In this blog series, genealogical historian Scott Phillips invites us along on his journey through genealogy and shares some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way.
Welcome and thanks for joining me on Scott’s journey through genealogy this month here on the findmypast.co.uk blog. As you may know, each month I talk about one of the important insights I have gained during my years of working in genealogy and on my own personal family history.
This month I am going to talk a bit about documentation. My insight is this: Document, document, document and do it right from the very beginning of your work. Now I know this may sound dry, but it is very important to our family history and genealogy work and will pay dividends for us and for others now and well into the future.
I like to think about documentation this way: Just imagine how easy our work would be today if someone in each generation of our ancestors had written down information on their generation and their parents and grandparents? What if they did things like listing everywhere they lived? How nice would it be if they had listed who the person was that each of their siblings, especially their sisters, had married? You can think of it this way too; How often have you wished for just two minutes with a parent, grandparent, cousin, etc. to ask ‘just one question’? If you are like me, this happens at least once a day, if not more often!
When I started to initially work on my own family history I recall that in my initial enthusiasm I failed to adequately note where I acquired certain information such as names, locations, towns, dates, etc. It wasn’t long before I found myself having to retrace far too many steps to try and find exactly where I had discovered some specific fact. While I thought I would always recall each ‘find’ it wasn’t long until the sheer volume made that impossible. I began to retrace my steps from the beginning and make certain I had each item documented. It wasted time, it made me crazy, but I knew I had to do it. Now, each and every time I discover a new fact, document, etc. I make certain that I attach it immediately to my electronic family tree.
As I said earlier, I suggest that you begin doing this on your family tree right from the very beginning, because I’ll bet you London-to-a-brick there will be times when you need to check back on people, facts, etc.
This issue can become especially critical when, after an exhaustive search you have finally discovered an entry for an ancestor that was perhaps significantly misspelt, a very faint entry, poorly written, etc. Without your discoveries documented, re-finding that entry at a later date could prove very difficult and a significant waste of time. I had exactly this problem early in my work on my Phillips’ family line. I had finally discovered Nicholas Phillips, my great, great grandfather in the 1841 census, but due to the poor quality of the original, I found it by accident when I was looking for someone else. In my excitement, I did not copy the document and reference information onto my family tree and later, when I needed to double-check something I spent valuable time trying to rediscover this entry. The good news is that I did find it and now it is copied to my tree.
I copy everything I encounter in my research now. I ‘hang’ it on my family tree and figure, contrary to what Mies van der Rohe said about ‘less is more’, in the case of family history and genealogy ‘more is more’ so I now do not let anything go undocumented.
Another example that makes me crazy is the photograph you see here. You can see that there are just about 100 folks here. It seems evident that these folks are gathered for a special event of some kind or another. This photo has been handed down from my cousin. She discovered it in an old family album. While it is truly a wonderful treasure, guess what? Not a name on the photo! No names, no date, not a scribble of any kind. Now I am in the process of looking at each face and comparing them to any other family photos I have in my family tree to see if I can come up with a match and a hint. What a pity. For want of less than a minute of time to write the reason and perhaps the guests of honour, a lifetime of enjoyment is lost.
Some folks have told me they are put off by the formality of documentation, but my philosophy is this. While I personally use the Chicago Manual of Style on my citations and references and recommend it, I also say, most heartily, go for it in any style you want. Just document who (it relates to), what (it is) where (it came from), and when (it was published).
While good documenting does help me, it will be crucial for those who follow me and want to learn from my work, add to it, and understand where they came from. I have high hopes that someone after me will be as enthralled with family history as I am and will pick up the torch. Who knows maybe it will be my eldest grandson who, although only a lad of nine, is expressing interest in history, family roots, and family ties. Selfishly I want him and any others to know I was serious about this work and give them the best ‘leg up’ on their efforts as I can!
Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services in Indiana, US. Scott calls genealogy his ‘sweetest passion’ and his wife calls it ‘our shadow’! Scott specialises in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the UK and Italy. In addition to joining findmypast.co.uk as a columnist, he is a regular genealogy contributor for Huffington Post United Kingdom, GenealogyBank.com and his own website, Onward To Our Past. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page and on his website/blog