Document Yourself: Genealogy for Beginners

Associates keep asking me how to start their family history. This reply may be so basic that I do not wish to sound obvious, but start with yourself and move backwards. A lot of people understand the conceptual “going backwards” part, but the starting with yourself leaves them with non-connecting looks.

Think of your living space, and/or that of your parents or children. Think of where you work, where you shop, go to Church (if applicable), pay taxes, and everything else. What are the basic records found at each location? What are the major events in your life? Has anything in your life ever cost more than $1,000 (US)? Then there should be some sort of documentation for it, and it probably was a big deal when the purchase happened such as for a house, a car, school, a birth, etc.

Although papers are important, there are many stories that pass down through generations without papers. Sometimes, unless there is a specific need for a paper’s creation, major events do not receive record. But, start with what you have. A) Anything that is paper that has your name on it, which is from an official source of some sort is worth looking at. Driver’s licenses are not paper, exactly, anymore, but they also count.

General guidelines (not the professional standard, but things that I look for when gathering basic documents):

  • Name or variant of name
  • Location or institution of some sort (State of Illinois, Carnegie Mellon University, Holy Cross Hospital*, Department of Defense, Our Father Lutheran Church*- *some of these locations may or may not exist. These are given simply for hypothetical purposes only)
  • Numbers (date, or identifying number of any sort)
  • Anything that looks official or pertinent.

Some items may look official and be complete fluff. Other items could be small or odd shapes, and those are the ones to keep track of carefully as there is usually only one of them in the world. The archivist in me does not want to make copies of items due to light damage, but sometimes only surviving copies ARE the only thing that survives. Not everything is on 100-year microfilm or gold archival-quality DVDs. Scanning helps, but it takes effort to up-date formats. Possibly the hardest thing about family history is that there is no way ever to say that it is done (save Deity says it) and finished due to updating formats for documents alone.  

However, start smaller.  Look around the house. Notice what is on the walls. Pictures are documents in their own right in many cases. Although photoshop works wonders, most people are not about to try to break into your house to steal a 100-year-old picture of Great Aunt Susie to digitally craft something or someone else in there. Despite Hollywood, most people’s families really are not that interesting to anyone outside of their family, if even to them. So work on it in bits and pieces.

Organize the items first by surname, and then by generation. When you deal with much larger quantities of family members, then separation into geographic locations is a better idea. If all of your family documents fit into either a single 2″ binder or a single-drawer file box, then organization by surname is not a bad effort or method entirely.

Make the record of yourself. You think that you are not interesting? Try writing your story and then read it back to yourself out loud. If you need to, read it to a friend or family member. You will be surprised what happens when importance and weight come into play from another’s opinion.

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Family History Basics: Part Three (Home Sources)

A previous post in this series mentioned home sources. This post may help a new researcher recognize what is a home source and what is leftover paper. Anything that helps to prove a name, date, place, or gender has potential of being a “home source.” Mediums vary widely from paper to fabric and even painted wood,   or glass but anything that is a family heirloom with particular reference to family Bibles “counts.” IRS tax records after some time are useful. Medical records, old pictures, photographs or paintings, furniture, or anything that a person typically might find in older historic museum with more than one person’s history displayed are fair game.

Preservationist Intentions

My family has had a lot of deaths in recent years. That said, funeral cards/books and programs feel almost like baseball cards (no irreverence intended) with collecting the deck. Although this is a rather unique way of seeing those items, I prefer paper to ephemera personally. Smaller, lightweight, portable, easily scanned and preservable in the digital realm. Do not get rid of originals. I cannot stress this enough!

Preserve for sharing purposes and in case something bad happens as in a natural disaster. Given the insane state of most weather phenomena over the past five or more years, this is more of a “when” than an “if.” My very first post on this blog mentioned using a fire-proof lock box. Well, that takes care of fires. Now how about floods, hurricanes, typhoons, lightning (it’s possible), bugs, extreme heat, earthquakes, something shattering, and generally anything that can hurt you is also possible for hurting documents. Documents are not more important than people. That said, scan your documents and keep them in multiple online repositories in addition to a tiny multi-gig flash drive on a key chain.

Any place where a person may host a blog can become an instant archive. Also, sites like DropBox.com play host to the Internet’s seemingly never-ending supply of data storage space. I regularly use my email as a storage facility. I remember who I sent what document to, and if I use my keyword system then it’s not too hard to find something quickly. My only reservation is that it is harder to find documents older than 2006 using Gmail, especially when there are a few thousand emails in the box.

