Author Archives: Rebecca

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Indexing – Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness

I love working on my genealogy and researching for clients.  I research just about every single day, and some of that research is done online.  Every time I find something helpful, I congratulate myself and celebrate a little.  Too often though, I don’t think how that information was made available for free online.  The answer is that many volunteers all over the genealogical community are offering their time reading old documents and creating indexes to make it easier for me to search.  Many websites offer these volunteer services, such as www.findagrave.com, www.deadfred.com, and www.usgenweb.org.  Untold thousands of hours are contributed by volunteers.

In this post, I’d like to suggest a site that gives all of us a chance to contribute to the online indexing of historical records.  It’s fun, easy to use, and worth every minute of time you can give:  It’s the program spear-headed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) at https://familysearch.org/volunteer/indexing.  This program takes on the herculean job of making an online-searchable database for almost all of the microfilms created and housed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City – the genealogist mecca.

Any person (preferably over age 12) can download the simple software, watch a five-minute video on how to index, and get started.  Participants download a “batch” from which to extract information.  Each batch consists of a page or two of a record, such as death certificates, passenger arrival records, and censuses.  The screen will show the record at the top and a set of data-entry fields at the bottom, requesting parts of the record to be filled in.  If you have trouble, the program offers lots of help from handwriting samples to more tutorials, and even hands-on help from a live trained volunteer online or over the phone.  Each batch is reviewed at least three times for accuracy, unlike some earlier indexing projects.  The scale of this project is impressive!

My favorite of the indexing projects right now is the indexing of the 1940 census.  In a joint effort between the LDS Church and the National Archives, each page of the census is becoming every-name searchable.  The images are relatively easy to read and so incredibly valuable to genealogists, historians, and statisticians.  The “greatest generation” of the 1940s is being honored again.  Go to https://familysearch.org/1940census/ to see an interactive map of how much indexing has been completed in each state to date.

My daughters are in high school and middle school respectively, and their school counselors have approved any hours spent in indexing the 1940 census as part of their required Student Service Learning Hours (students in many states must complete 70 – 80 hours of volunteer service to qualify for graduation).  I woke up the other morning to the most wonderful thing:  my girls arguing.  What were they arguing about?  Who got to index first, and who was the best at it.  Made me so proud…

I love to index.  It isn’t something I do for myself or my clients.  Offering an hour or even a few minutes a day just to make some record more accessable to someone doesn’t do a thing for me.  But I get that warm-fuzzy feeling all the same.  I am a busy mom, and I work too, but taking a little time for this little random act of genealogical kindness is certainly a valuable endeavor!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Your Next Summer Vacation at The State Archives

Planning your summer vacation?  Going to the mountains? The beach? Well, how about a visit to the state archive?

The state archive may not be the first destination to come to mind. But don’t overlook their importance. State archives are so full of information, and no two are the same.  Often, not only do they have extensive libraries of published indexes, but they have so many records that are not available anywhere else.  Before you jump in the car, however, there are a few things you might try first:

  • Check out their websites.  A great one-stop-shop for finding the state
    archive (and any associated contributing historical groups) is put together by the Council of State Archivists at http://www.statearchivists.org/states.htm.  Choose your state and off you go.
  • At the website, check for digitized records online.  You’ll be surprised to see how many different types of records are available – death, military, historic photos, and more.  Most archive sites have a link conveniently titled “Genealogy.”
  • At the website, check the online catalog.  Use the catalog to plan what you need to look at when you get there, how it is stored (textual records, microfilm, fiche, off-site), and any restrictions for use. Every archive website is set up differently, and some are a little more difficult to navigate than others.
  • Ask about the loan program. Did you know that many state archives participate with your local library in an interlibrary loan program?  For example, I knew it would take weeks to do line-by-line searches in old handwritten copies early of New York county tax records. When I checked the online catalog I found that the microfilm could come to my local library.  There are sometimes costs for this, but in my case, there was only a limit to how many films I could order at one time.  Those eight films took me four weeks to go through, but it was four weeks I was able to spend on my own time from home, and not a four-week trip to New York.
  • Don’t like the website?  Keep trying.  I used to hate the website maintained by my own state.  The problem was partially in the way records were named, but the problem was more about my own inexperience.  The more I used the site, the easier its navigation became.  If you need help, ask around.  Is there anyone you know at your local genealogical society who uses the site often who can tutor you?  It is worth the effort.
  • Plan the visit! Most archive websites have rules for using the facility, hours of operation, parking information, photocopy costs, rules for computers and cameras, and even short tutorials to help you.  Read up – you’ll end up frustrated if you go there and it is closed because of a holiday or you cannot find parking.  When you get there, ask if they offer tours of the facility.
  • While you’re there, look for county records. Sometimes the state archive may solve your burned county conundrum.  Many times counties were required to send copies of their records to a state facility.  Even if the county archive burned down (again!), copies of many types of records may have been obtained by the state archive.

