Gotta love a hard deadline

It turns out that going to a genealogy conference in February has a galvanizing effect on January resolutions. Like many others I resolved to get my genealogy stuff organized this year and, guess what, I really have to do it so I can make the most of my trip to Salt Lake City for RootsTech . Top of the list was fishing out my notes from last year’s RootsTech and the extra days I spent at the Family History Library working on my own lines. It was my first visit to the library in 2011 and I was pretty overwhelmed by the family history goodies there.

This year I added days for research, too, and I have a better idea of how to plan for it. Or at least how I should be planning for it. I finally started a robust research log, after checking out lots of templates other researchers have kindly shared. I used several parts of Thomas MacEntee’s log template on Google Docs to build a Bento library for sources I have found and entered into my genealogy software. MacEntee’s template provides for the robust citation information we all wish we had done all along. It will take me a while to complete entries for all existing sources.

Then I set up an Omnioutliner file as a kind of ongoing notebook for ideas and potential sources to research. In it, I’m noting films and books I’ve already consulted, but with much less detail than in the source library. This will go with me on my iPad, so I can refer to it and update it as my research progresses. What does your take-along research log look like?

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Saving for a special occasion

As a volunteer at my county museum, I am currently cataloging table linens. There is plenty of variety in this category, everything from decades-old redwork pillow shams to tatted tablecloths. This week I came across a set of crepe paper table napkins, dating probably to the early 20th century. They were delicately thin and fragile, but the strawberries and flowers printed on them were bright and clear. Their owner had kept them carefully away from sticky hands and sunlight, until her heirs ultimately donated them to the museum. I wondered about her. Did she ever intend to use them? Or were they just too special to be shared with teatime guests, then discarded.

I’m strongly in favour of using lovely things as they were meant to be used, rather than saving them for special occasions. Or, to put it another way, we can make everyday occasions special by using and enjoying the things we value. On the other hand, if the lady who treasured her paper napkins had followed my advice, we would not now have the pleasure of their delicacy and their vibrant colours.

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Nothing like the real thing

Marian Pierre-Louis writes of the importance of “getting local” with research in her Roots and Rambles blog and I couldn’t agree more. we are fortunate to have great tools to take us beyond the letters, records and even artifacts that might tell us stories of our ancestors. Not just maps, but street level views from Google and photos both modern and historical from sources like Historypin can help us round out what life was like for them. But there is nothing like being there.

I remember a research trip my mother and I took to Kendal in the Lake District. LIke many market towns in the UK, Kendal had preserved parts of its town centre and some significant buildings from the era when my ancestors lived there. We walked by some of the same architecture that my family would have walked by and we trod the cobbled streets they would have known. We got a sense of the life they had much more vividly than from all we had read about them. What’s more, we had opportunities to learn more about the area and local history we might not have come across from remote research.

A research trip to your family’s locality is not much about the things you will look up in repositories; it’s about the feel of the place, the things they might have seen each day, the spaces that were significant to them.

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How to deal with the unexpected

Much of the time we spend on genealogy, we are hunting. We’re always looking for that precious document or artifact that will take us further in filling in the details of our family stories, and if we’re lucky, we find something. But now and then we get even luckier than that. A gift falls into our lap. It could be a sheaf of letters a cousin finds in an old drawer, a pile of photos long forgotten, or an unexpected conversation that uncovers stories we never knew to ask about. We can and should be prepared to make the most of such things, and ideally we should be prepared to act quickly. Sometimes the gift is a loan, sometimes it is fragile. If we have a reliable process, we can swing into action and respond to the genealogical gift with care and gratitude.
Here is the process I followed for dealing with an interesting bundle given to my mother recently and shared with me. It was a brief handwritten history, a photocopied newspaper clipping. and a scrap of notepaper listing family names. The author of the letter, a cousin, handed the bundle over, on loan, during a conversation with my mother a few days ago.
My first step was to evaluate, that is, quickly determine the nature of the material and its physical state. It was sturdy enough to be scanned, so I moved to step two, capture. Even though I had a few days to examine the actual documents, I wanted to make sure I had a digital copy for future examination and reference.
Step three was to analyze the find. I read each piece carefully and considered how it might relate to information I already had about the branch of the family this was about. Finally, I documented the find, how I came to have it, and my ideas and conclusions about its meaning within my research. If I had not been required to return the documents, I would have implemented a fifth step, which would be to preserve the original in an appropriate container to protect it from damage.
So here are my steps, which, it turns out, are very similar to the steps we should follow for things we find on purpose!
1. Evaluate.
2. Capture.
3. Analyze.
4. Document.
5. Preserve.
Did I miss anything? What do you do when serendipity strikes?

