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Getting Organized for Genealogy Research

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I remember when I first started working on our family history, my trips to the library we’re exciting. I never knew what I was looking for and never knew what I would find. I went in with my notebook and a print or sketch of what we knew for as many generations as possible. Of course, I’d have names, birth and death dates going back to my 2nd great grandparents across the line, but I had no plan for research. I liked to think of this as the shotgun approach. I’d go and see what resources were available. If there was a census in a year that looked “target rich” then I’d pick it off the shelf and try to look for each family in the list.

I suppose in some ways this early approach worked because I was able to make some steady progress on the genealogy. Since then though, I’ve found that I can’t take the “shotgun” approach any more because there’s just too much information in the tree, there are too many questions I have in each branch. I wind up being paralyzed spending my time looking through my printouts and old notes to figure out just what I’m going to try and discover new.

I’ve done a number of things since that time that help in the organization area. One of these is to separate your printouts and old research copies into separate folders for each surname. More recently I’ve taken to putting in a printout of my “census summary” in each families folder. Here’s how I try to handle it. I create a simple text file on the computer and go through chronologically each census year and go through my notes and record ANY entries for members of that family. So, if I’ve done it right I should have a record for each surname of their progress through each census year. For some families that have been well researched I now have several good pages of this information. At the beginning of each census entry I note the County, State as well as book and page number so that another researcher can check my transcription if I’ve misinterpreted a name or age from an original copy. This also helps if I’m working from a transcription which may have had difficulty reading the original, so I can go back and doublecheck if need be. I also use this document to insert open questions. Let’s say I don’t have any records of the Parker family in the 1840 census year. Under 1840 census I might post a question such as “Where were they?” and start to list counties or states that I’ve looked and found no match. Later this can be filled in when you find “possible matches” as well.

All of what I’ve said is really just about organizing last times research so you can be prepared for next times research. When I’m getting ready for a research expedition, either online or in a library, I try to plan my “attack”. I sit down and browse through the folders and try to decide which questions I have the best chance of filling in some information for. Let’s take the above example. Let’s assume I don’t have any census findings for the Parker family in 1840. Okay, the place I’m going has a statewide census index so they’re added to my target list. I’ve even started going to the extreme of making a research to-do list for each outing.

These tips seem like a bit much especially to the beginner at genealogy research, but over the years I’ve found that if I don’t plan my research session I don’t meet with the same success. Good planning can help set you up for good results. Those results aren’t always an answer to the question, but in genealogy, as in many things. progress towards a goal is a very good thing. With many of the branches of my family, if I feel as though I’ve eliminated a few possibilities I think I’m making good progress towards finding where they actually had migrated from. The main question to ask yourself is how do you expect to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for to start with?

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