Archive for the ‘About Genealogy’ Category

Of all the things that genealogists do, getting into a town hall, courthouse, state archives or library is probably the most exciting. Seeing something our ancestor signed, spotting the crucial details left out of the index or abstract we saw, reading a court record, or finding a source we weren’t even aware of are some of the exciting possibilities that await. Here are some tips for that journey.

The American French Genealogical Society in Woonsocket, Rhode Island

How to choose a repository and prepare

  1. If you will be in a certain area and you are wondering which repository might best suit your needs, look for an overall guide to all the historical societies and libraries in the area.  For Rhode Island, this would be at:  http://www.rhodi.org/
  2. Do a web search for history, manuscripts, or genealogy + the location of interest, and see what places come up. A national-level repository near you can have significant records on a location that is far away, for instance, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, MO, or the Allen County Public Library in Ft Wayne, IN.
  3. Learn as much as possible about content from the repository’s website.  This includes any card catalog or manuscript guides, as well as guides to specific collections called “Finding Aids;” always read any that refer to collections that are important to you. Begin a list of what to look for on site; don’t assume you will remember.  Repository time is much too valuable to spend looking at a catalog that was available from home.
  4. For libraries specializing in genealogy, always check out whether the library is a Family History Library Affiliate. This will give you better access on site to some of the secured digital collections of FamilySearch.org; you will want to plan for that access by exploring FamilySearch.org in advance for record sets of interest.
  5. Check out the hours, days of operation, specific entry requirements (membership, requesting a researcher’s card, paying a fee, etc) and if the operation seems very small, always call in advance to be sure the site is staffed that day.
  6. Examine options for parking, what you can bring into the research room, whether there are lockers for your other belongings, and whether food may be allowed on site (that would be rare, and only if there is a separate eating area) or must stay in your car (or whether suitable dining may be available nearby).

The Mary Elizabeth Robinson Research Center of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Hope Street, Providence.

What to bring

  1. In the car, make sure you have a paper copy of the map and directions you need to find the building.  Cell signals can give out in some locations and your cell phone maps may quit.
  2. Whatever payment or ID may be needed to get in.
  3. Based on instructions you read online, plan how you will bring in notes and take notes away with you. You should bring in a list of what you plan to look for and some notes or printed charts about the section of your tree that you are researching.  Sometimes in a restricted setting, with library-type tables and chairs, a tablet or laptop will be allowed in (but not paper pads or notebooks) and might be the easiest thing.  In a records center like a town hall, there may be no place to put or plug in a laptop; a clipboard with a pad might be the best thing. Sometimes a tablet is the best way to be sure you have access to your own notes and to your family tree; that can be useful. Pencils are always preferred to pens and usually pens are forbidden anyway.
  4. A camera or, your cell phone’s camera. Not all repositories can accommodate a request for a photocopy, although note that some repositories, like Connecticut town halls, will require that they make you photocopies of certain documents, and won’t allow photos. For day-long research, plan to bring extra camera batteries or a way to recharge your cell phone.
  5. A flash drive in case you get lucky enough to find a computer-assisted microfilm machine, or a computer serving copies of digitized records. It need not have a huge capacity; 2g should be fine.
  6. Often, it is easiest to pack your own lunch because many a genealogist has become reluctant to leave a repository in mid day (one more hour!) and ends up extremely hungry by late afternoon.  Lunch in the car is a sure thing with no waiting and might be the simplest way to eat, although some repositories have a lunch room where you can sit and eat what you’ve brought. Another good idea is to have water in the car.

Older records at the Coventry, Rhode Island town clerk’s office.


