Archive for the ‘research notebook’ Category

Searching Smarter

The search

I get it.  People want to look around the web and find the parents of their third great grandmother.  They’ve had some luck with that before, finding convincing cases being made for certain family connections.  Or maybe they’ve found poor documentation and used what they found as a clue for further research and study.

But you know you’ve become a real genealogist when it’s almost never about that anymore.  When you know the places well enough to know where to start finding resources, and how to proceed. When “buried” and hard to use web records become second nature to you (like unindexed Massachusetts deeds on Familysearch.org).  When you’ve gotten used to making it out to a repository or cemetery once in a while or, if geography doesn’t permit that, using interlibrary loan to get books, putting in formal requests for records, or renting microfilms from the Family History Library.  Because actually, without a reasonably exhaustive search, you can’t make a sound judgment anyway.

I want to say one thing to all the web searchers out there:  you’re better than that.  I know that because at a certain point, even if you found something that seemed reliable, there would be a voice inside you telling you that you haven’t tried all reasonable avenues yet.  So, that birth record for Nancy Jones in a reasonable year and in the same town she got married in MIGHT be the Nancy Jones you are seeking the parents for, so that’s great, but you have a long way to go before you know that.  And even more to the point, the Nancy Jones touted in the 1888 family genealogy book – the book you were so happy to find – WON’T be the right Nancy Jones until you have done a reasonably exhaustive search of all other ways to know this fact.

City Hall, Providence

City Hall, Providence

Maybe it is already known

It’s possible someone has done documented research that might help you but you are not finding it.  Genealogy or historical journals might contain well-researched information for the family you are seeking, or they might contain transcribed records or manuscript information for the location you are working with.  But you will seldom find those in a web search – try local libraries with genealogy collections, or join some societies and receive some online journal access.  For instance, membership in NEHGS offers an online search engine for a large number of genealogy journals. National Genealogy Society membership offers online access to back issues of the Quarterly.

In my opinion the best single source of help with your research plan comes from reading the footnotes in a genealogy article for the same place and time period.  It’s an excellent way for us to learn from the pros.

Sometimes nobody knows

Or of course, there may be very little out there.  There’s something here that it takes a while to understand – and once you do, you can’t go back: maybe, just maybe, NOBODY knows.  No one on earth knows who the parents of Nancy Jones were, or has ever known since her family and friends passed away.  It’s not precisely written down, and no one has reasoned it out yet, and therefore no web search, no index search, no queries left around the internet, no calling up of those names over and over in all kinds of searches of new and better online resources, nothing will ever bring it up.

Which means it’s up to you

People write to me sometimes after they’ve been searching for YEARS for something.  Nancy Jones, Nancy Jones, Nancy Jones, over and over.  They started with vital records and vital records failed them (or even worse, they accepted the one record they found as complete proof of something).  They moved on to easily accessible old genealogy books, online records, and asking around. Maybe they called or visited a repository and asked who the parents of Nancy Jones were (wrong question, probably).  And maybe they spent a decade doing that.

Every single genealogist in the world has, at some point, been that person (I suppose the really great ones only last a month or two in that phase).  They looked in every index, it’s just not there.  It must be a Brick Wall.

Union Station, Providence

Union Station, Providence

Earning your brick walls

I’m here to say, we as genealogists have to earn those brick walls.  Chances are most of us have attended lectures, webinars, local meetings, or studied genealogy guides.  And what was talked about – maps, military records, church records, ship records, baptisms, diaries, immigration, town meetings, pensions, probates, land grants, deeds, and compiled genealogies.  And we think hey, sure, if Nancy Jones had kept a diary, that would be great, but we would have found it by now (and possibly that’s true); apparently she didn’t so diaries can’t help me.  Mark that off the list.

And we would be wrong.  Maybe the diary that would help us was kept by the wife next door, Patty Smith.  Maybe Patty Smith mentioned that Nancy’s parents, Mr and Mrs. Jones, came for a nice long visit from their new home in Tiny Town, Illinois.  With this giant clue, we should be able to find some deeds or probate from Tiny-Town and know a lot more about the parents, such as their names and (from deeds) their previous residence.  We might have found out about the diary by talking to the local historical society about what documents exist from Nancy’s neighborhood and time period.

