My name is Kathleen, and I have been researching my family history since I was a child. I love to go into county courthouses and smell the old books and paper... or is it dust? This blog will focus on the stories I've heard over the years and the research methods I follow. I am particularly interested in data management and cloud genealogy.

Some of my personal areas of interest include Southern Maryland and DC (Robie, Rhodes, Grimes, Lindsey), NY state (Hill, Cookingham, Flynn, Rhodes, Skinner, Wheeler, Mead, Havens, Trotter), NJ (Parcell), North Carolina and Eastern TN (Lynch, Seabolt, Spears), MO (Wilcox, Kiddell), and CA (Simi, Grady)

I am always happy to compare notes or share my experiences, so please leave a comment!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Census templates are now available!

As part of my quest to add more tools for managing the genealogical research process, I've created a series of templates in Bento for recording federal census data.  Each one reflects a different year of the federal census.  My goal is to add another layer of usefulness to my Genealogical Research System.  Once you enter data in any of these census templates, Bento makes it available as a related data table from within my system.  Simply put, you can enter census data for an individual, and it automatically shows up as evidence for that person.  

Well......... technically, only I can do that at present.  

You can certainly begin to use these templates right away for entering data, but I haven't yet updated the Genealogical Research System in the Bento template exchange to reflect the more sophisticated data relationships I envision.  I will do that very soon!  I'm currently working on adding another component to my system, and it would be nice to update everything at once.

So for now, I've included a template for every census year from 1790 through 1940 (except for the lost 1890 census).  This is an image from the main screen of the US Census template folder:
Once you choose a census year to work on, you click on the icon and it opens the data entry form.  All the templates are formatted to include the columns from the original census in their original order, so all you have to do is tab from one to the next as you enter data from the original census page.  I've also included a field for you to drag and drop files from your computer, so you can store a digital image of the census in each record.  I've created separate forms for entering publication information and the actual data from the census, which makes it easier to follow visually.  For some of the early census years, there are also separate forms for the slave and free schedules.

Just to give you an idea, here's a screen shot from the 1810 template:
"publication data" form
"census data" form

Beginning in 1850, every member of a household was recorded in the census.  For all subsequent census years, I enter data for the head of household only, and use the memo field called "household members" to add information on the other members of that household.  This way I keep the household intact in a single entry, yet I can easily search for individuals using Bento's powerful search engine.   This is a sample page from the 1880 census that shows how I enter all the members of one household.

You can, of course, give each person their own database entry, but I think this method saves time without losing function.  Either way, as long as you link the individuals to their entry in your "Genealogy_people" library, you will be able to access related data from your other Bento libraries.

page in the "people" library showing records related to Zebulon Rhodes in other Bento libraries

page in the "people" library showing all records related to Zebulon Rhodes in the 1850 through 1910 census
(this page isn't yet included in my Genealogical Research System templates, but should be up soon)

I hope you find this useful, and would love to have your feedback.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The need for standards in evidence... or why I abandoned commercial genealogy software

They do try...  Family tree software programs used by genealogists often pay lip service to good research practices by assigning a check box for the user to indicate whether a given source is "primary" or "secondary;" sometimes they include a rating system where you assign 5 stars to a "really good" source... whatever that means

Unfortunately it is all but useless to the average user who is faced with classifying sources that aren't easily categorized:   a digital copy of an original land record published by a state archives, an abstract of a chapter on your great-great grandfather from a local history published in 1882 and reprinted on a Rootsweb message board, a photo of a tombstone, and so on.  The definitions are sometimes hard to remember, too.... why isn't that chapter on my 2nd g-grandfather a primary source?  It has loads of direct information about him!

Without guidelines it is really hard for a non-academic researcher to assign surety levels in a way that will be commonly understood by other researchers. I just read a brilliant article by Elizabeth Shown Mills defining standards for evaluating and using historical evidence (you can read it here). She identifies three qualities of evidence that establish their credibility:
1)  whether the form of the data is original or derivative,  2) whether the specific data is from an informant with first hand (primary) or secondary knowledge of the matter under consideration, and 3) whether that data represents direct or indirect evidence of the date, name, place, event or circumstance we are trying to prove.  

Recently I set out to create a database application that would allow me to manage my research, and -- most importantly -- track the quality of the evidence I am gathering.  The criteria identified by Dr. Mills can be described as "objective" - that is, the evidence in question either meets or does not meet the definition.  This is key to providing guidelines that can be widely used by researchers with different levels of experience.  This is also key to my Genealogical Research System.   Rather than focus on adding names to a tree, I start with the assumption that sources are the primary points of interest, and accordingly, it is important to track information about the quality of the physical source itself.  My database tool allows the researcher to record each piece of evidence contained in a source and note the quality of that evidence relative to research objectives.  

