Tuesday’s Tip – Not "Just The Facts, Ma’am!"

In the 1950’s TV show, Dragnet, one of Sgt. Joe Friday’s catchphrases was “We just want the facts, Ma’am.”  Most beginning genealogists assume that is all they are searching for – just the facts.  But as most any “seasoned” family history researcher will tell you, sometimes writing down more than “just the facts” can be the key to breaking through a brick wall later.

When I first started reaching out past the recollection of my living relatives and into letters, Census data and other records, I made a habit of keeping two notepads with me.  One, I used to record the facts that I found in a particular record and the citation for the records – good genealogical research information.  The other pad was my “Thoughts” pad.  I used this notepad to record my on-the-fly thoughts about the record I was working with.  Most of the time, the notes were a simple connect the dots such as “Record confirms birth date for Great Grandpa Link.”  Every so often, I would jot down what I call a “huh?” note.  Those are the notes about things that just don’t make sense, don’t quite seem to fit, or they fit but open up other questions.

Many times, you will find that those hunches and assumptions that you write down on the fly prove to be correct once enough proof has been acquired.  Perhaps more importantly, the questions that you write down while you are recording the facts will often lead you down another avenue of research that yields unexpected and very valuable results.  Never assume that all you want from a document is “just the facts.”  Keep track of your thoughts and questions about documents because you never know when those random thoughts and questions may just end up helping you break through that impenetrable brick wall.

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Basics of Genealogy – Paper Organization

Paper organization….ah, the subject that all genealogists know we need, we all strive for, and you can learn to dread if you haven’t started with a system or started with one, but just couldn’t maintain it.  The key to an organization system, whether dealing with genealogy or any other type of organizing, is to find a system that works for you and that you enjoy using.  If you simply try to take someone else’s “system” and force yourself to use it, you are most likely doomed from the outset.  What I offer below is my own personal system and a few suggestions for changing it. 


First, let me put out a disclaimer….I admit that my system is by no means perfect, but hopefully you can do as I did and take pieces of this system and various others and adapt them into your own personalized system.

Okay…the basic physical “shell” of the system is pretty simple.  It just consists of hanging file folders and regular manila folders.  For the hanging folders, I recommend box bottom ones because eventually you will need the expansion room that they offer.  My file folders are the type that have the two hold punch paper “brads” built in (like what you see in the picture.  I will explain why I chose those here in just a bit.  Outside of those two types of folders, I also have an accordion-style folder that I use for my “to go” research.

Now…to the “meat” of the system.  My system is relatively simple.  Each hanging file folder is labeled with a Surname that I am researching (Washler, Link, Hill, Hablawetz, etc.).  Within that hanging file, I have a series of regular file folders.  The first is a Surname Research folder.  I usually label that folder simply SURNAME Research (e.g. WASHLER Research).  This folder contains my notes pages that pertain to multiple families within the name, or notes that I have not been able to confirm which family they belong to, as well as any evidence that I have found that I have not been able to attach to a specific family.  After the Surname Research Folder, I have two folders for each family within the surname.

The first folder will be the Family Proof folder.  The label for this one is SURNAME – Husband/Wife Proof (e.g. LINK – Isaac/Anna Proof).  This folder is where I keep all of the originals of any evidence I have collected regarding this family.  Examples would be printed copies of Census Records, Copies or original newspaper clippings, original vital records (birth, death, marriage, etc) and any other item of proof that I have collected.  Some of these folders hold full manuscripts that I have obtained from various sources.  If I have a reference book that mentions this family, I keep a source sheet in the proof folder that references the book, where it is on my shelves, and the pages that mention the family.  This folder never, I repeat never, leaves the house.  If I had to grab just one section of my genealogy research during a house fire, it would be these folders because they contain everything I would need to completely rebuild my research!

The second folder is the Family research folder.  These folders will typically be named SURNAME – Husband/Wife (e.g. LINK – Isaac/Anna).  Within this folder, I keep everything I need to research this particular family.  The first thing that is added to each folder is the Family Group Sheet for that family.  I use a two hole punch at the top and then use the brads on the folder to attach it to the front cover.  I use the family group sheet generated by FamilyTree Maker, but you could also use a hand-written form similar to the one offered by Ancestry.com.  The other sheets that are usually contained in this folder are a Research Extract and a Source Summary.  The Research Extract form is a quick and convenient way to make notes on specific pieces of evidence that I find, and the Source Summary is a running log of what sources I have used in my research for that family.  The Source Summary has been invaluable to me in preventing me from back-tracking or going back over a source that I have already gleaned information from or found to be a dead end.  The other part that I like about the Source Summary sheet is that if I need to go back to the source where I found a piece of information, this sheet will tell me where that was without having to pull up FamilyTree Maker.  In addition to the pre-printed forms, I typically keep a photo-copy of any evidence pieces that I have not fully evaluated and cited, all of my hand-written research notes for this family.

I mentioned earlier that I use an accordion-style folder for my “to go” research.  This is really used for library or courthouse trips where I may be planning to research more than one family.  I can take the family research folders that I will need and slip those into the accordion file for easy storage and transportation.

I should include here a brief mention of how I determine when to create the family research and proof folders.  My general rule of thumb is that once I have evidence or proof of a child in a particular family getting married, I promote them to their own set of folders.  My reasoning for that rule is that once I have the information on their marriage, I am more likely to begin working on tracing their children and adding to their life stories.  If a child remains unmarried, I will usually leave them in their parents’ set of folders for my research.

I also carry with me a “general” research folder.  This folder contains notes that may pertain to more than one surname as well as my research “cheat sheets” such as a short set of notes on how to properly cite certain types of sources, lessons learned on how to deal with certain types of sources, and anything else of a nature that doesn’t pertain directly to one particular family.

