’t be in a hurry to link “data” to “people”.  
Some One-namers concentrate on people and enter all their data straight into Family Tree programs.  Although I use such programs, I dislike many online trees in particular as, even with sources listed, other people reading it tend to lose sight of the evidence that went into creating the tree.  But it is important to know how a particular judgement about a connection was made, especially when dealing with a large study.  If there are ten entries for a particular name in a particular place, then one must be able to show why the other nine are not the right ones.  This was a lesson learnt very early on in my Parry research, when I tried merging information across several census years into one file, thinking it would make it easier to identify matching census entries for particular individuals.  The principle applies just as much with a personal tree and being able to identify the correct entries in the records for a particular ancestor.

3rd Principle: Always be prepared to change your ideas in the light of new evidence.  
Many people have chosen Thomas’s “make the first pass, the only pass” as one of their principles.  That’s a good aim in that we should do the best we can now at analyzing a document.  But I would still say that, however well we do this, we should be prepared to review our research in the future.  Most of us are not experts on the past.  We view it with 21st century eyes and I know that I have occasionally read legal land documents as meaning almost the opposite of what they actually meant, purely because I did not understand the terminology of the land transfer.  We may have been thorough to the level of our own understanding at the time, but as our experience and knowledge develops, we might need to change our interpretation and conclusions.  This is one of the reasons why being explicit about how and why we reached a particular conclusion is important.

Those three principles I have tried to apply for years but Thomas suggested we came up with five, so what else do I need to work on? 

I have already written in my previous blog post my “Golden Rule” of no treasure hunting until previous searches are fully documented, and mentioned above the need for a research plan and log so, for my 4th principle, I will use one of Thomas’s – Track all work (even dead ends, negative evidence, and non-productive searches) and cite all sources. 

For my 5th Principle, I was thinking about why Thomas used the term “Golden Rules” and about the ethics of reciprocity, and treating others as you would like to be treated yourself.  I was struck by people including “be nice” and “sharing” among their goals.  As a one-namer, I am already committed to helping people and answering queries about my surname.  It is what we do.  I think collaboration is also important and so I started to think about how I could combine working more with people as well as help those who come after me.  So my final principle is to be generous, not just with assisting current researchers, but with an increased concentration on ensuring reliable information is “out there” for future researchers to find.  [To this end, I have already set up a Parry Name Study on Wikitree.  I did read a slightly negative view of that site recently, but I shall see how it goes.  My own Parry line had already been added by someone else, but I shall be adding my other ancestral lines as I carry out the Do-Over and research them, as well as working with the Parrys on the site.] 

This might have a downside – one of the consequences of putting anything online is often an increase in correspondence. And I learnt long ago that if I answer people quickly, they promptly write back – and soon I am snowed under writing emails and never actually progressing towards goals.  This is a hobby and I do have other interests, so will need to keep a balance.  But, hopefully, improved organisation will help me keep a better control of that, in future.

Further thoughts from Week 1 


I was given my first camera when I was aged 6.  We all had cameras in my family and photography was a hobby, so we took a lot of photographs.  And now I have piles of scanning to do, not just of past research notes and documents, but also the thousands of photographs from my parents that I am in possession of.   So I was thrilled to learned of Scanfest, (details at  http://ancestories1.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/2015-scanfest-dates.html ) As Carole Steers kindly pointed out, this is held from 7pm to 10pm UK time so is quite convenient time-wise and, hopefully, joining in that will help the scanning pass enjoyably.

File structure and file naming

In my first post, I said one my goals was to set up a new file structure for my one-name study – I shall write more about that on the Parry blog, once done.   For my personal family history, I will divide files between my paternal and maternal lines.  That will link in with my DNA research - with my mother and several of my father’s relatives DNA tested, I can sort matches into those two sides, so it will be easier to just concentrate on one set of records at a time.

But what about subsequent generations?  Should I continue to sub-divide the families in some way?

A lot of people have been describing their file structures and file naming systems for the Do-Over and posting associated images.  One poster neatly summed up the difference between the various suggested file systems as being either document based, or name based.  A surname-based system seems to be quite popular.

But it does strike me as slightly incongruous that, in their goals, many people are emphasizing their need to start documenting and analyzing records properly, and citing their evidence – but then opt for a file naming system based on the person the document (supposedly) relates to ie by name, dob etc., rather than one based on the document itself.

I suspect my own structure and file naming will fundamentally be document based, especially with the potential to end up with Welsh patronymics in some of my lines.  But since Thomas MacEntee says he’ll decide on a file naming convention later on in the Do-Over, I think I can safely leave my final decision on that for now, as well.

There do seem to be some useful “file-related” tools out there, such as a program for colour coding files by various criteria.  Some people are using that for identifying folders with different surnames, but I quite like the idea of using colours to identify the stage of processing, eg different colours to signify files that have just been collected, those with claims entered in Evidentia, those with ongoing queries, those ready to be archived etc.  So I may play around with those ideas first.

Research Plan and Log

There have been several examples of checklists, plans and logs posted.  I tend to find I like certain features on them, but not all, so I will probably end up with something I have devised myself, as a variation of some of these.  I do have some preliminary thoughts:

  • I need one Master Research Plan – most of the research plans I have seen posted have related to individuals and would need to be collected together in some way, so that it is possible to identify at a glance all the queries that can be looked up at a particular repository, or in a specific data-set, when preparing to research.
  • The plan and log need to be closely related – an entry from the plan, once done, can then be easily transferred to the log.  Similarly, doing research (and therefore logging it) often produces more queries that need to go on to the plan, as things to be done in the future.
  • The plan and log also both need to be accessible easily – if I have to physically turn the computer on to add to them, as I do currently for my correspondence log (an excel spreadsheet stored locally on the pc), then it won’t be very practical and I am unlikely to maintain it.  Since I usually have my phone with me, a tool that can sync automatically between a phone, pc, ipad etc, would be the most suitable.

In fact, I have made one decision about this – I was reading Miriam’s research plan, at http://ancestories1.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/tuesdays-tip-research-plan-explanation.html and, as soon as I saw her plan, I made the decision to try OneNote for my own (and, no, you may not find an obvious connection between that posting and OneNote.  It was just how my mind went!)

So now I just need to work out how to use OneNote effectively, to see if it will actually do what I want!

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