Five Things I Learned While Taking Stock of My Genealogy Documents

I invested in a new genealogy database (Reunion for iPad) and most of my research time since has been spent transferring documents and information from my Ancestry account, my paper files, and my Google Drive into the program. The process has been slow, but rewarding. It’s forced me to take another look at everything I’ve found on my ancestors so far. Here’s a short list of the things I’ve learned or remembered during the process:

  • Take baby steps. Transferring all of that data is a huge undertaking. To break the work into more manageable pieces, I’ve dedicated one month to focus on finding all the information I can and inputting the data on each of my direct ancestors, starting with my parents and moving up the tree using Ahnentafel numbers. Finding out what paperwork I already have on my people was the logical first step in this process. So I’m checking all of my genealogy repository sites: Ancestry, Google Drive, paper files, and Reunion. I note the documents I’m missing while simultaneously ensuring that all of my documents are stored in all four places.
  • Make a simple spreadsheet. I know. Spreadsheets are the worst, right? But for inventory purposes, they make all the information visible at a glance. I set up six columns and labeled them: Person, Document, Ancestry, paper files, Google Drive, and Reunion. The first column has my ancestor’s name, the second has a fairly simple description of the document, and the other four are just columns for X’s that indicate where in my files the document can be found.Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 2.36.52 PM.png
  • Make the spreadsheet work hard… I figured if I’m going to spend all this time filling out a spreadsheet I might as well make it do double or triple duty. Thankfully, early on in my inventory process, I realized I could make the spreadsheet double as a timeline by adding a column for the dates of the documents I inventoried and then sorting them chronologically. (Sorting is the only advanced function an Excel beginner would need to learn to make the spreadsheet useful. It’s relatively easy.) Then I realized if I added the locations of the documents I could pull together all of the significant places of my ancestors. So, using only eight columns, I now have an inventory, a timeline, and a location tracker for all of my ancestors.Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 2.42.10 PM.png
  • But don’t go overboard. Seeing all the handy ways an Excel spreadsheet could be used for genealogy made me want to put ALL THE DETAILS in there.  That might work for some, but I have found that the larger a spreadsheet becomes the more overwhelming it gets. Any spreadsheet that extends beyond the frame of my computer screen becomes unwieldy to me, so I’m less likely to keep up with it.
  • Review first; input second. As tempting as it was to have all these documents to enter into my shiny new software program, I refrained. Looking at all of the documents at the same time helped me draw some logical conclusions about conflicting information. For instance, my maternal great-grandfather has four different birthdates on four different official records. But upon further scrutiny, I noticed that two of the birth dates were recorded decades later and one was likely to be the date of baptism. Finding those discrepancies all at once saved me some confusion and resulted in my entering his correct birthday.

This process has made me realize I am not nearly as organized as I’d thought. (Look at all of those empty cells up there!) I had some important records squirreled away in one repository or another that I never factored into the larger scope of my ancestor’s lives. I found I had forgotten to print hard copies of birth certificates and death certificates for my paper files. Screenshots of online family trees were hiding in my Google drive that I’d forgotten about for years. Thank goodness I caught it all in time!

13 Replies to “Five Things I Learned While Taking Stock of My Genealogy Documents”

  1. Great post Nate. Organization is the hardest part. The hunt is so fun, but then detailing the discoveries carefully can be a bit of a yawn. I love your simple spreadsheet. You included just the right items.

      1. I love the spreadsheet, I am documenting a small town in Croatia and would be completely lost without it. You are the first person I have found that gets the Awesomeness of it. Thank you I was starting to think I was a freak.

  2. I’m fascinated by genealogy and began researching my family years ago. Since I stumble onto old files and notes all over the place, the idea of a spreadsheet might be really helpful.

  3. Sounds like you’ve got your organisation sorted out. I agree, that transferring paper to electronic software does help to identify issues, I’ve been doing it with my business finances, and I’ve turned up a few things I hadn’t filed correctly.

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