One of our first ancestry experiences was an afternoon spent at the Cleveland Public Library pulling tapes, looking for marriage records, death records and city directories. What a challenge trying to remember how to use the 1960s style machines we had last used in high school some 20 years earlier.
It was quite exciting to realize all this information was available, but given we had just started we had no clue how to proceed. It was all quite random as we searched for whatever we could find with no clear direction, bouncing from a marriage record search back to a city directory search and then onto something else. All the while, printing everything we saw. As haphazard and disorganized as that day was, I still remember how good it felt to personally “discover” things that no one else in the family ever knew.
We have learned many lessons since then about being organized and searching with purpose and direction.
Mistake number one – printing everything – The first mistake we made was printing everything we found – who knows how many dimes we went through – ending the day at home with dozens of printed pages – some less clear than others – not entirely sure why we had each page – not sure which were critical (keep forever) documents and which were interesting items printed for future reference.
A small amount of organization can make your time at the library productive and just as rewarding as our first day and keep you from acquiring a stack of microfilm printouts, not knowing which are relevant and which are not.
Being organized does not mean you have to follow a rigid plan. You can certainly remain flexible and change direction as the flow of your research changes. Being organized and searching with purpose includes being thorough and taking good notes on what you found as well as what you did not find. That last part is critical.
Make notes on what you did not find – At first it may seem odd documenting what you did not find but when you are searching for a difficult-to-find item you will come across many dead end searches. With so many dead ends, you can quickly lose track of what has been reviewed and what has not been reviewed. You may have covered a lot of ground but found little information and with poorly written notes, or no notes at all, you can get lost regarding what was accomplished. With good notes you know where you stand, what items have clearly been reviewed and which have not been reviewed. You gain an enhanced sense of confidence in your conclusions and don’t waste time researching for a second or third time what was already covered.
For example tracking down my great grandmother Sophia we focused on where she lived and searched city directories, census records and marriage records. She moved around a bit, married several times and changed her name, so tracking her whereabouts over time was tricky. At first our process was a random series of searches, i.e. “Can we find Sophia in the 1943 directory?” If so, print out the page, then pick a year earlier than 1943 and see if we could locate her, or perhaps skip back several years and search for her. Given her pattern of moving, disappearing and name changes, a haphazard approach did not work well. We needed good notes to pull it all together.
A simple pen and paper list was a solution that worked well – no need for a fancy solution when a simple list did the trick. For each year we reviewed, we made a simple note such as “found Sophia at this address using this last name living with this person”. If we did not find anything for that particular year we would also make a note “looked at 1942 Cleveland directory and did not find Sophia under either last name”. With this approach we knew what was reviewed and what was not. We also made notes when the source material was not available. For example, in Cleveland there are certain years that the city directory was not produced and therefore not available. We made notes regarding the non-published years to make certain that we didn’t skip anything but rather looked for data that was not available.
The other consideration is thoroughness and consistency. For Sophia, we needed to look under three different last names, so we moved to a process where all three last names were researched.