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"Records" from my archive...the early days of the search

“Records” from my archive…the early days of the search

This weekend many of my genealogy friends are attending the RootsTech 2015 conference in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, I’m not there. I figured that February travel ought to include someplace warm… Little did I realize that the high tomorrow for Salt Lake City would be 54 degrees while we’re expecting a wind chill of 0 here on the East Coast. But hearing about all of the new technology and how it can relate to or help our genealogy research is in stark contrast, much like the weather this weekend between those two locations, to what genealogical research used to be.

In the last few weeks I’ve been organizing and de-cluttering my home office, and I found my notes from a non-credit genealogy course I once taught. From about 2000-2002, my friend Marie and I taught the basics of researching your family history in a 5-week class at a Philadelphia university. It wasn’t until I looked over those notes that I realized just how much genealogical research has changed in the last fifteen years – mostly due to computers, the internet, and digitization projects. Not to mention DNA testing!

The first week of the class we focused on Federal Census records (at the time, the latest year that was released was 1920 and none were online), and the first thing we “taught” was all about Soundex. Today, while newcomers to genealogy might hear about Soundex and understand it conceptually, there is no need to really use it anymore. When I first started my research back in 1989, figuring out the Soundex code for my surnames almost added to the thrill of the search because it appealed to the cryptogram and code-loving days of my childhood. Today, it really doesn’t matter that my name converted to P532 because we no longer have a 2-step manual search through various microfilms (yes, microfilm constituted high technology back then)-just a short wait after the click of a button to see the possibilities.

But besides the onslaught of the availability of online digitized records (which we sparingly covered in the last week of our class in 2000), I realized that much of what we taught still applies as much today as it did a decade ago – or two hundred years ago. Step #1 in researching your family history – then, now, and forever more – is gathering all of the information you already know from talking to relatives.

As evidenced by the photograph above, I used whatever means available at the time to capture that information. Yes, friends, that is a paper plate. And an envelope. You see, back in those beginning days of research, I’d constantly pepper my parents with questions. Once I’d find something, perhaps a fact or person they hadn’t mentioned, and I asked again, it would jog their memory to reveal more information that I’d hurriedly write down. My parents’ house is renowned for never having notepaper, or a pen, available when one needs it, so I’d reach for whatever would serve as paper.

Not as cool as Evernote, Family Tree Maker, or even Notepad – but it got the job done. Looking back on these relics of research (before I finally toss them in the recycle bin), one thing is certain – those little tidbits of information I wrote down were, eventually, all either proved or disproved by my research. They were clues, and the search – whether you are using a computer and the latest technological advances or not – begins with basic family information.

Don’t get me wrong – I am so happy with all of the technological advances that have happened since I started my research. But don’t forget about the how-to lessons that will never change no matter how much more easier technology makes our search:

  1. Write down everything you know.
  2. Talk to living relatives about everything they know.
  3. Remember that spellings can change and were flexible in the past.
  4. Remember that history is important to know and geographical boundaries change over time.
  5. Document your sources!

One other tip that people just getting started in genealogy in today’s age of technology just don’t quite fathom…not every record you need to trace your family can be found online. That doesn’t mean it can’t be found, it’s not not as easy as clicking a button. Happy Ancestor Hunting!

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Not so long ago in a galaxy not too far away, the word “genealogist” may not have been associated with the most technology-savvy person.  The image that came to mind may have been more of a bookworm-librarian searching through piles of books and papers  in dusty old archives.  Today, many genealogists are very well versed about the latest computer technology because it helps to advance our research so much!  So set your GEDCOM-phasers on stun as we uncover the topic for the 43rd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Technology!

When I first heard the topic, I thought we’d be writing about technological advances in the lives of our ancestors or during our own lifetimes.  But, that’s not quite the slant towards technology that the Carnival-goers are writing about.  For this edition, three questions about Technology were posed:

What piece of hardware (besides your computer) do you most rely on for your genealogy and family history research?

This may be an unconventional answer, but for me it’s my digital camera.  While I have a fancy digital SLR for vacations and family portraits, it’s my tiny fit-in-your-pocket digital Casio Exilim that gets a genealogical workout.  How can you utilize a camera for family history research?

First, the obvious answer is to take photos of living relatives and current places.  Did you finally meet your third cousin twice removed?  Take a photo!  Visit your ancestor’s old street, church, or town?  Take more photos!  Tombstones of your relatives?  Take a photo and you don’t have to stand around the cemetary taking notes!

Another great way to use your camera for research is to take photos of…photos! Relatives may not want to loan out their treasured original photos of your shared ancestors, and we all can’t travel around with a laptop and a scanner.  But, with some attention to light and camera settings, it’s easy to snap a digital photo of another photograph.  Watch out for glare on the surface of the photo, and use a macro or close-up setting on your camera.

You can also use your camera to take photos of documents, as long as there are no copyright infringement issues.  My camera has a “Macro Mode” specifically for text.  Hold the camera steady!  This also works if you want to take a photo of a record on a microfilm reader.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ll be visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City in April.  Since they allow the use of cameras, I’ll keep you posted how this turns out.

What piece of software (besides your internet browser) do you most rely on for your genealogy and family history research?

This one is harder to answer.  Based on my camera answer above, I’ll have to say my imaging software.  I use PhotoImpact by Ulead, mostly because it came with my old scanner and it was easy to use.  It may not have all of the bells and whistles of the newer programs, but it does a fine job of helping me edit my photos.  It’s also useful for editing images of documents, such as snipping a piece to show on this blog or capturing an ancestor’s “autograph” from documents.

What web site/blog (besides your own) is indispensable to you?

Steve Morse’s One-Step site
.  Without it, I would not have been able to find several folks in the Ellis Island passenger lists and many others in Census Records.  Steve Morse’s search tools get around indexing issues or errors by allowing you to search in many other ways and on many different “fields” of the records.  There will always be some ancestor that eludes searches, but Steve’s site makes it easier to find the rest.

What are your favorite genea-tech tools?

[Submitted for the 43rd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Technology Tips for Genealogists]

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