Maybe going to a state archive isn’t your family’s idea of a good vacation destination or maybe you don’t have time to go right now.  Have a digital mini-vacation and visit the website of your favorite state archive and get familiar with its holdings.  Personally, I am bartering right now with my husband to go to any state archive near a baseball stadium – that way we can divide and conquer as we travel.

What works best for you?  What have you enjoyed or found at your state archive?  Write and share your ideas. Happy trails!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Educate Yourself!

The more I learn about genealogy, the more I realize how much more there is to learn.  There’s always a new record group or website or archive I don’t know enough about.  Where can anyone go to learn more about the family history research they enjoy so much?  There are so many ways to learn and places you can go, you’ll be surprised! Here are 6 sources of information that should help you in your research:

1. Conferences.  Local and nationally sponsored conferences are held all over the United States.  Look for the one-day conferences sponsored by genealogical and historical societies in your area.  Often they are inexpensive or even free.  Contact your local genealogical society or LDS Family History Center to ask if they know what is coming up.  Some of the biggest nationally-sponsored conferences last several days and require travel.  The great thing about conferences is that they are a one-stop-shop for some of your favorite speakers and genealogical topics.

2. Seminars.  For week-long seminars with a concentrated research focus, check out some of these:

  • IGHR. The Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research is highly regarded and its classes sell out quickly. Seminars are held at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • NIGR.  The National Institute for Genealogical Research is designed for the more experienced researcher, and focuses on records available at the National Archives.  I would certainly go again; there was so much to learn!
  • SLIG.  The Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy sponsored by the Utah Genealogical Society offers the double bonus of being able to research down the street at the LDS Family History Library.  SLIG offers many classes for all levels of experience.

3. Taped lectures and online tutorials.  There is no way to list every online tutorial experience for genealogists, but here are a few to get you started:

  • CDs from national conferences can be ordered from Jamb Tapes.  I like to order favorite speakers and listen over and over, especially if I can’t make it to a conference this year.
  • FamilySearch offers great beginner tutorials from top genealogists at their online Learning Center.
  • Check out the handwriting tutorials from Brigham Young University. There is a wealth of early handwriting types and some self-tests.
  • More experienced researchers looking to hone their professional skills may consider joining one of the 18-month online learning groups sponsored by ProGen.  They study the book Professional Genealogy edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills.  These industrious learners gather online for scheduled chats and share assignments for peer review.  Get on the waiting list at http://progenstudy.org/.

4. Online classes and at-home courses.   Sometimes you just need to learn by doing, and the creators of these programs both teach and review your work.

  • Boston University’s Genealogical Research Program has a high price but an equally high reputation.  They have a wealth of programs that take a few weeks or several months.
  • A fantastic program the beginner or intermediate level researcher really should consider is the National Genealogical Society’s Home Study Course.  Each lesson is backed up with an assignment that is reviewed and critiqued by a professional.  Their selections of online courses are wonderful for focused research.

5. Books and periodicals.  As a mother with young children, checking out beginning-style genealogy books at my local library was a great start (many, many years ago).  Now I love my growing personal library and print out a wish list of new genealogy books for my husband every Christmas.  Magazines and scholarly journals will also help researchers of all levels.  Ask for some samples at your local library or Family History Center and see what fits your level and interests before you subscribe.