I've just updated the field names in the analysis page of my Evidence library to more accurately reflect the terms used by Dr. Mills (so the templates I uploaded to the Bento template exchange are now officially out of date).  Specifically, I've added a checkbox field called "Original source," which the user will check if the source qualifies as an original (actual document or digital copy from reputable source) vs. a derivative.  The Source table is supplied to remind you of how the source you examined was formatted. The "Direct evidence" checkbox is checked if the data represents a statement of fact that explicitly supports the evidence, as opposed to data that only provides circumstantial evidence.  The "Primary Informant" checkbox is checked if the person supplying the information in the source did so from direct knowledge of the event.

By recording objective information about the quality of specific evidence, the researcher can establish a strong foundation for any conclusions to be drawn from that evidence.  This tool also allows users to track their research at every stage in the process, from visits to a repository all the way to final proof of an assertion. As a result, any evidence that is subsequently added to the researcher's family tree software will be supported by more objective measurements of value than the program would otherwise allow.

see Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Working with Historical Evidence: Genealogical Principles and Standards,” Evidence: A Special Issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly 87 (September 1999): 165–84; digital image at Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways ( : accessed 16 May 2012).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Genealogical Research System.... explained

Yesterday I wrote about the system I created in Bento that completely changes how I manage my genealogy research process.  There are a few other templates such as mine out there, but I like how mine uses Bento's digital media capabilities, allowing me to take full advantage of all the multimedia resources available for genealogists.  I have uploaded the templates to Bento, but I don't know how long they take to vet them, so please contact me by leaving a comment on the blog if you are interested in getting a copy.

My hope is that these research templates may inspire the genealogical software programmers to create products that work in the same way that a researcher works:  start with the research and end with the conclusions.  All these years the companies have been creating programs that work backward, encouraging people to enter conclusions before they have analyzed the results of their research.  My dream program will be family tree software that includes a research module, so you have a place to record and evaluate the data you uncover until you are confident enough to attach it to an individual.

I set out to create an integrated system.  Many of the fields in one library (i.e., data files) are related to those in other libraries, so you never have to input data more than once and you can often view data that exists in one library as a reference field in another.  The fact that data can be input in one library and available in another means you don't have to interrupt your work flow to take notes or make changes.
Opening the folder labeled Genealogical Research System you will see a page of icons representing each of the 11 libraries in the system.  You can click on any one to open that library and begin working.

You can see that some of the icons have slightly different looks than the others.  I've used different themes to represent the various functions of each library. The primary modules are the Sources, Evidence, To Do List, Genealogy_photos, and Genealogy_artifacts libraries.  These cover the essential tasks of recording research trips and the research process itself, along with keeping track of all the little tasks that arise along the way.  (The photos and artifacts libraries are modeled after user-submitted templates already in the Bento template exchange, but they are included here because I have adapted them to my record-keeping methods and have related them to other libraries in my system.)
The libraries called Repositories, Genealogy_people, Hardcopy File Number, and Online Databases are basically look-up lists that you can either populate in advance or on the go, but in either case are used to augment the information you acquire in the research process and create relationships among the data.  I've given the Correspondence library its own theme because it supplements research.  Bento allows you to send emails directly from the program if you use the Mac OS X Mail application.  I don't use it, so I create digital copies of my emails and store them in this library, but obviously this could be adjusted should you use Apple mail.  The Research Logs library is one I don't use much anymore, since I can accomplish the same thing by running a search on the Source library (more on that below).
Another thing to know before I get into the details is that some libraries contain more than one data entry form.  In the Sources library, for example, I have one form to enter data from an online source and another one to use when examining a source in person.  You need to capture slightly different bits of information for each type of source, and having more than one form means that the input page only has to have the required fields and no others.
Let's take a look at the libraries in detail:
** Sources

This library is the heart of the entire system.  There are three forms you can use for entering data about a source.  
1. The first is for sources examined in person: 

Here you enter the title, author and relevant publication data for that source.  Select a repository from the related data table "Repository;" this table contains records from the Repositories library.  You can add a new record or select one or more existing records .  
There are a series of fields describing the source itself, which together help you qualify the source.  The "media type" field asks you to describe the source's physical format (book, digital/online, document, index, microfilm, microfiche, photocopy, or mp3 file).  The "source type" field describes the distance of the source from the original (abstract, extract, index, original index, original register, official copy from government files, original form, original duplicate, transcript).  The "source category" describes the original purpose of the source (burial, census, church, court, directory, land, lists, military, newspaper, vital record, wills, other).   These distinctions are important -- examining an original will in a courthouse may yield very different information from what you would get from a photocopied abstract of the same will from a clipping file in a library.
There are fields to enter your search objective for the source, any notes, and related data files.  Sometimes I have digital images of either the source or my notes, and I'll put them in this file.
2. The second form in the Sources library is for entering online sources.

