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Researchers Need a Compass
Family history research does not need to be an uncertain trek through forests of library shelves. Guidance is available, and that guidance can be prioritized and digitally available right on your own computer. Imagine a “research consultant” right at your elbow, coaching you to take the next step, and then the next. How much easier that would be! Basically, this would be a research "compass" directing you to the records of highest priority, and then making it possible to log your findings at the same time. This is called a “Strategic Research Log,” which is discussed in a companion article. But a compass is not sufficient if it only gets you to the destination—it must also get you back home, and then guide you on several return trips. That is where computerized linking is essential. Hyperlinks that provide quick links to digitized source documents can help with accuracy as we compare documents and analyze them.
As researchers wade through mountains of paper, or large numbers of computer files, an organizing system becomes urgently important. All of this can be on the computer in one integrated system and be easily accessed. Using computers to implement "document linking" technology wisely is like following a compass over a mountain trail full of twists and turns, eventually arriving safely at our destination and then returning. This makes it possible for us to do family history research in a paperless manner, creating links between electronic copies of text and image sources, a research log, an analysis table, and our choice of records management software.
The steps mentioned in this article are not hard. Do not be discouraged if they seem complex or if you are not used to computers. Actually, once you understand the system it is simple and saves a lot of time. All of the documents discussed in this article can be downloaded to your own computer. The following instructions show how to do all of this. Let's begin!
A Total Research Compass
Automating family history processes can improve effectiveness. Choosing first to create all of your research materials in digital format, you would next want to decide to organize them in a simple structure, perhaps like the points of a compass, as shown on the preceding illustration. (You could modify this to meet your own needs.) The four cardinal points of this sample research compass include:
- 1. Training (learning from materials that help in research, and then filing for easy retrieval);
- 2. Research (prioritizing sources, finding, logging, documenting, analyzing, and reporting);
- 3. Client work records; and
- 4. Family records preservation (files from a records manager, photos, audio recordings, videos, etc.).
The following description of the research compass shows how to build menus to organize documents, strategic research logs as reminders of important sources to search, and hyperlinks to retrieve key documents quickly. It then transfers the data to an analysis document to facilitate making good research decisions. The final output is to a records manager, where family group sheets, pedigree charts, and other reports can be created. A key principle is to keep all documents linked together for data verification and updating.
This illustration displays the relationships of these elements.
Notice that a hyperlink audit trail exists from beginning to end, from the sources clear through to the records management software. That software ideally needs to allow OLE (Object Linking or Embedding) so that the research log and analysis table can be opened from within it, using the native software in which they were created. For example, if the log and the table were designed in Microsoft Word, we should be able to create an OLE link to these from the records management program. This allows us to update the log and table while involved in updating family group sheets and pedigree charts. Although the log and table do not automatically populate fields in the records manager, they are close at hand and will be less likely to be forgotten in the update cycle.
First in importance in family history research is coming to an understanding of the sequence of tasks involved. As we get the training we need in a specific area of research, for example U.S. southern states, the lesson manuals, handouts, copies of Internet sites, and other things can be saved digitally in an organized manner. Observe the structure used for studying research pertaining to England. This menu was created in Microsoft Word using simple hyperlinks. (See companion article on that subject.)
Clicking on the links takes us to other documents, such as the files of class notes, a list of forms, or copies from Internet sites. On a separate menu called Research Strategy & Sources you would find templates of documents that can be used in specific family research projects. The first of these is the Strategic Research Log.
Strategic Research Log
We can easily forget other things, such as searching in certain types of sources. The sample Strategic Research Log shown below, created in Microsoft word using tables, was adapted from a typical research log. It contains a prioritized list of sources in expandable mini-tables (the only one shown here being Birth Certificate) that we do not want to forget for the particular period shown England―1837 to Present). It is sorted in priority order based on the birth column. Note that the marriage column and the death column also have priority numbers. In other words, certain sources are important for birth data but may be of lesser importance for getting marriage or death data, and vice versa. The full log contains, in sequence after Birth Certificate, other mini-tables reminding us to search marriage certificates, death certificates, census records, church records, family histories, military records, on through a total of twenty-two prioritized sources. The three logs pertaining to England's three major time periods are downloadable from the Strategic Research Logs page.
A sample appears here, showing how to fill in the data:
After entering the date of research, you can copy electronically the entry from the Family History Library Catalog, or any other electronic medium, for a specific source, pasting the data in the “Source” field of the table. You can then make your comments in the column to the right, indicating by color code (yellow) if something is especially good, or pink for something needing yet to be done. In the far right column you can enter the key data elements discovered and create a hyperlink from these to the electronic files that have either an image or a text extract. These files are stored in the computer under the “Documents” folder, as shown in this example of a file structure for a one-person case study.
Research Analysis Table
The next logical step after gathering all and sundry data available is to analyze it. Careful analysis is necessary to avoid making mistakes in conclusions. In order to transfer data as simply as possible, without errors, you can copy it from the Strategic Research Log to a form that is similar in design, but simpler because it is condensed to the conclusion stage—the Research Analysis Table. Here is an example of how to use this form, having copied the data from the Strategic Research Log. This was created in Microsoft Word and is downloadable at the Research Analysis Table page.
From among sources that that were searched and logged, you would copy only the pertinent data to this form. If, for example, you had found two other possible candidates for your ancestor Jane Beck, you would have listed them also and then given appropriate comments to discuss the issues and possible resolution. As it was, the other sources yielded either unimportant data or none at all.
This file is now ready to be linked as an OLE file in your records manager.
Report Work Files
Whether for professional or personal research purposes, reports are essential to completing a research project. After compliling a report, an appropriate log should be prepared. This can be extended (for Latter-day Saints) to submitting names for ordinance work, for which you want to keep a log of the transaction. Obviously this goes from New FamilySearch back into your records manager, but it is also good to keep a record of names submitted. This can provide a means of double-checking on progress as well as sharing with other family members.
The following simple form is a means of recording such client or personal report work:
Records Manager Software
At this point, the Research Compass points to the Family records that are saved in folders on your computer. These include research logs, images scanned, text documents, research files for each person’s case study, and the files stored by your records manager software. The file structure is set up as indicated above. In that software, it is important to set OLE hyperlinks that connect to the files.
As mentioned at the beginning, the concept of a paperless research method is to have a continuous link or audit trail from beginning to end. The records manager becomes extremely important in focusing on the research efforts for each person.
A major key to productive family history research is to become organized in advance of launching a research project, however small. Digital computers make it possible to do this in a superb way. Careful backups and regular printouts of key documents are also necessary to preserve these vital records. Digital files can be shared more readily, however, particularly by posting them on the Internet. Family members can then benefit from your provident organization efforts.
Anyone interested in developing a menu system such as this is for England research, with prioritized search strategies, could do it for another country or an area of the United States. The prioritized lists of sources for other countries are available at FamilySearch.org under "Research Guidance." Hopefully this will stimulate interest in digital linking and organization, for it has been very beneficial to those who have used it in their research.