6. Keep up to date.  Online blogs and interest groups will help keep you full of ideas.  Some favorites are:

Have another favorite I haven’t mentioned?  Let us know, and we will post your comments.  Just remember that your own education is in your hands.  Oscar Wilde
said it best when he quipped, “Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.”

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: The Power of Writing

I am not afraid of much. I can take snakes, spiders, rollercoasters, speaking in front of large audiences, and even doing my own taxes.  But one thing that really gives me the shakes and makes me break out into a sweat is writing!

Why I write

Writing, however, is a crucial part of our research into family history.  Here are three reasons why I encourage researchers to spend time writing:

1)     Write to understand.  Often we sort out the why, when, and who of a particular research problem in our own head.  When we try to write it out, it gets difficult to explain.  This may be because we are missing parts of our research that we didn’t even realize.  Start with writing out the problem, such as “Who are Evaline’s parents?”  Then write what you know, and how this problem is being addressed.  You will find that you either are missing key points in your research, or sometimes that pieces fit together that you hadn’t realized.

2)     Write to analyze.   Often, our research problem is not solved with one document that says, “Uriah Smith was the father of Evaline.”  In most research problems, we have to build a case to show why we believe that Uriah was the father rather than another candidate.  You may end up using three censuses, a tax record, the brother’s death certificate, and a probate record to “prove” your point, for example.  Writing out the points of your case and how they fit together is called a “proof argument” by professional genealogists.  It is easier for you to analyze the points of your argument in writing, rather than trying to piece it together later.

3)     Write to communicate.  You probably found other researchers who believe that your ancestor’s parents were someone other than you have determined them to be. Online family trees could list Evaline’s parents as Josiah, not Uriah, and have either no proof or other documentation to prove it. If you believe your research is sound, it is a great idea to attach an explanation of your findings (with footnoted source citations) to your own online family tree or to give to family.  Not only does it lend credibility to your findings, but it can start some great conversations with other interested researchers.

Writing also helps you communicate with those who are less involved in the research process. Think about your children, siblings, cousins, and friends who may be thrilled to learn about your findings. If you keep the information in your head, or scattered in notes all over your office, how will they ever learn from all the hard work you put in?

Writing tips

There is no one way or style to use when writing your proof argument.  The style will depend on the needs of the research. However, there are formats that you may choose from that are recognizable to the genealogical community.  Check out articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) or other scholarly genealogical journals. They can easily be found at many local libraries or Family History Centers, and will familiarize yourself with how others have presented a problem and shown their work. The book Professional Genealogy, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, has a great chapter on writing proof arguments.  Even if you are not ready for scholarly-style writing, reading the case studies of other genealogists is a great way to learn.

Get over the mental block

As I said earlier, writing is a scary thing for me.  But even scarier is the idea that all the work I have done could be gone if something happened to me.  It is worth so much to me to respect my ancestors by sharing their stories and connecting them correctly to the people they loved.  No matter the way you write, just write!  Write what was found, not how you found it, and let your ancestor be the star.

And nothing is set in stone. Just because you write it one way doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  I find I change the style of writing a little with each project, because each ancestor and research project are so different.  The more you write, the easier it becomes.

Let us know at Reel Tributes how these ideas have helped your work.  What else would you like to hear about?  Send comments or emails, we’d love to hear from you.

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Research Plans


We are list-makers. We have to-do lists, grocery lists, and gift lists at holidays. A genealogical research plan is a specialized type of to-do list just for your family history project. To have a successful research plan, I have found it helpful to follow a few basic guidelines:

1. Make a written plan. You would be surprised how often we start our genealogy research without a plan, let alone a written one. Writing focuses our thinking and forces us to ask questions about the viability of certain research paths. When we review our timelines and background information, we have a better sense of what we need to find to accomplish our goals. Personally, I like to put the background information, timeline, and research plan in one document.

