Thursday, September 29, 2011

Using to-do lists in genealogical research

I was very surprised to read this recently on Randy Seaver's blog: Genea-Musings: Can I Ever Tame (even manage?) my Genea-Monster?

I have never used the to-do lists in genealogy software. I probably should do that, but I haven't. My mind set was that I would have to print out each to-do list from each of the ancestral families that I wanted to research in the libraries and archives. Of course, if I had checked my RootsMagic program more carefully, I would have seen that they have several types of To-Do lists to use, and they can be printed out either separately or as one general list.

Randy is an experienced genealogist, and so I thought he would have discovered the usefulness of the to-do lists by now.

We use Legacy, and whenever we come across something that we think we should look up, we create a to-do item. These can be related to particular individuals in the database, or they can be general.

In South Africa, most of the things on our to-do list are for the archives, and they are scattered in different depots around the country. The archives indexes, however, are online here. Go ahead, try them. Go to one of the search pages and type in the name of someone you know, you might be surprised, even if you, or they never lived in South Africa. Choose the RSA index for a start.

So if I find an item in the archives relating to a person in my database, I create a to-do entry with the description "Call for", followed by the archives reference. So in the task list I have something like:

Call for MSCE 1216/1965 - Grice, Wilfrid Robert

and in the task description field I have more information from the index, in this case "Grice, Wilfrid Robert, b. Durban, s/s Alice Gladys, b. Laffan, 1965-1966" (the "s/s" means "surviving spouse" - the other possibility is "p/s", meaning "predesceased spouse").

This particular one is in the archives in Pietermaritzburg, so if I am going to visit there, I can print a to-do list for all the things I need to look up there, in priority order, and as I complete them I mark them as completed and change the priority to "Low", so they won't show up in future lists of things to look up there. And I also edit the task line, changing "Call for" to "Seen".

I have found this a very useful tool, and it saves a great deal of time. I go to the archives with a printed list of what I want to look up there, and I print it just before going. When I get there, each new document may have information that leads to new things to look up, so I add them to the to-do list on the laptop computer, or, if they look very interesting, call for those documents then and there.

In the same way, we have looked up references in British newspapers for family members who have married or died in the UK. You can look them up here. We enter them as we find them, while looking at the person in the database. When we went to the UK on holiday (a rare occurrence) we took a list of exactly what we wanted to look up at the Colindale Newspaper Library, and spent a morning there finding useful stuff. The to-do list feature of Legacy made it easy to do.

You can enter something two, five, ten or twenty years in advance of going to the library or archive repository, even if you may think you will never have the opportunity to go there. But if the opportunity does arise, all the things you want to look up are there, ready to be printed.

The only thing that I think could be improved in Legacy's to-do list feature is to have a way of converting a general to-do item to a specific one by linking it to a person. You may find information that links that person to your family, so you add them to the database. But the to-do item showing the document you used is still a "general" one, so there is a possibility that you might look it up twice.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why don't you SAY something?

One of the enduring mysteries of our family history research has nothing to do with descent, but it remains a puzzle that gets more puzzling with every month that passes.

In addition to our family history blogs, we have a family history Wiki, which we started in the hope of encouraging family members to join in writing the family history.

The site gets about 50-80 visitors a day, most of them from the USA, though most of our family are from other places.

But the mystery is that one page gets more than three times the number of visitors than any of the others. This page is the discussion page for Alfred William Green, and this month so far it has had 90 visitors.

The page that gives information about Alfred William Green, however, has had only 10 visitors. So it seems that no one wants to know anything about Alfred William Green. They are, however, drawn to discuss him. But they don't. Nobody says, or rather writes, a word.

If this was a once-off thing, it perhaps wouldn't be worth remarking on. But it isn't a once-off thing. It is consistent, month after month. The page with least information on it has more visitors than any other page on the site. Yet nobody seems to have anything to say.

Can anyone suggest an explanation for this strange phenomenon?

For what it's worth, Alfred William Green was born in Nova Scotia in 1839 and died in Queensland in 1886. His wife, Henrietta Goote, was born in Turkey in 1842 and died in Australia in 1904. They had seven children, and we'd love to know what happened to them. But we'd also like to know why so many people are interested in discussing him, but never do.

So if you visited the Alfred William Green discussion page before coming here, please leave a comment below to say what you were looking for, and whether or not you found it?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Tuesday's Tip - use FREE Genealogy Forms to Organize your Search

Randy Seaver writes in his blog about using free forms to organise research Genea-Musings: Tuesday's Tip - use FREE Genealogy Forms to Organize your Search

There are several websites with FREE genealogy forms available. for instance:

* Family Tree Magazine ( has many different types of forms - including a research calendar, note-taking, online database tracker, repository checklist, research worksheet, correspondence log, article reading list, book reading list, and a book wish list.

and goes on to say

I tend to create my own form in my word processor by using the good ideas of others and adapt them to my needs. In a word processor, I am not limited to a set form length and can add content to whichever field I choose.

I'll add that I go one step further, and instead of using a word processor for that purpose, I use the askSam freeform database.

askSam (Access Stored Knowledge via Symbolic Access Method) lets you create a variety of forms for entering information into a database, but, unlike a word processor, it also lets you search and create reports from them. Well, OK, you can search in a word-processor document, but askSam searches are much more versatile. And you can use askSam to link and organise word-processor documents.

So when I go to the archives to do my research, I make my notes in askSam, and that makes it easy for me to find the notes I've made about particular people or families, and to produce reports on them. This is much more useful than printing paper forms from PDF files, and then forgetting where you've filed the forms that you've filled in.

And no, I'm not employed by askSam to plug their products. I'm just a satisfied user. I've been using askSam for 20 years now to keep track of my research, and I still haven't plumbed the depths of the capabilities of the DOS version that I first started with, much less the latest Windows version (unfortunately there are no plans for Linux or Mac versions).

Among other things I use it for recording tombstone inscriptions, with a photo of the tombstone, a transcription of the inscription, and research notes on it. This makes it easy to find all inscriptions relating to a particular family, or a particular place, sorted in name or date order, if you like.

I'd be interested to know of other genealogists who use askSam -- perhaps we could devise a way of sharing ideas and templates that could help us to make better use of it.

If you haven't heard of askSam before, have a look at their web page, and see if you think it might be useful to you. It can be used for all kinds of research, not just genealogical. I use it for storing notes on books on all kinds of topics, keeping addresses, keeping track of correspondence, phone calls, and all sorts of other things.