Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Fresh Look at Organizing Files -- Part Three: The Notebook Illusion

Last evening, I was teaching a class on the Partner Programs;,, and One of the major concerns of the class members was the need to move information, such as sources, and the details about their ancestors, from one program to another. One particular class member mention the fact that he had a "great deal of information about his ancestors in several large notebooks." He was questioning what to do about all that information.

Overnight, that question must have moved into some section of my brain and the issue came bubbling out when I woke up this morning. I was reminded of the huge collection of family group records that I processed years ago, when I was first entering all my family data into a computer. Today, that challenge is immeasurably more complicated. Let's look at a hypothetical situation based on the comment made by the owner of a stack of notebooks. Having all that information carefully stored in three-ring binders is comforting. It has the illusion of organization where one of the most important elements of organization, that is access, is entirely missing. This brings us to the next rule of organization:

Rule 5: It isn't organized until it is accessible

Perhaps, as a review, I should repeat the previous four rules:

Rule 1: Every document has an owner
Rule 2: Every document needs to associated with its owner
Rule 3: Every document may have multiple owners
Rule 4: Keep and maintain, as much as possible, all original documents

Now, back to the hypothetical situation. Researcher has spent a lifetime doing genealogical research. He has accumulated a considerable amount of very detailed information about generations of his ancestors. Unlike so many of the world's genealogists, his work is highly sourced. He has meticulous notes of every source and being somewhat obsessive, the source citations conform explicitly with the Chicago Manual of Style ( See University of Chicago, and Press. The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2003.) What is the problem here?

The problem is that I happen to be his relative. I have also been working away all my lifetime accumulating genealogical information about my own family. We share a grandfather and so much of my information is exactly the same as his. In fact, I am also obsessive and my files are also neatly arranged in three-ring binders, but mine have page protectors. I also own a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and have copious footnotes to every fact and claim. Since we are both semi-reclusive, we are completely unaware of the work done by the other. (Remember, this is a hypothetical situation; I am not the person described)

Here we see the major flaw in the concept of organization. The flaw is that organization, per se, is meaningless in the context of genealogy unless there is a way to access and share the information. Why is this?

You need to note some of the elements of this hypothetical. In this situation, both genealogists have done some of the same work. However, since the work is essentially "locked up" on paper in notebooks, I do not know what the other researcher has done and he does not know what I have done. Let's further suppose that both of us spend a considerable effort and publish our entire family history in high-quality, hardbound volumes. So what?

Here is an example of what I am talking about (in no particular order):

Descendants of Nathan Tanner Sr.: Born May 14, 1815 at Greenwich, New York and Died December 17, 1910 at Granger, Utah. [S.l.]: Nathan Tanner Family Association, 1969.
De Brouwer, Elizabeth. Sidney Tanner, His Ancestors and Descendants: Pioneer Freighter of the West, 1809-1895. Salt Lake City, Utah (4545 S. 2760 E., Salt Lake City 84117): S. Tanner Family Organization, 1982.
Tanner, Maurice, and George C Tanner. Descendants of John Tanner; Born August 15, 1778, at Hopkintown, R.I., Died April 15, 1850, at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah;. [Place of publication not identified, 1923.
Nelson, Melba Madson, William Smith Tanner, Emma Elena Tanner Madson, and John Joshua Tanner Family Association. Descendants of John Joshua Tanner: Born December 19, 1811, at Greenwich, Washington County, New York, Died 9 September 1896 at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. [Salt Lake City?]: John Joshua Tanner Family Association, 1979.
Tanner, George S. John Tanner and His Family: A History-Biography of John Tanner of Lake George, New York, Born August 15, 1778, Hopkinton, Rhode Island, Died April 13, 1850, at South Cottonwood, Utah. Salt Lake City, Utah: John Tanner Family Association, 1974.

By the way, contrary to the hypothetical situation, none of these volumes contain any significant number of source citations. Aren't these various published books accessible? Actually, no. Very few of the members of the Tanner family who are descendants of John Tanner, b. 1778, d. 1850, are aware of the existence of these books. Additionally, even though I have access to all of these books, essentially, I still have to do all the research over again. These books are part of the "Notebook Illusion" of genealogy.

The illusion is that having the information in a book or binder is all that is necessary to "organize" that information. I have no idea where to go to verify the information in any one of these books. Oh, that is not really true. I do know where to go, but I have to do all that work myself and repeat the research done by each of the authors of the books I have listed. Just as I have to redo all of the work of my hypothetical researching relative. 

What does it mean to make information accessible? It means that I need to know where it came from and how I can view the same source. 

For example, my Great-grandmother compiled a considerable amount of genealogical information over her lifetime. I received the bulk of that information in the form of a huge pile of paper in boxes. What she had done was essentially locked up in that paper and completely unknown to any family members. This was especially true while those boxes of paper were sitting in a basement in Salt Lake City, Utah for over twenty years before I had access to the information. 

Unless your system of organization provides for a way for others to immediately access all of your accumulation of stuff, your organization is an illusion. Right now, you have relatives that are duplicating your work out of ignorance of what you have already done. What are we supposed to do about this duplication of effort? Presently, all of the documents compiled by my Great-grandmother are readily available, if you know where to go to look at them. Here is the citation to the records:

Mary Ann Linton Morgan documents

Electronic Resource/Compact Disc
Mesa? Arizona : J.L. Tanner, 2004
1 computer optical disc : col. ; 4 3/4 in.


If you are using a computer in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, you may use this database by clicking here.

The simple answer is that we presently have a very good mechanism for sharing all that genealogical information in one central location. The solution is the Family Tree. You may not like my answer, but the reality is that the Family Tree has a pretty good start at solving this problem. 

Of course, this series is just getting started. We have to address the issue of how to centralize all the data we accumulate in an efficient way. Some of the tools are now available and some are still missing. But that is what is coming in the next installments of this series and by the way,  I still need to address the issue of moving data from one program to another. 

If you would like to read the previous installments of this series, see the following:

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