Returning to Genealogy Research with New Tracking Tools

It is said ‘You can never go home again.’ But I believe you can, albeit to a changed home and with a new perspective.

Today I went back to a park I used to live near. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until I had walked almost around the small lake. How fitting that I was ruminating on Genealogy Do-Over Week 3 at the time. In week three, Thomas MacEntee talks about returning “home” to our genealogy research, now well-armed with tools to improve the quality of our research.

As I walked down the tree-lined path surrounded by fond memories, I realized that though my genealogy research will never be the same as it was before, I can indeed return home and maybe even have the best of both worlds. I will begin anew in documenting my family history, cocooned in my happy memories of ancestors found in searches past. But this time, I will be prepared to thoroughly document my searches and my sources. This will require using a research log.

Thomas MacEntee's Research Log, edited by Melanie J. Rice.
Thomas MacEntee’s Research Log, edited by Melanie J. Rice. You can find his original version online in this blog post: Genealogy Do-Over Week 3

The Old Way: Informal To-Do Notes and Poor Follow-Up

In my early years of genealogy research, I would jot down things to look for and then get distracted by BSOs almost daily. I had records by the bunches, but my data was so disorganized that I struggled to make sense of it. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t occur to me then that incorporating spreadsheets to track data would have been a good idea.

Thomas MacEntee has made his combination Research Log & To-Do List available online for download in his Genealogy Do-Over Week 3 blog post.

After I reviewed Thomas’ spreadsheet, I mulled over what I wanted in a research log. Then I did a quick Internet search to see how others manage this.

The New Way: More than One Way to Keep a Research Log

I discovered that not everyone loves spreadsheets as I do, and that there are many ways to organize and track your research data. Here are a few examples, besides Thomas’, that I found:

Research Log using Google Sheets — 

Calvin Knight uses Google Sheets to track his research. He has made his spreadsheet available for public download on his blog, Calvingenealogy.com in this blog post: Calvin Knight’s Google Sheets Research Log. Calvin’s Google Sheets spreadsheet even has a nifty map feature that’s a BSO for me. I had to fight the temptation to drop everything and find out just how he did that immediately.

NOTE: Thomas MacEntee’s Excel Research log can be imported and saved as a Google Sheet, too. You can download it here. It’s about halfway down the page.

Calvin Knight's Google Sheets RESEARCH LOG includes this cool map feature.
Calvin Knight’s Google Sheets RESEARCH LOG includes this cool map feature.

Research Log using Evernote —

Other genealogists, like Colleen Greene, use Evernote as a research log. Colleen is a librarian, educator and genealogist based in California. Several folks on the Genealogy Do-Over Facebook page said they don’t like spreadsheets, so this may be a viable option for them.

Like Calvin and Thomas, she has made her template available download and public use. You can find it in her blog post about using Evernote to track research.

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Colleen Greene’s Evernote RESEARCH LOG is available for download online at her blog post here.

Green says she capitalizes the surnames in her research log, to make them stand out and make it easier to read.

Research Log integrated into family tree software — 

Finally, Michele Simmons Lewis, of Legacy Family Tree uses Legacy Family Tree genealogy software’s integrated log to track her research. She describes her process at this post on her Ancestoring blog.

NOTE: Negative search (or findings), as seen in Michele’s log below, is not the same as negative evidence. Read more about negative evidence at this blog post by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Michele Simmons Lewis is careful to record results for all search criteria in her log.
Michele Simmons Lewis is careful to record results for all search criteria in her RESEARCH LOG.

This  is where I face a dilemma. I recently switched from Windows to a Mac. I didn’t always track my research, but when I did, I used Legacy’s built-in to-do list and note features. However, as of today, there is no working version of Legacy available for Macs, without using software like Parallels, which allows Mac users to run Windows on their machines. I’m not going down that road. I liked using Legacy to track my research because I had everything at my fingertips. I find the more places I have to go to find and track data, the more likely I am to become disorganized or give-up the record keeping.

Personally, I’m a detail-oriented, big picture person. This means I want to see how details fit into the overarching plan. Thus, I find a log like Thomas MacEntee’s appealing. I prefer not to keep separate logs for each person, but to have it all together in one accessible file. Perhaps I will find it becomes unwieldy after I’ve logged data for hundreds of ancestors. In that case, I will be open to exploring other options.

For now, I’m going to start out using a slightly modified version of Thomas’ Excel Research Log. I’ve created separate columns for surnames and given names, and added a column called “Other Person Identifier” to add data to help me distinguish between multiple individuals with the same surname and given names.

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I take hard copy notes when I work on my one name study at the local library. Then, when I get home, I can enter full source information into my spreadsheet RESEARCH LOG.

Since I don’t bring a computer to the local library when I search hard copy records there, I’ve started using a notebook to record my searches. I plan to transfer this data into my research log. This lets me search quickly while at the library and enter the exact source information from home.

The Takeaway —

There’s one right way to do a genealogy research log: The one you will stick with. Perhaps exploring some of the examples shown here will give you ideas of how you can make a genealogy research log work best for you.

Binders and folders and papers — oh my!

Genealogy Do-Over, Week 1 Cycle 3

Setting Previous Research Aside

I’ve had a month or so to come to terms with the fact that my research is a mess, and I need a plan and a do-over. And, I’m used to setting research aside. In fact, that’s contributed to two of my data losses. Years ago I set my research aside to move across the country, without backing up my database. I lost all my digital files, but I had kept my hard copies. Now, I’m a full-time student and I work, so when the semester gets hot ‘n’ heavy, I pack my genie goodies into boxes and hide them. Yes, I hide them, so I’m not tempted to look inside and do genealogy instead of homework.