2. Stay focused. As I’ve mentioned before, you should have a specific goal in mind for your research, such as “Who are Emmeline’s parents?” It is easy to get sidetracked. For every goal you have, there may be a series of little jobs needed to accomplish it. If you get to thinking about other research goals for other ancestors, make note of those ideas for another time, and stay on target. Don’t just make a plan for what you want, tell yourself how to find what you’re looking for. If you have to stop your research for a while, you’ll be grateful for the reminder.

3. Don’t over-plan. I remember once when I really wanted to plan for every contingency in an upcoming research problem. I literally wrote down 28 things I could investigate, that would possibly solve my problem. I followed the plan and ordered a vital record that was at the top of my list. Imagine my consternation when I got the vital record back and it changed the focus of everything I had on the rest of my list. The moral of the story is to not plan too far ahead, because the information we find may not be what we expected. Nowadays, I generally make a plan that involves 3 to 5 items, and I don’t go further until I have the results of one or two of them. This takes us to our next point…

4. Be flexible. Remember that theories about what our ancestors did and why are just that: Theories. Not proof. Not evidence. Our research is directed at finding the truth, and that may not necessarily follow our theories. When you get results from your research, take that into account. It may change the rest of your plan. I don’t think I have ever had a single research plan that did not change with time.

5. Plan effectively. If you want to find Emmeline’s parents, the first part of your plan should be the most effective strategy, not necessarily the easiest. Perhaps finding Emmeline’s obituary (and searching a few newspapers line-by-line) is more effective that finding every Emmeline (maiden name unknown) that lived in a certain census year. Effective doesn’t mean easy, nor does it necessarily mean difficult. Effective means you are more likely to get results. By far, the most effective things I find to put at the top of any research plan is to order birth, marriage, and death records, if they are available at the ancestor’s time period and location. What this really involves is finding out what records are available in your ancestor’s location. Try the FamilySearch Wiki for some great ideas from other researchers.

6. Some plans are location-based. Sometimes you know you are going to travel to a major facility, such as the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake, or the National Archives in Washington, DC. While they may not have everything you want to answer your research question (vital records are rarely at the National Archives, for example), you still need to plan to make the best use of your time. Find out information about hours, parking, copies, and restrictions so you do not get frustrated about something that has nothing to do with your actual research. Go online ahead of time to check online catalogs and plan out what you want most, and what can be your “Plan B” while you are waiting for records to be pulled or you don’t find what you wanted.

A sample research plan may look like the one below. Remember to adapt yours as needed. The research plan police are not out to get you. Over time, you may find you create your plans differently than you had in the past. The important thing is to make a plan, and refer to it often as you research.

Research Plan for finding Emmeline’s parents, born about 1869 in Genesee County, New York:

Background information: Emmeline (no known maiden name) was married to Augustus Wingate, probably by 1887, in Genesee County, New York. She died in 1937 in Washington, DC.

What to do and why:
• Order death certificate for Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC 1937. HOW: They should be on LDS microfilm, check the catalog. WHY: Emmeline’s maiden name and parents’ names should be listed on her death certificate.
• Check for obituary of Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC in 1937. HOW: Find the online Historic Washington Post available through many public libraries. WHY: Find out if it mentions any parents or living siblings.
• Order the marriage record of Augustus Wingate in Genesee County in 1887. HOW: New York vital records started in 1881, but not all were recorded. Call the county historian for instructions, the record is too early to be at the State Archives. WHY: Some marriage applications list the parents of the bride, or the witnesses may be relatives.
• Check for censuses in Genesee County in 1880. HOW: Use Ancestry or HeritageQuest online. WHY: Where is Augustus living? Could Emmeline be living in the same county or a nearby county?

In this sample, I already have four ideas. While there are other things I could do, I may consider these to be the most effective. As the results come from my research, I may change or add more information. If, for example I find that Augustus lives in the town of Batavia in Genesee County, I might want to know more about church records available for that area. Read up on research plans in many books at your local library and in online tutorials. One of my personal favorites is an article by Helen F. M. Leary, “Problem Analysis and Research Plans,” Chapter 14 of Professional Genealogy (Elizabeth Shown Mills, Editor. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Fourth Printing, 2005).

Remember, a plan is only the first step. How far will it take you? Try it out and let us know!