21 September 2012

Back to Square One

As we come to the end of my organisation series, we inevitably come back to the beginning. As I said in my post about scheduling, I make a schedule to touch every document of my research once every 3 months. I review the basics of research and find ways to refresh my beginner skills as often as I'm looking for new intermediate and expert level knowledge. Why is it so important to come back to the beginning? Children today are surrounded by computers from the first day they draw breath. They don't know how to calculate a math problem without a calculator. They trust spellcheck to catch their mistakes. Soon they won't how to read handwritten documents, because they won't learn to make handwritten documents. In short, they have built on the knowledge of those who came before. As we build on the knowledge of previous research, we forget to check the original record rather than trust the extract. As we build our skill level, we forget the way a beginner starts to research. We can forget which order to check for records. We could get so lost in the forest, we can't find the tree we're looking for. By consistently reviewing the basics of research (and our tree), we keep our mind sharp.

Back to Yourself and Your Living Family
  • What do you know? Review your tree and see what new memory is shook loose. What half-forgotten story from your childhood comes rolling out? My favorite Facebook genealogy group is Genealogy Speaking. Every day the admin comes up with a question about the past (did you play outside? did you skip school? did your grandparents live on a farm or in the city? did anyone in your family fight in the Civil War? was there a favorite dessert your family had at every gathering?). So many questions. So many memories.
  • During spring cleaning, take the time to pull out those old heirlooms and remember where they came from. I prefer a digital recorder during this time so I can speak freely and let the memories flow. Some folks may feel weird talking to themselves, so go through the boxes with family and remember together!
  • And like I said in this series: Make sure to write YOUR story down. Write down the story of your children when they are young. Write down your memories of your family that has passed. And review it occasionally to see if new memories are brought to the surface of your mind. I like to share the stories with the young cousins in my family. I start with something like, "One day, uncle Virgil was riding on his tractor. He decided to put his false teeth in his back pocket coz back then teeth weren't made special to fit an individual mouth and they could hurt and irritate your mouth. Well, there's uncle Virgil bouncin' along and whaddaya think happened? He bit his own bottom!!!!" The story gets a laugh from the kids and then there's great-aunt Dee going "Oh Lord yes! Had to get stitches! Warn't as bad as the time your great gran'paw lit hisself on fire with his own birthday candles!" Just like that the family's howling and talking about stories the old folks told them when they were young kids and I'm running around with a notebook trying to catch it all. It's not a formal thing, but the kids get interested in their family history, I get my information, and the whole family has a good time.
  • Share any new discoveries with your living relatives you think they may enjoy to hear. Be ready for the "I could've told you that", but hope for the "that reminds me of". Again, a voice recorder is perfect for these moments. Even if you've talked to this person before, talk to them again. First, continued contact with living relatives keeps your family close and makes new memories. Second, new finds can jog old memories. I am at my dad's every Sunday and I share all I learn for the week. It has opened so many doors in his mind to old stories and memories that I couldn't get with a cold interview. I occasionally get the "who cares" or "I knew that". More often, however, I get the "that's like the time when I was a kid......" Priceless.
  • Review unmarked photographs again to see if the new information you've gathered can break them out of anonymity. They can't hide forever! As you gather new photos from different eras with different modes of dress and hairstyles, revisit those unmarked photos to see if something familiar now shows itself. When you have a labelled photo, look at the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Go back to those unlabelled pics and see if a recognisable face is staring back at you.
Use a Checklist

The easiest way to ensure that every individual or family group you research gets the same attention as the last one is to stay consistent. A checklist helps you stay consistent by keeping you on task for what kind of records you are looking for and giving you a visual of what you are missing. FamilySearch has one of the best checklists I've ever seen. Now, not every person will have every document and the Internet column is sadly lacking in detail, but this is a great starter template. I do expand out that Internet column and separate paid from free sites. Since I keep myself in a budget, I let certain memberships lapse for a month or more on one site and pick them up on another (or save the money for some bigger purchase down the pipeline). Having a checklist that lists my favorite paid sites is useful to me. I check them off for the individual as I use them and then when I've gone as far as I can or want to on that site, I lapse the membership. When I renew later, the checklist lets me know who I've already researched there. This is also where my research log comes in: I note the site and the collection on the site that I used. If a new collection comes available, I can search for ancestors I have already exhausted in the other collections. If I'm just going back for the new relatives, I don't waste time on an old and fruitless search. I leave a space on the checklist for writing in specific sites or repositories that I need to contact at a later date for a record that I can't access right away. When I do my 3 month refresh, I can decide if I am able to get that document now and continue my search or if it has to wait.

Whatever kind of list you use, make it work for you. (Seems like a running theme for me). I have a checklist printed out and posted to a board near my desk. I don't print it out for every person as I'm trying to reduce paper. I do use my research log and go systematically backwards in a persons life (death, marriage, birth) through any records that may be out there for them. I use that checklist to keep the possible documents in my mind and I search for each one systematically through the life events. I also have a system for how I do my search in general: I do an Internet search first on the genealogy sites. Then I hit Google itself. Then it's local libraries and archives. Then it's contacting out of state/ out of country repositories. Then it's visiting those out of my area places. I work from the center out basically.

Back to the Classroom

I watch webinars. I attend conferences. I read books and blogs about genealogy, general history and anything related to my family lines. I am constantly in a state of learning. And I'm constantly in a state of renewal. I take the time to watch the beginner videos on FamilySearch and Ancestry.com (and I go back to them once in a while to refresh my memory). I read the how-to's on every new website even if it's going to cover things I know or that the site makes intuitive. Why? Because if I'm not careful, I'll know so much I won't learn a thing. It is so easy to look at a census and pick out Name, Age, Marital Status, and Birth Location and move on. But what about parent's birth info? How about the columns about work, languages spoken at home, military service, or slaves owned? What about the neighbors? We get so used to seeing the same things we forget this is a different page.

Did you know that the cornea has a layer of skin on it? Did you know that those skin cells are renewed every morning? Every morning you see the world with a brand new pair of eyes. I learned that a few years back at the Science and Industry Museum in Chicago. It was, if you'll pardon the pun, a real eye opener. Every morning, my eyes were fresh. It was a new day for them. It could be a new day for me. While I use that as a great motivator throughout the day, in research it can be a useful outlook as well. When I finish a person or a surname or a repository or whatever my research has been focused on, I turn to the next focus with "new eyes". I start from the beginning, center out, from myself to the living to the dead and back again.

Isn't that what genealogy is about? Getting back to our beginnings?

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