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No, this isn’t my ONLY box! 😉

Before I set aside my paper files, I’m going to give them a quick once over to clump them according to record type and family. This will help me formulate a research plan that fits my research style and records on hand.

I don’t plan to toss these records, but I do plan to carefully reintegrate what is usable into my NEW system, once it’s fully in place.

Today, I set aside my digital files. It was easy. They are on my old Windows laptop and I’m now working on an iMac.

I’m hanging onto one thing, though — a special project I recently started that involves separating tangled roots in a family branch. This project will be my testing ground for tracking and workflow, however I won’t be entering any data into my database during the cycle.

Preparing to Research

For me, this includes everything that I will go through during our genealogy do-over. I will be better prepared because as I participate in the do-over, I will identify what I’ve been doing that doesn’t work, and STOP it!

I will be armed with the latest version of “Evidence Explained” by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and I will stick to my plan but not keep it set in stone. When I find something’s not working, I will find a better way to get the job done.

Establishing Base Practices and Guidelines: Five little words that carry loads of weight.

This is pivotal to the success of my do-over. It may take more than a week, heck, it may take longer than the whole cycle to complete. But, by the end of the cycle, I hope to be better acquainted with my options and to have a strong plan in place that I can tweak as I go.

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What’s inside Pandora’s box?

Here are my top five base practices:

  • Research from a point of “I don’t know.” (I’m borrowing one of Thomas MacEntee’s Golden Rules of Genealogy). I’m not out to prove this or that, but to find out who, what, when, where, why and how.
  • I will develop a workflow that works for me, and follow it. I will update it when I find it’s not working. (This will likely include trial and error attempts). It will include a research plan, sharing with others and efficiently working with documents — from collection, to analysis to data entry and producing reports.
  • I will implement regular back-ups in multiple formats.
  • I will create a tracking system that prevents double work, lets me find documents when I need them and fits into my workflow. It will include documenting where I search, what I find, accurate source information and a plan for future work. It must work with my database and other software I use and has to be efficient.
  • I will work toward the Genealogical Proof Standard and carefully analyze data before making conclusions. I will pursue a blend of people focused and evidence based genealogy, with a strong emphasis on evidence, source citations and evaluation.

No big deal, right? Well, not so much. Several of these are within my reach for day-to-day research. However developing a workflow and tracking system that efficiently integrates with my database and other programs will be a challenge and might include some do-overs.

Switch from Windows to Mac leads to genealogy do-over

Who knew that switching from a Windows laptop to an iMac desktop would precipitate a genealogy do-over? Heck, when I made the switch, I hadn’t even learned that “genealogy do-over” was a thing.

I did some research to be sure I could use my huge iMac screen as a display for my laptop that I run Legacy 7.5 on, but not quite enough research, as it turns out. My iMac can only function as an external display to computers that have Thunderbolt technology, which my laptop doesn’t.

When I learned this, I began my search for a robust family tree software program that I could run on my iMac — this led to more frustration. Neither Legacy, nor RootsMagic have options for Macs that work for me.

Legacy doesn’t have a native Mac product. Legacy’s site documentation says it is working to make Legacy 8.0 functional under CrossOver for Macs. However, the demo version was so glitchy it wouldn’t stay running for more than a few minutes at a time. When it crashed, it took the data entered five minutes ago with it. Legacy support staff suggested I contact CrossOver to try to resolve the issues.

RootsMagic developer, Bruce Buzbee says they are working on a native Mac version of RM. To bridge the gap, they have released MacBridge, which is essentially a customized version of Wine that allows RM to run in the Mac environment. However, this solution proves unworkable for my needs.

My eyesight is less than perfect, but correctable to nearly 20/20. I’m just not able to read the text in most of the dialog boxes in RM — in the Windows version, or under MacBridge on the iMac. RM doesn’t have scalable fonts and only allows users to adjust font sizes for certain areas. It appears that most of the critical dialog boxes use the system font. The only way I’ve been able to adjust the system font is by reducing the resolution of my display, to increase the size. Under MacBridge, the fonts are also sketchy and look as if they were printed on a dot matrix printer. (See screen shot image.) This is particularly noticeable in the source dialog box. I believe this may be a result of viewing the program through the “wineskin.” It’s not impossible to read the text, but for me, it created so much eyestrain that it’s just not feasible.

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Source dialog boxes in RootsMagic under MacBridge are difficult to read.

Other demo programs that I tried for Mac also fell short of my expectations.

Before purchasing my iMac, I had been working in Legacy to recreate data I had lost after a computer died on me several years ago. I had not done a recent backup, and lost all of my digital work, but not my hard copy backups.

The data I lost was my second attempt at starting from “scratch” with my family history data. In the late 90s, I was so excited to find new connections that I had entered them into my The Master Genealogist database without source information. I was naive enough to think I could just add those pesky source citations later, which of course, didn’t happen.

My frustration over not finding a suitable family tree program to run on my iMac got me looking online for solutions. Hence, I stumbled onto the Genealogy Do-Over blog, as well as several genealogy groups on Facebook.

After reading several posts on the Genealogy Do-Over blog, I realized my genealogy research was in desperate need of a full-blown makeover. (More on this later.)

So, as much as my crazy schedule will allow, I plan to participate in Cycle Three of Thomas MacEntee’s “Genealogy Do-Over.”