Track the sites you have visited

Trying to organize genealogical leads is like trying to herd cats! There are so many things to track, but not just that, you have to go over and over where you have already tread. To make matters just a bit more complicated, there are hundreds of duplicate names, periods of inactivity, and an ever-expanding amount of information. The goal is to go back to sources, but not to go back to sources and redo the same steps as before with the same surnames or individuals.

This is something new I have developed, so I would love your feedback. It electronically mimics what I have been doing for many years in a paper/pencil format. My paper/pencil approach has a new page for each site and I regularly add to it. The advantage electronically is that it is searchable, sortable, easily backed up, and easily transported.

I have a list of sites that I visit regularly.Although I have listed Ancestry, here, I do not actually note all of the times I go to that site. Ancestry has a great tracking system for new information with the leaves, hints, and emails.. But the other sites listed here are a sample of what I am constantly trolling. As new sites come up, I add them to the list, even if I don’t get to them for awhile. It keeps track of my “new leads”, too.

The columns of the table are for the 16 common surnames. You can add more (or less). I have color-coded blue for my dad’s family and pink for my mom’s family.  This chart is an Excel spreadsheet. I saved it as an older format to make it accessible to earlier versions of the program. If you want to try it, email me at and I will email the file to you. I promise not to pass on your information and add spam to your life!

 Here is a sample of what it could look like.  I have added in the surnames for my parents, grandparents, and so on for both my mom and dad. There are more names in pink, but you will have to imagine the chart extending.

   There are two ways that I envision this chart being used. One method could just be to insert the date for the last time you searched there. Just deleting the old date and adding the new would keep the chart smaller. What I prefer is tracking all of the times I have been there, and even more about who/what I found. If you have worked with a spreadsheet before, you know sometimes the formatting can be tricky. I have set the row to expand with the content. Otherwise data would be covered up. Also, I use “line breaks” within each cell just for readability. To insert a line break in a cell (see the yellow circled area below), use ALT +Enter.  If you decide you want to track more than just dates that you have visited a site, then you can add more information. See the orange circle below for a sample of that. I used Find a Grave as my sample. It’s the kind of site that once you have located someone, you don’t need to go back to relocate them again. You might want to go back time-to-time to see if there are new people added to that same cemetery, or new information added to a person, but in general… once you found them, you found them.  So, for Find A Grave, I list each person by name as they are located. For those duplicated names, you can add dates to keep yourself straight. Just this week I noticed on Ancestry that Find a Grave is coming up under “new hints”, so perhaps I won’t need to track this the way I have been.  Let me know if you would like to try this chart. It’s free… and we all know genealogists LOVE to hear that!

Retread, retread, retread

One of the most difficult things to keep track of in your genealogical search is where have I been? what did I find? and how often do I need to go back?

I was talking to a cousin this weekend about her “brick wall”. We were batting around ideas about how to locate a rather scandalous and infamous ancestor who was lynched in 1860 for a murder. We were talking about newspaper records. One thing I suggested to her was the old standby… Find a Grave.  Sometimes cemeteries feature their famous burials. Most of us have used it at one point or another. I suggested that she look at that site, but keep going back. There are new things added all the time.

As I wrapped up the discussion with my newly found cousin, I decided that I needed to follow my own advice. I needed to retread some ground that I had already covered. I had been searching for my third great grandfather, John W Reed and a wife that I thought was nicknamed Fannie. I had seen his birth year in the family Bible. And the Bible said he had been born in Baltimore. I went to Find a Grave. I searched for John Reed in Ohio, as I had done many times before. Of course, there are thousands. But I focused in on a county by county search. And I found him!

John W Reed








And, I found his wife, and 18 other people buried there. Just retreading through sites that I have been through before, broke down that brick wall. And after a trip to the cemetery, and the library to search city directories, I found the house where my great great great grandfather used to live. And I found the location where the family grocery store used to be.

Don’t forget to go back and retread… I am working on developing an electronic tracking method just for this purpose. I will share soon (when I finish it).










Google Reader for the genealogist

I think it’s possible that Google Reader is my favorite technological innovation of the last decade. Google Reader has revolutionized the way I read websites, news, and compile information. If you have never used Google Reader, here is a brief synopsis.

Google Reader is an aggregator. You set up subscriptions to sites, each time the site updates it compiles in Reader, and then you  can read/listen/watch whenever you want to. This works for any site that has an RSS feed and even some sites that do not have the symbol shown. Look for the symbol, usually on the front page or bottom footer of a site. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication.