This is similar to regular source entry, but you can link your source to a database in the Online Databases library rather than to a physical repository.
3. The third form in the Sources library is for noting whether or not this source contained useful evidence.  

When entering data, all you have to do is check the box asking if there is evidence from this source.  Doing this (or not) will allow you to run a search in the Sources library for any sources that are unused.  You don't have to enter the evidence here.  Later, when you add the data from this source into the Evidence library, you will link back to this source, and that action will automatically populate this table in the Sources library.
Smart Lists
The Sources library also includes three smart lists.  Smart lists are basically queries of your data that you set up for a particular library.  They are "smart" because Bento constantly updates the response to the query as you input or change data in that library.  I've set up a "Finding Aids" smart list, to identify just those sources that are indexes or other finding aids to sources, but which themselves do not contain actual data.  The second smart list returns "sources without evidence," a search on all the sources I've examined that did not contain evidence I could use in my research.  The third smart list searches for any source that includes an entry in the "database used" field, in other words, all online sources.  You can run queries in Bento on any field except "related data" field types, i.e., those fields that are linked to other libraries.  To avoid this problem,  I include a new field to enter that information in the current library wherever I include a "related data" field. 
There are four forms in this library.
1. The first form, Transcript of evidence, is where you enter information from your source that corresponds to specific information about an individual that was gleaned from the source.  

The field "Evidence (title)" is where you enter a phrase that summarizes this evidence.  I add a relevant locality so when I want to search the database at a later time, I can focus my search on the appropriate area.  I select the source I used for this evidence from the "Source" table, which links to more details about the source in the Sources library.  If the source contains many pieces of evidence, I will want to include publication details about exactly where I found this piece of evidence (such as the page or volume number).  If I have a paper copy of the data to file, I will add a new record to the Hardcopy lookup table and enter that number and filing category.  Everyone has their own filing methods, I know, but I find that it is simpler to file by type of record plus a consecutive number -- it is very quick and easy to process new material this way.  I always know where everything can be found because Macs have a powerful search engine and I am careful to log my paper files into the computer.
In this digital age, though, there are more ways to have my data at hand from within Bento itself.  I have created a field to enter notes directly from the source into the "transcript of source" field.  You can drag and drop a digital file from your computer into the "digital notes" field, which allows you to double click the icon to open the file in whatever program created it.  Or, you can just drop the a link to your data in the "data URL" field.  Just click on it and Bento will open the link.
2.  The second form, Evidence Analysis, is another important step in assessing your data, and one that often gets postponed in the thrill of the hunt for more data. 

In this form, there are text fields for discussing the nature of the evidence and your level of confidence in it based on the source it comes from and whether it is considered to be primary or secondary and direct or indirect evidence. There are checkboxes to identify these qualities.  You will also see a table called "Evidence related to whom."  This table contains  related data from the Genealogy_people library, from which you can select the individuals who are connected to that evidence.  The table labeled "confidence level of source" shows information from the related source (i.e., media type, source type, etc.) that can help you assess the quality of the evidence based on the quality of the source.
3.  The third form, Evidence Analysis/uncertain connections, is the same as the second form; it just adds a checkbox indicating that you are not certain whether or not the evidence relates to a particular person.

4.  The fourth form, Add 'To Do' task, is a page where you can add related tasks to a 'to do' list.  Entries from this form are usually accessed later via the To Do List library.

There are three smart lists in the Evidence library.  The first, "to copy into Reunion database," selects those records I have identified as being ready to enter into a family tree software (I use Reunion).  The second one, "uncertain connections," selects evidence that I have not yet confirmed as relating to a specific individual.  The third list, "need to find primary sources," identifies data that was gathered from less desirable sources, reminding me to find the original sources.  
**To Do List
There are two forms in this library.  
1. To Do List

This is a straightforward data entry page, where you identify the task itself, the nature of the task (check files and edit computer entries, correspondence, writing, multimedia, research, visit repository, websearch, or visit cemetery), and identify a repository if appropriate.  You can also enter notes, relevant websites, and link to files on your computer.
2. Related data is the second form in the To Do List library.

I added this page just to show you at a glance all the related records in other libraries.  In this example, I know that information relating to Ed Simi and Theodore Grady Jr. & Sr. can be found at the UC Berkely library, with specific finding aids included in my correspondence with the librarian, David Kessler. 