  1. Check out the local parking options.  Note that these days, many parking meters take credit or debit cards only. Make a note of where you parked.
  2. Checking in will be the first step; even if a welcome desk seems unattended, look around for staff and expect to check in.  If it’s a public library or public venue, check-in is not necessary but be sure to ask staff if there are additional genealogy resources; these are not always properly highlighted on the website.
  3. If you are expected to place all belongings in a locker, do that, keeping just a laptop, tablet or a couple of pieces of paper and pencil. Keep the key and leave it back in the lock later when you check out. Usually you can bring a phone in on silent.
  4. Using your prior notes from the website, locate the main items of interest – books, microfilm, ways to request items from a restricted archive, card catalogs, special index guides, the index volume section for original record books like deeds or probate, additional resources stored in another room or on another level, and public computers if needed.
  5. Once seated, begin your work; make sure to put in any special requests early in your stay since delivery is not usually immediate (in fact, be aware that some repositories would prefer you make your requests a couple of days in advance, conversely, some repositories will only take requests on site).  Be sure you understand how the item will be delivered and where you should be. For large manuscript books or a documents box, it is best to place them on your table and use them one at a time if possible.  In very few cases is it ever acceptable to leave materials on the table when you leave the facility; plan to put away what you use or leave it in the designated area.
  6. Follow your list and in addition to whatever you record as notes, make a note next to each item on your list about what the result was – pictures on your camera, notes on paper, not found, or images captured on a flash drive.
  7. For each work you use, try to capture images of the cover, title page, reverse of title page, microfilm ID, etc.  Record or image everything you need to correctly cite the material later (or, even better, write the citation while you are sitting there); this may also be necessary for recording the lack of an entry in a certain work.  For each page where you find information, if it’s allowed and legal, take a picture of the information, holding yourself steady by leaning against something while you do so, plus, take a picture of the full-page so you get all page numbers, and also the cover and the spine.  For books under copyright, there is a limit to how much you can image. Often, it’s a better practice when you find an extremely useful book in a library to order the cheapest copy of it that you can find for use at home.
  8. Another opportunity that you have at the repository is to consult a librarian, archivist or volunteer about certain questions you have. Try to have focused questions appropriate to the setting because, in fairness, they do not know who your ancestors are. Mainly, your goal is to find out about certain collections, indices, maps and manuscripts that have never been digitized and will not be available elsewhere. But note that in an active records facility where current transactions are being recorded, it is not always possible to get special help on the old records.

A special collection located in the Genealogy Room at the Fiske Public Library, Wrentham, Mass.

After the visit

  1. It is extremely important to pull out your materials at home and save them properly, right away.  For digital images, saving them in a “TEMP FOLDER FROM REPOSITORY” folder (in a subfolder with the repository’s name, month and year) on your computer is a good immediate step.  Never count on remembering to find the flash drive, or locate photos on your camera, later on.  For paper notes or photocopies, have a similar procedure that you use every time.
  2. As soon as possible, record your work and your citations.  Save your materials where they logically belong in your records system.
  3. Make a list of follow-up activities.

The Revolutionary War Index, Rhode Island State Archives, Providence

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Get the popcorn; it’s movie time as we learn more about drilling down at the FamilySearch.org website.  Rather than write about it, I’m going to show you in three very brief videos.

More and more of those Family History Library microfilms are now available online.  It is really a game changer since, no matter what your location, you can see page images from the early records held in various town halls and state offices. But we need to change our mindset from using the Record Search feature to search names, and learn more about drilling down BY LOCATION to access those unindexed record sets newly appearing online. Not all are online yet, and not all online records are accessible from your home, so there’s a lot to figure out as we access these record sets.  But it’s important , as genealogists, that we access the most original source of records possible, and in many cases, these microfilmed images are the next best thing to being in the town hall ourselves.

  1. Basic instructions for drilling down to access records by place and navigating online microfilm images (be sure and click the Play triangle toward the bottom of the screen)
  2. The differences between indexed and unindexed records; using original index pages to find your item (be sure and click the Play triangle toward the bottom of the screen)
  3. How to tell if the images are viewable online; what to do if they are locked (be sure and click the Play triangle toward the bottom of the screen)

If the records found show a camera icon with a key, that means they can only be viewed at a Family History Library or, perhaps, an Affiliate library.

Thanks, as usual, to our friends at FamilySearch.org who are making a tremendous effort to help us access these records, for free.

One example

If relevant to you, check out the late 19th century-early 20th century Providence vital records which contain the “returns” of marriages and deaths. “Return of a Death” forms, from the Providence City Archives were filmed years ago.  The films are not indexed fully.  You have to browse from image to image, jumping forward in the record set as you guess where your date might turn up (the order by date is not very dependable, though, additional cards can be thrown in at the end of the month).  It’s very rewarding when you find what you want AND it contains the FIRST version of the details, before all the re-transcriptions happened, creating errors and omitting certain pieces of data. These have been a gold mine for me.  See sample, below.

Sets of interest for Providence include:


The “Return of a death” record for Hannah Andrews Lamphere, my ggg-grandmother, in Providence, Rhode Island.

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This is the story of how I decided to record my genealogical research more deliberately and thoroughly.

Recently, I saw a “Quick Lesson” by Elizabeth Shown Mills on her website, “Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage” called Quick Lesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success If you have not seen it, I can strongly recommend reading it.

This article made a major impression on me.  My experience over the past year in building, using, successfully finishing and moving past my “Research Workbook” for my visit to the Family History Library has convinced me that I like to work with a notebook, and that I would like to combine computer/software documents with a paper notebook. My desire is to carefully prepare pages at home including, sometimes, snippets of text, pictures of documents, lists of microfilms, book citations from a card catalog, etc., which I can then write in while sitting in a repository.  But until I read her article, I did not have a clear idea of how I could do that.

