28 January 2020

Make Smarter Progress on Your Family Tree

If you don't stop and look around, you may never complete that family.

You know the old phrase for when you can't make any progress? It's "1 step forward, 2 steps back." You never seem to get anywhere.

To make progress in your genealogy research, I recommend the opposite: "2 steps forward 1 step back." That's right! This more measured approach has you looking around instead of blindly forging ahead.

Here's how it works. Let's say a cousin sent you a digitized photo of your shared ancestor. It's brand new to you, and you're eager to place it in your family tree. That'd definitely be 1 step forward.

But while you're there in your ancestor's profile, take a step back. Look around. I'm sure you can find something else in her profile that needs your attention.
  • Does each fact in her profile have a well-formed citation? My citations were all broken recently. So I'm eager to improve the citations for each ancestor whose profile I visit.
  • Is every one of her document images annotated? I add the specifics to the image's notes. Say it's a ship manifest. I add the title of the collection (like "New York, Passenger and Crew Lists"), the line number where you'll find my ancestor, the image number in the collection (like "250 of 478"), a link to the document on Ancestry, and Ancestry's source citation.
  • Does her timeline of facts have a gap? For instance, are you missing her 1930 census? Take the time to search for whatever is missing. You're here now. Don't miss this chance to get it done.
Once you make this a habit, you'll make more progress than if you added the new photo and moved on to something else.

Each time you add something to a person in your tree, take a moment to improve all their sources and search for what's missing. Fix up their immediate family, too.

Over the weekend I kept this idea in mind. I wanted to fix the citations for my direct ancestors. But it didn't make sense to fix my great grandfather's citations and ignore his siblings. They were a click away. Before moving on to my great great grandfather, I fixed the citations for my 2nd great uncles. Now that nuclear family is solid.

Here's a quick example. I have 6 document images for my 3rd great grandmother Angela Maria Franza. I have her 1820 birth record and 5 pages from her 1846 marriage documents.

That adds up to 7 facts in her profile, each needing a source citation:
  • her name
  • her birth date
  • her baptism date
  • her 1st marriage banns
  • her 2nd marriage banns
  • her marriage license
  • her actual marriage
I'll give each fact a solid citation by following these steps:

1. I'll look at my notes on her birth record image and copy the URL of its original location.

My practice of making note of the original image URL is a lifesaver while I'm fixing source citations.
My practice of making note of the original image URL is a lifesaver while I'm fixing source citations.

2. I'll paste that URL into the citation for her birth fact. I've got 1,000s of Italian vital records in my tree, and I've decided to use a simple citation detail: "From the [year] [type of document] records for [town]." The exact phrase for this birth fact, then, is "From the 1820 birth records for Colle Sannita, Benevento, Campania, Italy."

Unlike my old method, this citation will be specific to the facts on this one document.
Unlike my old method, this citation will be specific to the facts on this one document.

3. I'll add the document image to the citation.

You can add one or more document images to a specific citation.
You can add one or more document images to a specific citation.

4. I'll copy this citation to the related facts. Her birth record is my primary source for her name, birth date, and baptism date. So each fact can use the same exact citation.

Before I move on I'll (a) see if I can find her death record (I can't), and (b) follow these same steps for her 3 siblings. That way, when I'm ready to work on her father (my 4th great grandfather), his entire family will be complete.

Take 1 step back and handle the entire nuclear family in one sitting.
Take 1 step back and handle the entire nuclear family in one sitting.

This whole idea boils down to "While you're here…". While you're here, fix the citation for your 2nd great uncle's birth fact. While you're here, download that marriage record that you never added to the tree.

Don't let your genealogy research be a hit-and-run operation. Add a new fact or document (that's 1 step forward). Take a look at what else this person needs (that's 1 step back). Make this person's profile as complete as you can (that's a 2nd step forward).

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