If you could go back to when you started your genealogy research, what would you do differently? For me, lots of things. I would cite a source for every bit of information recorded; write a style sheet so my data was consistent; interview more of my relatives and record them. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I can’t go back in time but all is not lost. This year I have decided to embark on a journey of second chances and this is my plan.
Reorganize files. I started researching my family history in 1976 and that is when I started my file system. The file system (alphabetically by surname and given name) still works for me but many of the folders are overflowing and disorganized. Dividing the folders into more manageable sizes and organizing the documents in chronological order will allow me to put my hands on information a lot easier and quicker.
How the information is organized will differ from researcher to researcher but those stacks of papers on the dining room table do not count as a filing system. You need a method of storing those paper records. There are numerous ways to achieve this goal. Do what makes sense for you. Take into account the amount of space available for storing the records. The most important thing is that you have easy access for quick retrieval of records. Also, try to keep all the records together (not scattered in different places) and store at a constant temperature. Avoid the attic or basement since the temperature in these areas may fluctuate.
Review and reevaluate each document. The documents in my files were collected over a thirty year period. My research skills have gone from beginner to a more advanced level. Things that I had no knowledge of when I began are second nature to me now. Identifying important clues, follow up strategies, and research techniques are just a few of the skills that I have developed while pursuing my family history. When I reevaluate the documents, my perspective will be different the second (or third) time around.
For many years, very little information was known about my great-grandmother, Jane Bryan. The only documents I had were census records and an incomplete cemetery card. I also acquired a researcher’s report that was written in the 1950's. This report stated that the certain church registers did not contain a record of her baptism or birth. Upon closer examination, I noticed that the researcher had not checked the correct years, which I had not noticed previously. When the records were rechecked, the baptism was found. One small detail discovered when reevaluating the report made the difference.
Rewrite citations. With the release this year of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills, I plan to get all my citations to conform to the new standards. I’m embarrassed to say that I still occasionally find citations that do not comply with her 1997 book.
Reread and study old research notes. I have kept every note I wrote about my genealogy research. It makes me laugh to read some of them because it’s hard to believe I was ever that naive. But some of the remarks are significant and point out connections and problems that I haven’t thought of in years. Sometimes we get all hung up in the big stuff and can’t see the little things that have been there all along. After all, we build most of our family tree with little bits of information and clues.
Revisit records. When I first started researching, I looked for my ancestors names and ignored everything else. I didn’t study the records as a whole or try to see what they were telling me. Many of my early notes don’t even describe the negative findings. When I started doing census research years ago, I didn’t know to check for associates and family on the pages preceding and following the entry that was my focus. Now I need to go back to each of these census records, look at the additional pages and record what I find (or don’t find).
Recheck for new information. New indexes and original records are constantly being made available to us, many of them electronically. It’s exciting to know that some of the records that were not accessible thirty years ago might be a few keystrokes away.
Revitalize. While my plan isn’t an actual do-over, it will be a chance to revitalize my interest in some of the research problems that I have been avoiding. It will be a second chance to correct my mistakes and learn from the experience.
I know my plan is pretty ambitious but I hope to complete it this year. I’ll let you know how it goes.