What Counts As a Family Source

Preservationist intentions aside, start with the most recent document that shows a name and a date or a place to it. Job offers, business cards (I keep a few of these from each different job; at the least, it helps with remembering for resume purposes), ecclesiastical certificates, insurance information, birth, marriage certificates, school transcripts, immigration materials, immunity boosters and shot records, passports, drivers licenses, school IDs, and generally anything that a person would use normally for identification are things that count. Military IDs and information, letters, diplomas, certificates of completion, wedding dresses, sampler stitchery pieces, quilts, ceramics, and in some cases even older bureaus may give hints and clues.

Don’t forget scrapbooks. These may or likely may not look like modern scrapbooks. Most likely not. I love old leather-bound volumes that usually have no identification as to provenance, source materials inside, etc., excepting that the materials were in a newspaper once upon a time. Hunting down newspaper articles is also a passion. If a person notices an errant newspaper kept whole in a separate or special area, do not throw out the paper until combing through all sections for possibilities of a relative reference. The reference might not be highlighted. Start with obituaries and then work through other areas like weddings and births, and then check the regular articles. Worst case scenario, look through classifieds and ads.

This should help to start on the path of home sources. If not, leave a comment for more discussion on the topic.

The Genealogy Dr

Preserving History: A Take on the Egyptian Library and Personal Documentation

As a genealogist but more particularly as a preservationist of useful historical artifacts, the burning of the Egyptian library got to me. The first truly preservationist blog recommended buying a fireproof box, and keeping essential documents inside that box. I wish that Egyptian library followed that policy. As soon as I heard that it burned, I thought about flame-retardant systems and how Egypt had one example of this already more than a thousand years ago. Personal time-travel wishes for going back to the library of Alexandria and rescuing documents is not an option. Neither is there an option for saving the 1890 census from the 1920’s fire, or the St. Louis NARA military records fire in the 1970’s.

While becoming a digital documentation fanatic, I love my paper. When I was a child, I had to stop and stare at stationery in stores, and I love the smell of a well-cared for museum. It’s the one of the most glorious smells in the world. The smell of old, well-cared for books versus musty dusty rusty is vast. The archivist in me knows that digital only takes one good electro-magnet to erase despite best efforts at keeping it functioning whereas paper, when done properly, lasts for hundreds of years if not thousands. Metal is better for inscriptions while rock isn’t bad for more everyday use. And no, I’m not suggesting using metal or rock for making different items, but they’re not bad choices for consideration of things meant to last literally for thousands of years. Thank you, again, Egyptians and hieroglyphs.

I wish that more people realized that their lives are important. Not as in they themselves are the best being that ever was since the beginning of time, but their existence matters. People who understand that existence matters like documenting it. Maybe there is a natural proclivity toward removing traces of existence in the short term. My gas receipt although theoretically useful for tax deduction benefits at the end of the year isn’t something that I really care about. I try to pay with cash, and so there aren’t any strong numbers on there to hold against me. That said,

DOCUMENTATION IS IMPORTANT! No, I do not recommend becoming a pack-rat and storing every single paper that a person ever created in their entire lifetime. That is unwieldy and unmanageable when there are hundreds if not thousands of papers for the life span of most educated people. Vital records- store them, make copies, and put them in bank vaults. These matter. Tax documents going back at least seven years, and if possible a copy from every year (the IRS can audit going back that far, technically, but seven years is the minimum). Medical records, especially immunizations, matter. Religious documents, wills, and court records, or anything that a government or governing body of any kind creates also matters. That includes school transcripts and similar records. Within my own record stashes are my father’s high school varsity letter in chess, (yes, he’s smart. Brilliant, honestly,) his and my mother’s wedding pictures, and some of my and his school transcripts from when we were both in grade school. Things like this add human interest in the “blank space” otherwise occurring between birth and marriage for most ancestors.

Although many people are hugely into scrap booking, I am not. However, scrap booking is a valid personal history builder as is blogging, etc. Family websites are good things, and there is no way to get away from digital documentation in family history. I wish that the current software programs kept up with the needs of the field, although I need to test out RootsMagic 5 to see if they upgraded their documentation systems. I love the Memorize Feature for ease of use in referencing a document multiple times, but otherwise regarding genealogical software programs they all still have issues or else I have not found one with sufficient quality to address my daily needs. Still/always searching!

I’d give a lot for a program to have all of Evidence Explained‘s examples in Wizard format along with automatic digital download capacity for websites and similar mediums, and be transferrable between computers or more compatible utilizing basic GEDCOM utility languages. Makes me wonder what the limitations are for the underlying code structures.