I decided it was time for a little shift in my paper verses digital organization. I completely stopped keeping paper files about 10 years ago. There are some great digital record keeping tools that I use. Firstly, I love Evernote, it’s perfect for my organizing needs. I also love having Microsoft Word documents and Excel sheets as my research notes. I have several thousand genealogy documents on my computer. I prefer digital information retrieval as opposed to looking through a paper file cabinet. I love my trees on Ancestry.com and that I can pin sources to people in my trees, like a digital bulletin board. Even so, sometimes my body can only handle looking at a computer screen for short periods of time. And also, sometimes I want to remember more than what I typed up for others. So, I keep stacks of cut scrap paper in my desk drawer, ready to scribble thoughts or notes on as I think of things, until I can come back later to that topic. Sometimes this leads to having huge stacks of words and phrases written down, that I never did get back to, days or weeks later. They aren’t usually complete thoughts either. Lately, I’m often only typing up partial files. Once I start typing, I realize there are still questions I need answered, incomplete source notations, or further research is needed before I feel like I can share. When I have a lot of partially finished things, it makes me feel very irritable and frustrated with myself. My solution? Go back to keeping a paper journal, in addition to my digital organization method.
I like to think of myself as a detective, for my genealogy. I enjoy reading old public domain mysteries, and historical fiction mysteries. Lately I’ve been reading stories Alan Pinkerton wrote about his company’s real cases. There were so many great detectives with smart research methods, all before the days of computers and databases! Alan Pinkerton’s stories are amazing to me because of how many undercover detectives were involved, sometimes months of investigating for just one person. I also thought it was pretty genius that everyone had to regularly write up reports to Alan, with their thoughts, ideas, what they’ve done, etc. They used regular telegraph reports in code and a paper write up at the end of a case. Other authors write about detectives that map out their ideas on paper. By writing it out, you can see how people, places and events fit together, and patterns are easier to spot.
I have kept a small and simple temporary file system for the last 15 years, that has worked well for me. I have only 6 folders for genealogy. I keep them in my desk drawer. One folder is for my volunteer work with genealogy. The other 5 folders are for different subjects such as: my Polish research, my Irish-Mecklenburg VA group, and notes people have sent me about DNA matches they have with me. The folders are pretty thin, nothing is meant to stay permanently in any of these folders. It’s information I haven’t put into the computer yet, pages with notes I took during a phone call, planning pages for a trip to the archives, or notes from a courthouse or cemetery visit I haven’t organized yet. Last month I added something new that has been helpful. I put a sheet of bright card stock in each folder so that I can write questions as I think of them, on that folder’s subject. It helps me to have the questions all on one page. I also have a page for blog post ideas and blog posts I started writing, with what info I still need to finish that post. In the Mecklenburg, VA Facebook group I’m moderating, I’m trying to post “a question of the week” every Tuesday. I have a sheet of card stock with ideas for the questions on one side. The other side of the page has notes on the questions I asked with the corresponding dates.
A few years ago, I kept 2 journal notebooks: one for on my Polish research, the other my Irish research. I felt I needed the notebooks then, since the research was all so new and foreign to me, with so much to think about. I filled in two composition notebooks for my Polish research, that I still review 5 years later. I stopped keeping a journal because I thought it might be more efficient to just use Evernote tags and notes. But I’m finding that because of the way I think and process information, I still need to write things out on paper. My Polish notebooks for Chicago research really helped me think things through when I couldn’t find people, and I was studying maps to manually look people up through census maps. I usually write paragraphs on the right side, and draw stuff out on the left side of the page. In my Mecklenburg, VA notebook, I drew circles for property, writing which neighbors were to the north and east around those circles. I drew squares for Census maps showing city blocks in Chicago. I wrote the enumeration district number inside the square, then the street names around the square for that location. I also wrote whether I found the person in that district or not, and where I found the address that I was looking up on the Census maps, then the Census. I also wrote out timelines for that house, family, or individual.
Instead of waking up and jumping right into emails and work stuff, I’m trying to make it a priority to do what has consistently helped me before, but seems hard to maintain. First thing in the morning, it helps me to sit on my deck and ponder the words I scribbled onto scraps of paper. Writing out complete sentences in my journal helps me complete my thoughts or write out a more detailed story. It helps me think about what I know, what I still want to know, who might know the answers, etc. The pictures in my mind get sharper and more focused. It becomes easier to share information, because I’ve already processed my thoughts and formatted them in paragraph format.
My conclusions? I love being mostly digital, but I need a little paper too. When I feel limited on how much I can look at computer screens, I can still write with a pen and paper, and add colored pencil notations. I especially love writing with my 1930s fountain pen. I will continue to use Evernote and digital files, I’m just adding journaling back in. I've realized when I do genealogy, I need that writing, composing on paper process. I can type things up later, so I can avoid looking at a computer screen while I’m thinking about how I want to write something. I do keep my research log notes in my genealogy database. I use my paper journal as more than just a research log. It includes things like where I looked for answers, why a record says that, my thoughts during an interview, my descriptions of places, something I learned and my curiosity about if it could apply to this person I'm researching, things I learned or found interesting at a genealogy presentation, notes on books I’m reading for genealogy… and whatever else I need it to be. Writing in complete sentences and paragraph format helps me process my thoughts and helps me visualize things better, see connections, and feel more focused. Journals helped me before, so I’m returning to that process again.
Note, this post was written for both my Mecklenburg, VA and Polish blogs