Or maybe we know that Nancy Jones’ husband, William Stillwell, might have served in a war, but there are few records of that, and he never requested a pension.  But by not checking pension applications from others in the county, we missed the fact that Nancy’s husband was mentioned in Nancy’s brother’s application, an old man a few towns over by the name of Jones.

Armory, Providence

Armory, Providence

Possibly we have identified a few potential siblings for Nancy and poked around a bit for their stories.  But have we learned enough about each state’s census records to know how to learn more about neighborhoods in other years besides federal census years?  That may lead us to further evidence of a sibling, who just happens to have a clearer record of parentage.  Have we explored every person that Nancy’s husband ever had a real estate transaction with, to rule them out as family?

Maybe we know that the Stillwell parents were Hiram and Elizabeth.  And that Nancy and William Stillwell had five children:  William, Hiram, Nancy, Abiel and Edward.  We know where “William,” “Hiram” and “Nancy” came from.  “Edward” might help if we can find an Edward Jones.  But have we scoured the county for every instance of the odd name, Abiel?

Possibly, we knew that Nancy and her husband were buried in the town cemetery.  We have a nice picture of that.  But have we examined every other nearby burial, including unmarked graves?  Have we tried every means to find any actual cemetery plot records, including using archive and manuscript indices, and checking with local genealogy societies and archives?

Westminster Street, Providence

Westminster Street, Providence

It’s not in an index

So I am saying, the knowledge may be findable with careful planning, exploration and reasoning and yet, never found in any index. In fact, finding a clear answer to any one of the questions posed above would still have to be weighed against many other questions and answers.

As we learn more, and have a little success with planned research strategies and reasonably exhaustive searches, we sometimes find that those brick walls come down.  And when they don’t, we find ourselves learning more and more about the area, the occupations, the cultures, and the records, and we devise brand new strategies we could never have thought of at the beginning.

That’s when you know you’re doing your own research and boy, do those sketchy trees on the internet start to look weird at that point.  And the most exciting part is that, in the end, YOU are the reason that there is now a reasoned case in existence for the parents of Nancy Smith.

Something which was lost became found because of you.  I hope you find a way to publish your result, formally or informally.

Next time

In my next post, I’m going to review some strategies I might try for researching a brick wall in Rhode Island in the early 1800’s.  Stay tuned!


  • The Genealogical Proof Standard is carefully explained in Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 4th Edition Revised, by Christine Rose (San Jose, CA: CR Publications, 2014). 
  • The important work of weighing, comparing and recording evidence is expertly guided by Elizabeth Shown Mills in her many speaking engagements (not to be missed if you ever have the opportunity, perhaps even by purchase of a recorded conference session) and her helpful book Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015) as well as the companion website.

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 – Photos from postcard collection of Diane Boumenot

Looking towards Warwick from Rocky Point, R.I.

Looking towards Warwick from Rocky Point, R.I.

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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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A visit to the Family History Library

As an ambassador for the upcoming Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in February, 2015, to be held in connection with Rootstech at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, I have a lot of work to do to get ready for this conference.

I am arriving several days in advance of the conference to use the Family History Library.  It will be my second visit.  I am really, really looking forward to it, and preparing much more than you would think.

The notebook idea

I will only get to the Family History Library every few years, at most.  Since it’s a chance to access all the microfilm in the world, and lots of books, I need to prepare well to get the most benefit from this.

A couple months ago I was visiting a local city hall archives and ran into a man who was researching a local historical topic.  He was asking me a few questions and we got to talking, and he pulled out his notebook.  I have to admit I was fascinated by it.  He had developed pages of typed notes with pictures and maps, in color, scattered through the pages. I suspected it was, essentially, a draft of the book he hoped to put together.   He had the materials printed double sided in color and spiral-bound.  It was just maybe 200 pages with the spiral binding.  It was lightweight, portable, and easy to use even on cramped tables.  He scrawled some notes on it; it was clearly his working copy.

My spiral bound book

My spiral bound book

I couldn’t stop thinking about the little notebook and decided, in November when a coupon came up for a big discount at lulu.com, that I would try it.  I put together my tree charts, color coded according to sections of the tree. I copied into Word some of my blog posts that I thought I would be most likely to want to refer to in the library, downsized the pictures, and saved those as pdf’s.  I forgot to add my pdf Evidentia reports, but I would do that another time.  I uploaded these separate pdf documents into lulu.com, then combined them into one book.  I made a cover and ordered.

