Sunday, December 30, 2007

Organize Your Correspondence

Do you find yourself in the middle of twenty different conversations with other family historians, and forget what you received from whom? It's hard to keep up with all the leads you get from others, especially when you are collaborating with more than one person. This is a simple tip to keep everything together.

If I am searching around on a message board and find that Joe Banks is a distant relative, I will create a new document in MS Word and title it "Correspondence with Joe Banks". On the footer of the first page I'll type a little description of Joe, such as "Joe is a descendent of Martha White from Oslo, Norway and lives in Fargo, North Dakota." This lets me remember how I'm connected with Joe. (Note: you can make the first page header/footer not appear on subsequent pages by selecting Page Setup --> Layout, and then selecting the "Different first page" button under "Headers and Footers".

Now I will look on that message board for any other posts by Joe Banks that have information I am interested in and paste them into the document (make sure you note when they were posted). Then I'll send Joe a note (include that in the document too) and we'll start corresponding. Each time I send him a note or receive one from him, I'll paste it into the file, and then I can always go back and find what Joe said.

Now about following up on leads from your correspondence: As you read emails, you will notice things you need to do. All you have to do is highlight the word or phrase that gave you the new lead and select Insert --> Comment. This will highlight the words in a red box and put a little dialogue bubble next to it. Just type what you need to do to follow up on the lead. Now, when you open the document, you can see all the new leads that have been generated. When you do one, you can delete the comment, and if you like, include your finds as a footnote. Just select Insert --> Reference --> Footnote and you can have annotated correspondence. This is great stuff for when you are writing a family history.

You can store these correspondence files in the "Reference" folder on your computer. (See my previous post for information on organizing your digital files)

Protect Your Files

Just a quick note: I have learned through sad experience that I can expect to lose all of my files at least once a year. It WILL happen to you too. Don't be optimistic, be smart. Backup all of your files.

I like to keep my family history on a Flashdrive. So far I haven't used up the 2 gigs of space. This allows me to take it anywhere I want.

The bad news is that a flashdrive is very easy to lose. So I also keep a copy of my family history folder on my computer. Once a week I delete the old one on the hard drive and transfer a new copy from my flashdrive, so I would lose a week's work at most if I lost my flashdrive.

I also recently purchased a portable hard drive for about $90. It is about the size of a hardback novel and holds 250 gigs of files. Every few weeks I'll copy my family history folder there as well, in case my computer crashes.

This may sound a little neurotic, but it will save your bacon. At least have two copies of the folder. Just remember to not start doing research in your backup folder, since then you'll have two different versions of your work.

Organize Your Digital Files

Once you have started your family history you will quickly find that it is hard to stay organized. And this isn't just a mental annoyance -- it becomes very difficult to work when your files are scattered around everywhere. It's hard to remember what to do next and where to find what you have. You may also try to make some meticulous system for organizing everything, and then spend most of your time organizing instead of researching! What to do?

Here is a simple method I use to organize all of my digital files (more on paper files later). In short, I want to organize all my documents by the family they pertain to, and anything I find out about a locality should be collected in one place, too. I also want to keep correspondence and gedcoms from other people stored somewhere.

1) Go wherever on your computer you want to store everything. Create a "Family History" folder. Put your main database file here (If you use Personal Ancestral File, it would be your .paf file, for example).

2) Inside that folder, create three more folders: "People", "Places" and "References". I'll go into each of these in detail.

  • PEOPLE -- This is where you store all the documents you find on your families. Make a folder for each surname you are working on. Inside that folder, store anything you find for that surname (census images, pictures, copies of documents, etc).
  • PLACES -- As you do research, you will learn about the places they lived. Make a folder for each locality you are researching in, and keep documents such as maps, local histories, websites, library catalog entries and pictures of places here.
You will want to name the folders in a Country, State, County, City format, like this:

Norway, Buskerud
Norway, Buskerud, Aadalen
Norway, Hedmark, Ringsaker
Wisconsin, La Crosse
Wisconsin, La Crosse, Holmen

That way, when you arrange the folders alphabetically, they will be automatically sorted for you. Note that I created a folder just for the country or State, another just for the County and additional ones for townships and cities.

  • REFERENCES -- This folder is where you store gedcoms and other random things like blank census forms, etc. You can organize it however you like, but I should mention that it's good to be very descriptive in titling gedcoms and other things. If you receive a file from Joe Banks and just call it "Banks.ged", you'll forget what it's for. If you call it "Eli Whitney family received from Joe Banks on 5 Nov 2007.ged", well that tells you just about everything.
That's about it. Hope this is useful. Please leave feedback about how this works for you, and any adjustments you like to make.