One final note about my folder system.  If there was one thing I would change about this system, it is the idea that I have seen of color coding each surname.  The idea here is that all of the folders (hanging and manila) for a particular surname would be the same color.  This makes it easier to very quickly find the surname you are looking for in a filing cabinet FULL of research folders.  Someday, if I have the time and energy, I will likely go back to my filing cabinet and add this element.

Next in my “basics” series, I will talk about electronic organization of genealogy research.  As always, I welcome comments and suggestions for future posts!

Happy digging!

Basics of Genealogy – Getting started

About 20 years ago, I first took an interest in where my family came from and decided to do some “family research.”  At the time, I honestly didn’t even know it was called genealogy!  I just wanted to find out about my family history.  I started where everyone probably starts (or where everyone should start) – by asking my parents about their parents and grand parents.  Over the past two decades, that initial curiosity has turned into a full-blown passion (okay, maybe obsession) for tracing my family history and for genealogy in general.  I never would have believed back then that I would become an evangelist of sorts for genealogy, but here I am.

Along the way, I have made a great number of mistakes in my research – especially when I was starting out.  Some of those mistakes, like not getting enough information from relatives while they were will alive, may turn out to be critical.  Others, like not documenting or organizing my research correctly, were avoidable yet very correctable.  The purpose of this series of articles is to help others avoid the mistakes that I have made along the way as well as share some of the knowledge I’ve gained as far as tools, tips and tricks.

So for this first “installment,” let’s talk about just getting started and some of the mistakes that I made when I first started out.  Sometimes that can seem like the easiest or the most intimidating part.  Where on earth do you get started?!  The answer is simple…

1)  Talk to your living resources.  Notice that I didn’t say just living family.  You should talk to not just your parents, but also your aunts, uncles, grandparents (if you are lucky enough to have living grandparents), cousins, great aunts and uncles, even “distant” cousins.  Ask them for facts…the who, what, when and where.  Also ask them for stories!  Stories can sometimes provide more information than we realize.  You may glean a nugget that means very little now, but down the road, it could be the key that blasts through a brick wall.  Don’t stop with your living family though.  Inevitably, in those stories, you will hear friends and neighbors mentioned.  When you do, go talk to them too.  Often times, friends and neighbors who have known your family for a while will remember details that your own family has forgotten.

2) Take notes.  I can’t stress this enough.  Take notes on everything, not just what you think is important at the time.  Even better, if you can, record the conversations with your phone or other digital recorder and then transcribe the conversation later.  Taking notes will save you later from trying to think back through your conversations to pull out that one detail that you remember hearing, but just can’t quite recall.  If you don’t conduct your interviews or conversations in person, be sure to save the letters and emails in a hard copy form for review over and over.  Going hand in hand with taking notes is…

3) Document, document, document.  Did I mention that your should document your sources?  Make sure you write down the who, when and where for any sources, especially those oral interviews and letters.  Later on, you may be able to connect some dots just by knowing who said what.  I strongly suggest using a standard form of documentation for everything even if you never plan to do anything “formal” with your research.  The more standardized you keep things, the easier it will be for you to sort things out down the road when you have REAMS of notes.  I found this article on Genealogy.com to be incredibly helpful as it combines both the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA guides on documentation.  I know it seems very “formal,” but it is very worth it in the end to start off this way.

4) Try to stay organized.  This is actually the subject of my next post in this series, but I wanted to touch on it briefly here.  Even if you don’t follow a detailed organization system like what I will talk about in the next post in the series, I strongly suggest you keep your notes and sources organized by family name early on.  I have been learning this the hard way as I am still going back through stacks of my early research to organize it and finding information that I found early on, but didn’t know I had because I didn’t have it organized.  I have smacked myself in the head several times as I realized I had a clue or key piece of information for years, but never used it because I didn’t organize.

I hope this post helps you if you are just getting started in your family history research.  It is one of the most rewarding “hobbies” that I have taken up and being able to pass all of this on to future generations is something that I hope those future generations will enjoy.

Let me know what you might like to see as I go along on these “how-to” posts!

Thrifty Thursday – Getting started without going broke

This is a tip for those who may be just getting started on their genealogy journey.  We have all seen the wonderful ads put out by Ancestry showing just how easy it is to click a leaf and discover new branches of our family tree, but when you start looking at the monthly cost of a subscription, I have the feeling most new genealogists stall out after the initial free 7 day trial.

Don’t despair because there are a number of FANTASTIC free resources out there on the internet that you can use to continue your research!


Make no mistake – I love Ancestry and several other of the paid sites and I have been using them off and on for years.  Most of the subscription sites offer amazingly easy search capabilities and an incredible treasure trove of records.  I just know that for most people, paying for a subscription can be a stopping point until you are fully “hooked” (addicted?) to genealogy.

Perhaps my favorite free resource is FamilySearch.org.  This site is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and is a direct link into their Family History Library (FHL).  I first discovered the FHL when I was starting out in my genealogy journey, but back then, I had to find one of the local FHL locations, and go there to manually search through their microfilm  collections, order the films and then get the copies of records that I needed.  FamilySearch.org has nearly eliminated that altogether!

FamilySearch.org is a digitized version of most of the collections contained in the FHL including some very comprehensive state collections, census records and many others.  The FHL is an incredible collection that has yielded more results and documents for me than I can even begin to recount, and to have this resource at home for free is just incredible.

I encourage any new genealogist to go check out FamilySearch.org and see what they have to offer.  While you are there, be sure to avail yourself of the free learning resources that they offer – it makes the genealogy journey so much easier when you learn from those who have gone before.