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Gifts of Childhood

As a volunteer collections assistant at my local county museum, I am currently assigned to cataloguing shelves of artifacts, such as the school materials I was working on this week. I picked up a small wooden box labeled “Fourth Gift” and was immediately taken back to when my children attended a Froebel school. The Froebel gifts were a set of play objects – you wouldn’t call them toys – created to guide young children to learn about geometry, design, storytelling, all kinds of wonderful things. This fourth gift was made by Milton Bradley, a name we now associate with mainstream games. I wonder how mainstream the Froebel gifts were when this was used?

The ideas of Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) influenced many North American educators and the schools they set up for young children around the turn of the 19th century, which were named after the German word, kindergarten.

This fourth gift looked different from what I remember. It contained several smallish wooden pieces rather than the eight cubes in the Strong Museum collection, which looks more like I remember. But then again, other sources specify oblong blocks for the fourth gift. Perhaps the manufacturer took liberties with the design, or maybe the original contents of the box were replaced at some point. I wonder how many children today enjoy the magic of tiny wooden shapes that can become whatever they imagine.

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What Grandpa did in the army

I have recently had the great good fortune of seeing my grandfather’s Soldier’s Service and Pay Book for his service in the British Army. It was loaned to me by my uncle, his only son. I will have a short time to examine it and even to ask my uncle some questions about the notations in it. It’s pocket sized, with lots of pages, including scraps glued in and several paper-clipped to the back page.

My first step was to scan every page – luckily it opens flat so I can do that without damaging it. For the pages with glued-in pieces, I took scans with the piece in place as well as with it moved aside to reveal what was written underneath. I removed the metal paperclip to reduce future damage and scanned the pieces it held.

I expect my high-res scans will be useful for reference and preservation of the essence of the object, but I will take some time now to examine the real thing before I must return it. I will need to create a citation for it to add to my genealogy records, and I will glean whatever I can from the cryptic entries to support or correct what I know so far about my grandpa’s story.

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A good discussion of research logs

The hunt for the perfect research log got a lot shorter after I listened to the recent podcast from Geni.com in which Thomas MacEntee discusses his approach and even offers a ready-made template that covers a lot of what I am looking for in a research log. MacEntee describes it as a “record of a data journey” and I couldn’t agree more. As we forage through repositories, both online and in libraries and other institutions, we are acutely aware that the data we are working through should be documented carefully, even while we impatiently want to move on to the next tidbit. And as we document along the way, we know that some data will prove unhelpful, but the very fact that we found it needs to be recorded, so we don’t repeat the search unwittingly months or years from now. MacEntee’s template (free and easy to use in Google docs) is one that could be adopted or modified by a beginner, but some fields – those for analysis and evaluation – will prove invaluable as one’s genealogy knowledge improves with practice.

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What does your research log look like?

Recently an editor friend and I were discussing genealogy research and how we make notes along the way. She was involved in creating a research log notebook some years ago and we wondered about the best approach now that we can have iPads and other portable devices along with us in libraries.

I have been very slow to evaluate the notes I took in Salt Lake City last February, I think partly because they are a jumble of handwritten scribbles in the back of my RootsTech program book, plus a number of PDFs and document snapshots stored in Evernote from my Family History Library searches. I wish I had imposed more structure to the handwritten notes; that’s what makes going back to them seem like a big ugly job. It’s not too difficult to add organization to the bits in Evernote using tags, but even then, I will end up with an assortment of disparate notes that I will be tempted to print out (!) just to organize them.

Is there still a use for handwritten notes? Is there an ideal research log structure, for either handwritten or electronic note taking? How can we make research easier to keep track of? More on this in my next post.

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Spitalfields Nippers

Each of Horace Warner’s evocative photos of grubby east London children, taken early in the 20th century, tell us a fragment of a story, but leave us with so many questions. They look posed in working situations – washing laundry, caring for babies, splitting wood – but I have no doubt these kids did all of that and more to get what meagre food and shabby clothes they could manage. Some are saucy, sad, or forlorn, and some look like tough survivors, but unless some keen genealogist happens to recognize their kin, we will never know how they turned out.

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Uncovering Paper Treasure

I’ve had the immense pleasure recently of helping my mother declutter her office. It’s a big job and will take us many weeks, but fortunately she is keen to be part of the process. Not only that, but she is OK with letting go of lots of paper that has filled her office for years. Part of our process is scanning some of the material to digital form. The files that we are keeping in paper form fall into three categories: archives (important documents including photos), current documents (receipts or bills to be dealt with soon), and what I think of as memory aids. These last include her collections of ephemera from trips she has taken over the years, many of them to the UK for family reunions. Each trip’s folder contains tickets, brochures, receipts and her own diary, usually written in a tiny coil-bound notebook. Most of this will eventually hit the bin, but not before she uses it to recall and write about the wonderful memories that made each trip exceptional. Without her to bring delightful and important meaning to each bundle, it’s just a pile of useless paper.

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