To use Google Reader, first you will want to set up a Gmail account. It’s free. And if you don’t have a Gmail account already designated just for genealogy, it’s probably a good idea to do that. You can also have many Gmail accounts if that’s what you decide to do. When you log into Google (Gmail, iGoogle, or any other Google site), you can choose Reader from the drop down menu of products. You can choose from a variety of preset feeds, or you can paste your own links into Reader to subscribe to any number of website updates. To use Reader for genealogical work, you can subscribe to a site such as Dick Eastman’s Online Genealogical Newsletter. This is what the feed looks like. The bold type without shade indicates that I haven’t read any of these recent posts. To view the first article, just click on it, and it will open up within the feed. This is what it looks like. You notice that you have the option to email the update somewhere, possibly a cousin or fellow researcher. And if you scroll through titles and  do not want to read any of the updates, there is an option to mark them as “read”. Reader works for websites, podcasts, video feeds, and blogs. I have links to blogs I am following, including conference blogs.  This is what the FGS Conference Blog looks like. Note the shaded  articles that I have read, the unshaded ones that I have not read.If you use Google Reader to subscribe to the surname boards, it’s a great way to keep track of postings by other genealogist searching for information too. So, for example if you want to look for information on the Bodey family, look for the ancestry link:
Paste that link into the subscription field. Then any time someone posts a query or response, it will load to your Reader. This is what my Robbins Family feed looks like. Make sure you add feeds for alternate spellings such as Robins if they exist.  You don’t want to miss something just because of the alternate spelling of the surname. If you briefly look at this list and decide that none of the entries are relevant, you can mark them all at once as read by choosing the double arrow button on the right. No need to open each individually.
Google Reader also gives you the option of listing just the items that have new information, or you can list all of the feeds. Here is what it looks like. The bold items have new updates, and the unbold items have no new contributions.
Google Reader is a revolutionary way to keep track of all of the tidbits and websites that you want to read. And you might be surprised when you find a cousin or two! Before you leave this site today, subscribe to Mess on the Desk as well.




What do you do with those conference notes?

Have you attended a conference, received syllabi, written notes, and then promptly shelved them all when you get home… never to be used again? I used to spend time reading each syllabus, making lists of new leads, and again, finding that notebook on the shelf many months or years later.  After some time, I had about a dozen notebooks from workshops, regional conferences, and national conferences.

If your goal is to make those notes digital, searchable, and usable, try Microsoft OneNote. If you have never used OneNote, it is an amazing program to help digitally organize any type of data that you may have. Originally is was designed for students to keep track of notes, photos, videos, pdfs, handouts, and all of those scraps of information that a student needs to organize. It is based on a “notebook filing” look with folders and subfolders that you determine yourself.

You can have a notebook for writing projects or a notebooks with unfiled/unattached documents. I have a notebook for genealogical conferences. My notebook has subheads for each workshop topic. Some of mine are nationalities– Ireland, Germany, Scotland. Some are technology topics or photography topics. And some subheads are particular speakers that I hear often.

The other fantastic tool in OneNote is the ability to send web sites directly to it. If you find a web site you like or one you want to come back to at a later date, just right click somewhere on the page. “Send to OneNote” comes up as an option. Occasionally if material has a copyright, it may not send to OneNote. But it’s a great tool to track those things that you want to come back to. This added feature works best in Internet Explorer. I have used this for many gedcoms and registries that I have found on RootsWeb.

If you are looking for a way to use those conference notes again someday, scan them into OneNote. It’s a great way to put those classroom hours into use!

An easy way to get started with digital organization

If you want to save your digital files, photos, and documents in one convenient place, Family Tree Maker 2012 is the perfect place to start.  With FTM 2012, your ancestral data, photos, documents, sources, and notes can all be uploaded to one location and linked to the relevant person for ease of use. If you tend to be someone who can’t remember where you store things, this is a perfect solution. If you are a person who forgets to back up files (or never does), syncing your tree to Ancestry might be a great solution to the possible loss of all of your valuable data. FTM 2012 allows syncing of your tree to Ancestry with the click of a button. And you can still leave your tree set as “private and searchable” or “private and not searchable”.

Because files tend to get misplaced and digital files can be corrupted or lost, it’s important to develop a naming convention, stick to it, and make multiple backups. There are many experts who will try to convince you that you need color coding, multiple files and subfiles, or an elaborate system to keep track of documents, but I think sometimes that system is overwhelming. If you feel overwhelmed, most people will default back to not organizing at all.

You might have originals stored on your computer in a multitude of places. Sometimes you have picture folders by name or date, documents in “My Documents”, and so on. I don’t think you need to revamp your entire world and move all sorts of things. Just make a copy of what you are attaching to FTM and file it like this…

So here is an easy tip for your ancestry information… organize photos, documents, pdfs, and other scraps of digital information into two folders. One folder is “Attached to Family Tree Maker”. The other folder is “Waiting to Attach to Family Tree Maker”.  In my folder “Attached to Family Tree Maker”, I have a copy of all of the scraps related to individuals and families. In my other folder, “Waiting to Attach to Family Tree Maker”, I have the following:

  • all of the things that I have found that are most likely part of my family, but I haven’t proven it yet AND
  • documents that apply to many people in my tree, but they need further study AND
  • photos with no names or just a surname AND
  • items that need attached, but I didn’t have time to attach them yet.

I use a very simple naming convention for all of the digital files that I have.

year_full name_identifier_location.file type

for example:

1958_john wesley reed_graduation from high school_greenville darke ohio.jpg

1940_april adeline todd_birth certificate.pdf

mary ann calderwood reed_headstone_greenville cemetery.tiff

I use all lower cases. I try to include full names with maiden names. It makes the search easier if I cannot find one. And to have ONE folder with a running list of names, it is so much easier to locate information rather than remembering a complex filing system.