This library is a simple way to keep track of your correspondence, and, as I noted in my introduction, would be even easier if you use the native Mac email application.  Since I don't, I copy email threads to files on my computer and drag them to the field labeled "correspondence file."  I keep basic contact information for each person I communicate with, and add notes on the family name or topic of our correspondence.

This library is a simple filing system for family photos, allowing you to track information about the condition and provenance of photos.  There is also a related data field allowing you to select individuals depicted in the photo, as well as a checkbox indicating whether the image should be included in your family tree database (Reunion.)

Similar to the photo library, the artifacts library is a simple filing system to track family heirlooms, their location and provenance.  I have also included a table allowing you to relate the heirloom to a particular person in your database.
**Online Databases

This library is primarily a list that you use from within other libraries to provide information about a source or a task.  The information in this library includes online databases and their URLs.  Any notes about using a particular database can be added as well.  Databases in this library can be ones that you have used as well as those you are interested in trying out.  Also included in this library is a table that shows all the sources you have examined that are linked to any given online database record.
**Hardcopy File Numbers

This is a library I use to generate sequential numbers for my personal filing system.  I have included an Evidence table so I can see at a glance what individual pieces of evidence are included in any given file.

I exported all the names included in my family tree software (Reunion), together with associated birth and death years and person ID numbers into Bento to create a body of people to whom I will relate evidence gathered in my research.  I have included an Evidence table so I can see at a glance what evidence I have found for each person in my database.  If I find a new person connected to my tree in the course of my research, I will first add them to Reunion and then, after obtaining a person ID #, I will also add them to my Bento system.

Like the Online Databases library, the Repositories library is a simple listing of libraries and other repositories with their address and contact information, as well as space to make notes about visiting, usage policies, etc.  I have included a link to the To Do List  library, so I can add a task directly from this screen.
** Research Logs

I used to use this form to enter all the sources I looked at when I visited a repository, whether or not I gathered any data from them.  Now, however, I find it is easier to input sources directly into the Sources library and create research logs by running a search (CMD F) on any one of a number of criteria, such as date of search, repository name, search objective, etc.  I left this library in the system because some people might prefer to have  something they deliberately create as a "log" rather than have to rely on a new search every time you want to generate a log.  

So, in a nutshell, that's how I manage my research -- I hope these templates are helpful to others.  Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments! I'd love to know if others feel the same way I do about commercial genealogy software.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A new tool for genealogical research!

I haven't posted much here lately.... not because I don't love my family history work, but because I've been increasingly frustrated by the research process itself.  Back in the days when everything was on paper, it was relatively easy to stay on top of my research, but over the years we've all gone digital, and that has been a game changer in more ways than one, but mostly because:

Software programs that cater to the genealogist are primarily designed to record family relationships.   

Well, yes, obviously...... so what's wrong with that?  

Genealogy software programs are designed to focus on the end result of research, not the process itself, so most of the work that we do takes place outside of the software.  In most programs, you input data by attaching it to an event in the life of a person in your tree, and only then (if you are thorough) you enter a source for your information.  One of the reasons genealogy is such a fascinating pursuit is the thrill of the hunt.  We are all detectives:  we gather clues, apply logic, and only after careful sifting of the evidence can we come to a conclusion.  The trouble with current software is that there is no place to record the steps you take to reach that conclusion.  I want a program that can manage my research!

When I do family history research, I make an effort to work according to the Genealogical Proof Standard.  My first emphasis is on the source I'm looking at -- I want to record information about its reliability and provenance before I even begin to record any information it may have on my ancestor, and then I want to extract all the potentially relevant evidence it may contain before I assign it to a particular individual.  In other words, there is a lot of information that has to be processed before I can attach any piece of evidence to my family tree, and existing software puts the cart before the horse.

Now, I know that this is not news to people who think about genealogy and technology.  What surprises me, though, is how long it is taking for the people who program commercial software to catch on.  I am somewhat of a database geek, but unfortunately without the technical expertise to program my own software.... so I've done the next best thing.  I've created some templates for an existing database software that I think might be useful to other researchers as well.  I am a Mac user, so I created templates for Filemaker's Bento software, a basic program that, while fairly powerful, it is not complicated to use.

I've just uploaded my Genealogical Research System templates to the Bento template exchange.
The great thing about Bento is that it is very reasonable, about $50, and can be used for any number of data tracking tasks.  I think it is a great tool, and I'm very excited about its application to my genealogy research.  My next blog post will be a detailed explanation of how the system works, so stay tuned!