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Time-Saving Tips for Genealogists

by Michael John Neill
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15 Tips to Save You Time and Frustration
Write neatly, file your papers, keep Soundex cheat-sheet, collaborate with others...these simple tips can really help your research in the long run. Michael John Neill recommends things you can do to make the most of your research time.
Unfortunately all genealogists have limited time and limited money. Saving time while researching allows time for other activities, most importantly doing more research! What follows are some time-saving techniques I have used in the past. However, don't limit yourself to these ideas — you can probably think of many others on your own. However, remember that timesaving techniques are only "time-savers" if they don't result in wasted time later. Make sure that you aren't cutting corners in the wrong place.

Before you visit a library, visit it online.

This can help you save time in three ways:

  • First, check the basic information about the facility, including its location and hours. You don't want to plan a trip for the wrong time.
  • Second, if the Web site contains an overview of the collection, it may help you determine if the library is one you actually wish to visit.
  • Finally, you may be able to access the library's card catalog through their Web site.
Searching the catalog from home before your trip may save significant amounts of on-site research time, allowing you to spend more time with the materials you came to see.

Print one bibliographic page for each book or source you plan to use.

Documenting your research is extremely important. However, it frequently slows down on-site research. To allow you to spend more time with the materials when you go to a library or archive, create one sheet for each book or record you plan to search. If you've used the online card catalog, copy and paste the bibliographic information into a word processor, using one sheet for each book. Make research notes on the sheet for use at the library or archives. Then when at the facility, you can make additional notes regarding the success (or failure) of your search. If you make copies from the source, attach them to the sheet for ease in tracking sources and entering data when you return home.

Enter all information from each source or record at the same time.

Data entry is not fun, but it makes information analysis and pattern recognition much easier. When entering information from records, don't sift through all your records looking for information on one person. Instead, enter all information from each source at the same time. Data entry with most software programs (including Family Tree Maker) is easier if you enter information about one document completely before starting on another one, and you may be able to copy and paste repetitive information during the data entry process. If you aren't constantly flipping through documents while entering data, you also reduce your chances of making errors.

File as you go to avoid hunting in the future.

The short amount of time it takes to file a record copy or other document will be time well spent when you are looking for that document a few months or years down the road. Spending an entire afternoon searching through your stacks for something is not time well spent. You might also want to include the name of your file folder in your notes or sources when performing data entry. This will make locating information even easier.

Write it down, neatly.

Time spent writing something on paper and filing it is time well spent. Do not trust your memory, or you will find yourself back at the library again. Do not write sloppily or you will misinterpret what you have written. Do not use scraps of paper that are easily lost. Do not use a crayon or lipstick that will be impossible to read next year.

Focus on one line or family at a time.

Don’t mindlessly surf the net (or the library) for information on "as many of your families as possible." Focusing on one line or family makes better use of your research time and keeps you focused and sharp. If I plan to go to the Family History Library in Salt Lake and work "a little bit" on all the lines of my children, I might end up a tad bit confused. Just tracking back to their 3rd great-grandparents, my children have Ostfriesen, German, Irish, Swedish, Swiss, Belgian, and French Canadian ancestry. And that’s just those who were not born in the United States. Researching families from all these ethnic groups at once is likely to leave me confused and wasting time. There are too many languages and cultures for me to effectively digest simultaneously. I'd probably do best to focus on one or two groups at a time.

Discover what indexes and records you can use online.

More and more information is becoming available online (either free or fee-based), which can save a trip to the library. In some cases, the actual records you wish to use may not be online, but even if indexes to those records are online, you can save time by doing a little digging at home first and then making more effective use of your on-site time.

Consider posting some of your data to a Web site.

Letting others know about your research interests is an excellent way to cut down on your research time, or to avoid spending time researching records that others have already researched. Users of Family Tree Maker and Genealogy.com can easily post information on their own Web pages at those Web sites. You can also post questions or brief information about your ancestors to the appropriate bulletin board at GenForum.

Determine if others have researched your family.

There are many ways to do this. You can search online collections of genealogical data such the World Family Tree. Or, look for published information on your family by searching card catalogs such as the one for the Family History Library or the Library of Congress. When using pre-published information, whether in print or electronic form, remember that you should only use the information contained in these sources as clues, not as fact. Remember that the quality of the data is the responsibility of the author or submitter, and it is always possible for mistakes to occur.

Learn about the records you will research.

Do not research in ignorance. Learning will invariably save you time and money. There are numerous printed guides to genealogical research available for purchase or through your local library. Additionally, there are online sites such as the Family History Library Web Site and Genealogy.com that contain information about research and records in a wide variety of areas. You might also consider attending one of the many genealogical workshops and institutes offered around the country.

Have maps.

Maps can help you understand locations and may also provide suggestions for other areas to research. When travelling anywhere to research, include maps as a part of your research preparation. Maps will facilitate research in many records and having them will save the time of locating an atlas and making relevant copies at the library. If you take a "stack" of genealogical information to the library to research and do not include relevant maps, you're selling your research short. Maps can also help you learn how county and other boundaries have changed. There's nothing worse for wasting time than looking in the wrong county for your family records.

Make goals and work towards them.

Never go to a research facility without a list of specific tasks. These items should be as specific as possible. Going to the courthouse with the intent of "learning whatever I can about great-grandma" will not make effective use of your time. If the exact dates of her vital events are unknown, estimate them from other records or information. These dates and approximate locations will help focus your search. Stating your genealogical goal and then listing the records and sources that could help you reach that goal will help to organize your research and make better use of your research time.

Get your soundex codes in one place.

Keep a chart or table that lists the soundex code for every surname you are researching. While coding surnames may not take that much time, you will save time (and frustration) if you have a handy list of your "personal" soundex codes with you.

Photocopy title pages to ensure accuracy.

If possible, make a copy of the title page of any book that you use. This reduces the amount of time you spend writing and reduces the chance of a mistake. If you search a book and are unable to locate any information, make a copy of the title page and in pencil write the surnames you searched for. This will make updating your research log and data entry much easier when you get home.

When copying from a file that contains many documents…

Assign a "code" to each document. If a court case contains a "Master's Report" and a "Response of Defendant" write (in pencil) MR1, MR2, MR3 on the copies you make from the "Master's Report" and RD1, RD2, RD3, etc. on the copies made from the "Response of Defendant." These notations are just examples; you can make up your own system. The notation is best written on the back and serves mainly to assist in separating copies should they become mixed up (some people recommend against stapling). Even if stapled, this method will prevent confusion should the staple ever be removed. Remember that one page of each set should contain a complete citation as to the reference (book or packet number, page (if appropriate), case file number (or box number, etc.), location of the records, etc.).

These are just a few of my favorites, and you'll notice that they don't have a lot to do with working faster, but with working smarter and more carefully. Avoiding retracing your steps can be one of the biggest time-savers of all. When using additional "timesaving" techniques make certain you don't end up wasting time or money later as a result of your approach. Shortcuts are not always "short" and you may "cut" yourself in the process. Timesaving procedures that require you to organize information may even cause you to see new leads and approaches. And what better way to spend the time you've saved than following up on new leads!

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How-To Article: Maps in Family History Research
How-To Article: The Research Cycle
How-To Article: Digging Out from the Paper Pile

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