What’s with the software?

My problem really lies in the software, of which I use several.  Any genealogy software constrains you to facts and sources, and arranges those facts person by person.  Facts and sources are great, if you can get them, I suppose.  But, what are facts and sources? If my ancestor Paul Darling reported in his 1850 census record that he was 52 years old, and I find a birth record in that town for Paul Darling in 1798, do I now know who his parents are?  Of course not.  I have evidence that may lead to a conclusion about who his parents were, after I have done a thorough search and analyzed all the evidence.

Beyond all that, I can’t be the only person who has computer folders filled with other stuff that is not a source – the pdf book that didn’t contain specific information, the map that didn’t show me where my ancestors lived, the list I found in a reference book and wanted to save, the military pension file for a cousin which might or might not contain helpful hints, the photos of nearby graves that I took just in case, the list of books I looked at the last time I was in the repository, or the hints I found on Rootsweb which make no sense.  How do I manage these, and remember to come back to them at the right time?

While genealogy software is not meant to solve this problem, probably Evidentia2 comes the closest.  It helps you pull all possible information out of sources and apply it to multiple people.  I like Evidentia for tackling big problems. But I know that the real attraction for me of the research workbook I made in 2014 is that it was of my own construction.  It made sense to ME.  I got to decide what to include and how to include it.  I got to decide what end product I needed, and what it should contain.

My spiral bound book used during my Family History Library visit in February.

My spiral bound book used during my Family History Library visit in February.

My workbook

When I came back from the Family History Library this winter and carefully went through my workbook and images of documents, I realized that all I really had available to record my findings were the software products that didn’t cover enough, and the computer file folders.  I was not happy adding data to traditional software, family-by-family “unsuccessful” search list documents and family-by-family research notes and to-dos.  That seemed pretty lame.

That was my state of mind as I approached this “Quick Lesson 20“.  Mrs. Mills gives an excellent layout for a working research report.  She explains how the document will evolve over the course of the research – what you start with, and what you end with, and what to do next.  The process she describes does not seem new to me – very simply: preparation, execution, reporting, and data entry – and yet, as I read the excellent suggestions, I realized that this process makes a perfect way to get research information under control. And she had excellent tips about limiting the scope of research projects to a manageable level, and keeping what I record separate from my own notes and my conclusions about what I found.

In my own research, I am usually working on more than one project at once, not because I think that’s a good idea, but because access to repositories, and time to access them, vary throughout the year.   To approximate the style of research that she is recommending, with clear and limited goals, strategies, documentation of findings, citations and attachments, future work plan, and storage of the report, I could use one report for each current project.

I realized that I COULD manage the computer-to-paper-to-computer workflow that I am looking for by building a loose-leaf notebook of these plans, and taking it everywhere.  Active plans could be produced electronically and printed for the notebook, and reprinted from time to time as I processed findings. Mrs. Mills recommends typing (and thinking) at the repository, and I will do that whenever possible (not always possible in Rhode Island’s tiny town halls). Research reports will be removed from the binder after completion but saved on the computer, ready for guidance on future work and plans.

The software

And the recommended software?  It’s Word.  This is a revelation to me.  Many times over the years I’ve heard well-known genealogists say that their favorite genealogical software is Word.  Well, I thought, I don’t know, that sounds like a lot of typing.  But somehow that essay by Mrs. Mills finally made me realize how much better and more helpful the product would be when I could control it.  I finally get it – research in Word, write reports in Word, but also keep the data in other genealogical software if that helps you make a chart, visualize problems, share findings, etc.  Because of the research “cycle” that Mrs. Mills describes, pieces typed in one report may be useful in the next working report.  Copy and paste can help a lot.

Although I can’t share them here, because they are based directly on her work, I have built a template for the research report to help me start recording properly, and I have taught myself to insert custom “quick parts” in Word to easily add information from sources and not forget anything. It starts as a template and gradually gets filled in.  Worksheets, so to speak.  In a workbook.  Just what I wanted.

The notebook, all ready to start.

The notebook, all ready to start.

In conclusion

I suspect once I get used to this, I will discard the paper altogether except in unusual circumstances and rely on the computer to show me my working report.

I already decided on my first project using this method – researching a reference to the death of an uncle at the Battle of Antietam, something that I had no idea of.  Civil War research is new to me, so that will help me to slow down and strategize.

I hope this notebook, both the digital and paper versions, can help me make more conscious decisions about how many projects I consider myself to be working on at once, help me limit that number, and help me create projects that are manageable and bring them to some kind of conclusion.

The post I have been referring to is this:

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Quick Lesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success.” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage,  15 May 2015. https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-20-research-reports-research-success : 2015.

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