For years my research methods were a mess. In most things, I tend to jump first, ask questions later, and research was no different. I would go into the process with a very broad idea of a question and just start looking at records; on a website, I’d just follow all the hints, in the library, I’d just grab any book that sounded like it might have some information about any of my ancestors and start browsing. As you can imagine, I didn’t manage to get far on anything. Over the years I did find a few little tidbits by sheer luck, but it was never focused and methodical as research should be.
Recently, I have changed the way I go about things. I follow the guidelines outlined in the Research Like a Pro process (you can read about it at FamilyLocket, or buy the book that goes into details). One of the things that they stress in the process it making notes for future research. As you are looking for records on a particular person, you are bound to come across something that will turn your attention from your focused research question. If you’re anything like me, the immediate response is to go chasing after that new thing (forever after called the “shiny object”), which will not only hurt your current project, but chasing the new record is unlikely to result in good research, either.
I am currently working on a 14-day mini research session. In working through the known facts about my ancestor (my great grandmother, Lillian Evans) I found something that threw me for a bit. My grandma, Almeda Milam, was Lil’s (or Granny to me) only daughter. Grandma had always said that she was born and raised in Memphis and I never questioned it until today. Grandma was born in 1920. Granny married her supposed father, Gordon, in 1925, then divorced him ten years later. What really caught my attention was that both of these events took place in Blytheville, Arkansas. Blytheville is a short hour drive to Memphis, but it is still significantly out of the way for them to be living in Blytheville but driving that far to have a baby back in those days.
As is so common, I wanted to drop everything right then and go looking for a birth record for Grandma. I’ve not been able to find anything in the Memphis area, but with this new idea, I really wanted to go look in the Blytheville area. BUT, instead, I chose to set it aside for later. This is what I want to really talk about today.
I use RootsMagic to keep all of my genealogy records for me. I also have online trees, but I keep my “official” tree locally to my computer. I’ve tried other software, but I always come back to RM (more on that in a later post). One of the parts of the program that I truly love, especially when it comes to future research planning, is the ability to create to-do lists.
When I ran across this new information, instead of chasing the shiny object, I instead went into my RM record for Grandma and added a new To-Do item for her. Now, just adding it is enough to allow me to get the idea out of my head and not worry about forgetting it, but I went a step further and assigned a priority.
Now, keeping up with these things is all well and good, but what do you do with them once you have them recorded? For me, I use them in two ways.
One thing that I really love is that when I finish a project, either with or without finding a resolution to the original question, I always struggle to let go of it and find something else to move on to. Research never stops, but I also don’t want to keep researching a dead end (like my grandfather Joe that I mentioned last time – there is no official birth record on file for him, so I would be wasting my time trying to find one). Instead, I use my To-Do items to figure out the next research question to focus on. By setting the priority, I have the ability to run a report, found by going to Reports > Research Reports > To-Do List. I set the filters to Sort By Priority and unclick the option to display completed items. This will give me a list of any items that are still open sorted by the priority that I have set when they were created. I start at the top of the list and work my way down. This has provided invaluable in being able to keep on track in my research.
The second thing that I use this for is as a reminder to myself when I am working on one particular person. Even though I keep a research log, each log is particular to the current objective I’m working on. If I run into something that doesn’t apply to that objective, it gets a To-Do item and not an entry in my research log. This allows me to keep the log focused, but keep up with tidbits that I don’t want to lose. At any point, I can look at my person and see all of the items that are related to them and not mixed in with the larger database. If I know that I’ve run across a marriage record for them during research into their father (it happens with all of these people being named the same) then I can find that item quickly and remind myself that I found a record that needs to be recorded. This keeps me from stopping my current research to log this particular record in their fact list without worrying about it disappearing. I tend to add the URL of the record so that I can come back to it later.
Alright, that’s it for today. I love some of these little lesser-known features of the program. What are some the little things you love about your genealogy program?