I should do a confession at the beginning of this post. I spent years working as a planner, and then as an executive with multiple planning functions in my division. I find life a bit easier if I have a general idea where I want to go and I have at least a few steps laid out to get me there. That has worked for me. I’m not far off my long-term goals. I’m not an obsessive-compulsive planner. I don’t plan things to death and I don’t keep on my plan when life is making it obvious I need to re-think it before I go nuts.
Having said all of that, I still didn’t really make a plan when I started doing genealogy, though looking back on it, I did have an idea what I wanted to accomplish, bought and learned the software, bought file folders for the paper and then attacked it with all the focus of a dog glad to see its owner at the end of the day. I was everywhere and nowhere in particular. Every shiny object was chased and I bounced from line to line trying to fill in the holes without keeping track of what and where I had researched, what I didn’t find or my sources. I did finally settle down and start thinking through my efforts and finally succeeded at getting to my 2nd-great-grandparents as a first step but it probably took me a lot more time than was necessary and now as I revisit all of it, I am having to re-do and better document MUCH more than I would like. I am not keen on re-doing which is one way God tries to give me opportunities for developing patience. Working? Not so much. A young man who worked for me years ago pointed out that I do not suffer foolishness well and that includes my own foolishness.
The shift in how I approached genealogy occurred when I started taking classes and reading about doing genealogy in an organized way, and then applying some of the techniques and figuring out what worked for me. Having talked to a lot of family historians over the years, I would say a large percentage started out similar to my experience. Some stay there, some decide there has to be a better way. It is exciting to find an ancestor in old records and when you find one you have a tendency to start chasing others in the same records in a scatter-gun approach. I want to share another way to start out and if the above has already occurred how to put a bit more structure into your efforts, at least going forward. You may find it will help you with some of your brick walls. The topic of planning will emerge regularly in this series of posts.
“Plan” is Not a Four-Letter Bad Word
I’m not sure why the idea of planning makes so many folks react negatively. It might be the rush from immediate gratification and spontaneity, and there is plenty of that in the early stages of genealogy, or it might be the sense that planning takes the fun out of it. Then again it could be those poor experiences from the annual “New Year’s resolutions” that some think about but never do. One of the lessons of life I’ve learned in my old age is that a plan brought to completion is one that was actually worked on. A plan won’t make much difference if you don’t take it to the workbench and use it as a guide to your work. So, with that in mind let’s explore genealogy planning.
What is Your First Stop?
As I mentioned in the first post in this series, the first thing you should do is decide on what you want to accomplish in your first phase of work. This is a long journey. What’s your first stop? It should have an endpoint. Don’t start with, “I want to find all my ancestors back to the Middle Ages”. That is too big a goal and will quickly overwhelm you. It is really the same as having no goal at all. Make your goal something that can be visualized and achieved. If you don’t know much about your family, start with identifying back to both sets of grandparents, or maybe all your great-grandparents. Your goal should include identifying all of the siblings, given names and surnames, dates that document their lives, historical events they may have participated in, where they lived and how and when they migrated if they did. Creating a goal of workable size makes it easier to see progress and that’s generally a good motivator. And it is a good place to stop, re-assess and do your happy dance for achieving your goal.
Get to Know the Records Available and Where They Are Held
During this stage it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the records that are out there, either online, in libraries, on microfilm or in courthouses, so you know what you want to list as steps in this initial structural stage of identifying a branch in your tree. You may need to revisit this once you know where you are looking for your ancestors. Different states keep old records differently. Some are held by the state, some are held by the county or city. There are some excellent resources online and in books to help with creating your knowledge base for working the plan you’ve created. Some are listed below. Keep in mind, the more pieces of data you collect the more questions you may have generated to research so never stop learning about sources for information on your ancestors’ lives.
Write Your Plan Down
You have your goal, now you need to lay out steps to get there. Break your goal into projects and in genealogy that often is working one line or one person in one line. I tend to see a line as a project and a person as a sub-project but you should organize yourself the way it works best for you. Next, take that project and jot down what you think you need to do and records you need to access to find the missing pieces of information and better documentation the data you have. You are creating a hierarchy of steps down to an action/activity. For instance, you want to start with your mother’s paternal line, your first steps might be 1) Interview mother (break your interview into her remembrances of each of her lines), 2) Transcribe the interview and transfer data elements to your file system with documentation (file system is our next post), 3) Access census for each year for mother and her siblings and record and assess findings, 4) Obtain birth certificates, 5) Interview aunts and uncles, 6) Transcribe interviews and transfer data, 7) Obtain marriage licenses for each person, 8) Visit cemeteries for anyone now deceased and photograph headstone, 9) Order any death certificates or get cousins to order for you if you can’t, 10) Re-assess progress and establish a new set of steps to complete this generation and move up to the next. Within each of these steps, you might need to identify multiple tasks. Keep in mind that real life sometimes creates the wonderful opportunity to change course. It is okay if you need to make changes to the steps as you go. Just document. Once you have the outline down, you can go to sub-projects (individuals) and develop plans around completing their documented lives.
Once you start working your plan you will find that some pieces of information are more elusive than others and the further back you go the more elusive they may get. That is part of the fun of genealogy. Some families left more of an imprint on historical records than others. Once you manage to get a line back to your goal post, you will need to assess what pieces of data are still hiding and develop a plan to turn over every source to determine if there is a definitive answer or a good estimate that helps narrow down when something occurred. Every time you access a document and it gives you any data that you are looking for, direct or indirect, write it down and source the record. One of the common problem areas is birth, death and marriage dates. An example might help. There is no birth certificate for your great-grandfather and you can’t find a burial location for him either in interviews or at Find-a-Grave. But you pull all of the censuses he is in and document the age and approximate year of birth and they all give you an estimate of 1895-1899. That would mean he was of draft age for WWI so the WWI draft registrations may be a good source for his birth date. Add that step to your plan and then use one of the online sources to search the records. Document what you find, or don’t find.
Plans in genealogy are a way to know where you are going and a way to document the trip. Journaling what you searched and what you did or didn’t find helps to create the revised plan to continue to whittle away at the empty spots on your tree.
How I Manage Planning and Journaling my Efforts (and Shiny Objects)
I’ve been asked by friends what software I use to accomplish the above. We will talk about this more in upcoming posts but I use Microsoft OneNote for planning and journaling and keeping track of shiny objects to go back to at some point when I get to that line/project. It allows me to create a major file of all my genealogy lines and projects with tabs and links to move around in it and the ability to link external files to a page for easy access. It is a very robust software that has become indispensable in managing my many life activities.
Now that you have an idea what you want to accomplish this first time out in genealogy you have a pretty good idea of what you might be collecting and how, this will help you to assess what kind of filing system will work best for you, which is our next step. See you next week.
- Research Planner and Log, Family Tree Magazine
- Free Genealogy Research Log, Geneabloggers – requires you to give your email address
- FamilySearch Wiki, website
- Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, Third Edition by Alice Eichholz
- The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Third Edition by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking
- Finding 19th Century Florida Records for Biographical, Genealogical and Other Historical Research by Katherine G. Evans