When the spiral book arrived, it was attractive, but I was disappointed at how heavy it was.  I forgot lulu uses extra heavy paper for color printing.  I think the point of the notebook is that it should NOT be a lot to lug around.  And, the paper was shiny, not good for writing on.

A page from the red portion of the chart

A page from the red portion of the chart

Looking at the notebook gave me some new ideas.  If I really wanted to write in it, I should leave space for that.  And, I decided during my last trip that I might prefer to bring my list of microfilms on, say, a clipboard, instead of using an electronic device.  What if I combined these ideas into one custom, spiral notebook?

The workbook for FHL

I realized that what I really wanted was a workbook for my library visit.

So I created a form for collecting my microfilm lists.  I wanted to copy the details of the film from the familysearch.org catalog.  My pages should be suitable for taking a few notes, since I will mostly be saving scans of each page I need, but I would like to document what I saw and what I saved, and some notes about the content.  I also wanted to note in advance on each page what I was looking for, and to check the item off after I was done. I wanted an indication along the edge of which research problem this was part of.  I think I will add an extra ruled page on the reverse of each sheet.

My micorfilm form for the notebook

My microfilm form for the notebook

I’ve spent several weeks gathering about 25 pages, and I will work on this for about another month.  I’m trying to focus on no more than three or four research problems and to look for unique resources that are either inconvenient or impossible to obtain elsewhere.  So far I have found some unusual local records, plus some records from Nova Scotia and England. Given the restrictions in some Rhode Island repositories, I also will be looking at some records that it would be hard to print or photograph elsewhere.

I like to search the FamilySearch.org catalog by place name or family name, and I’m finding such interesting stuff.  Of course, some family genealogy books have now been digitized and I guess I would have to access those on site through a computer.

Another page from the microfilm sheets

Another of the microfilm sheets

I will try, when I am there, to concentrate on reading records and NOT race through trying to capture as many screens as possible.  This is difficult for me to do, but I will try.  I always feel like I will concentrate better at home, reading what I’ve copied, but then I lose the chance to use new ideas to find additional materials.

Sometimes I dropped images into place that I know I might want to refer to. dropping text and images into the Word document was surprisingly easy - if my ruled lines went over onto the next page, I just deleted some.

Sometimes I dropped images into place that I know I might want to refer to. Dropping text and images into the Word document was surprisingly easy – the form accommodated all that.

I will want to look through the books, and I usually park myself in the stacks for a while looking through everything related to certain locations.  I also have started a book list.

The book list, for the notebook

The book list, for the notebook

So the NEW spiral notebook, which I will order in black and white about a month before I leave, will contain:

  • The tree charts
  • Some useful posts from my blog
  • The few Evidentia reports I have made so far
  • The microfilm worksheets
  • The book list

I will probably carry this spiral bound book around for about a year to libraries.  It will cost less than $10.

The Word document used for the microfilm page is HERE.

A few words in hindsight

I’m adding this note about 6 months later:  I spent about 3 months after my visit going through all the records and images I had saved, and my notebook.  I carefully recorded in my real files the searches I had tried that didn’t work, and I closely examined everything I brought back.  A few things I learned:

  • I managed to finish the entire workbook during 5 long days in Salt Lake City.
  • always make a note about result on the notebook page, even if it’s just “see images on camera”, “see saved scans in SMITHFIELD folder” or “nothing relevant found.”
  • I should have left more room for notes on the book list.  You take just as many notes from books as from microfilm.
  • I didn’t use the blog posts that I had included in the notebook because it turns out that when you thoroughly prepare for a repository trip, you are NOT paging through old notes for that one fact.  You don’t need to.
  • The tree charts were useful.
  • I wish I had numbered each page because it would have helped me monitor my progress.
  • Next time, I will make up some useful blank forms for sets of records, like deeds, and add those in the book.  This will help me to document those deed pages that I scan from microfilm.
  • As I reviewed the notebook at home, I added sticky tabs to the pages where I think I can follow up at another library or site, saying “Warwick City Hall” or “RI Historical Society”.  I’ve done a few of those, and when I finish the last 3-4, it will be time to get rid of the notebook.

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