by Barb Bauer
Have you ever gone back to the neighborhood you grew up in and were surprised by how small the houses and yards looked? How about unearthing your old high school graduation photo and realizing you were really still just a kid, when you had thought you looked so grown up and mature? The fact is, the passage of time changes our perspective and we see things differently.
This is true for genealogy records, too. Details that seemed trivial at first glance can take on new meaning as time goes by. Things that we missed the first time will now pop out at us. The time we spend reexamining our old records can easily pay dividends for years to come.
Why Reexamining Genealogy Records is So Important
In reality, most people don’t review documents well the first time and don’t go back to reexamine them later. Impatience, limited time, and excitement lead us to grab the obvious stuff from records while often overlooking other critical information. It’s like using a hammer to try to make the wrong puzzle piece fit. You may be able to cram it in there, but the picture won’t look like what’s on the box when you’re done. The overall effect causes you to get frustrated, waste time, make false connections – even coming to the wrong conclusions.
Taking another look at the documents and other evidence you’ve already collected may reveal a wrecking ball that will break down a brick wall in your research. It can also get us out of a slump when we feel we have exhausted every conceivable research path. Who hasn’t had that “I’m-the-only-person-in-the-world-who-will-never-find-their-ancestors” feeling?
Those new to genealogy will reap great benefits by starting good habits now, like getting all the information out of a record when they first examine it, creating a system of organization, and having an audit plan for reviewing all of their documents regularly.
If you have been working on your family history for years and have never gone back over all of the documents you have accumulated, you are probably stalling your research progress. But, it’s never too late to blow off all the dust, open that squeaky file cabinet drawer and make sure you are getting all you can out of your records.
Let’s begin with what not to do when reviewing a record. Specifically, what you can miss if you hurry and make assumptions. I’ll eat some genealogy crow and use a true example from my personal research.
Have You Seen My Glasses?
The official birth ledger entry for my paternal great-grandfather, Charles, shows he was born in Saginaw, Michigan on May 8, 1868.
A photocopy of his death certificate has been in our family files for years, so long that I don’t even remember how it got there. The information in it led me to find him in the Ohio census and identify his mother, among other things.
You’ll notice in the image of his death certificate below that his year of birth is 1875. For years I always assumed this was a typo (and a really severe one at that, not just a wrong digit or a transposition) and never thought much more about it. To add to this discrepancy getting buried for years was the fact that I did not have all the family records organized and I wasn’t reviewing them regularly or making notes.
The years went by and I revisited family origins occasionally, discovering and learning to use new research techniques and databases on the rapidly expanding World Wide Web (remember how we used to call it that before ‘the internet?’), finding more bits of evidence, people, and dates, and slowly putting pieces together.
However, all that time I never knew that the assumption I made years earlier about the discrepancy in great-grandpa Charles’ birth year was keeping me from making a great discovery about him and his mother.
My genealogy knowledge and researching skills have come a long way since the days of quickly picking names, dates, and locations off documents and filing them in my handy dandy ‘mountains of papers’ filing system.
Despite this, there has always been a brick wall preventing my brother and I from understanding where in the world our great grandpa Charles was between 1870 and 1880. His parents seem to have broken up at some point very early in his life, and we found him at 2 years of age in the 1870 census living on his mother’s family’s farm without his parents. After that point, he disappears along with mom and there’s no sign of the dad, either.
One day last year I was feeling frustrated while researching this time period again, so I decided to switch gears (so I thought) and take a look at the birth year discrepancy.
I varied the search parameters and name spellings every way I could think of using 1875 give or take a few years. To make a long story short, I discovered that Charles’ mother remarried in Detroit in 1875.
The 1880 census record shows that 13-year-old Charles started using his middle name Wallace as his first name along with his step-father’s last name, taking on a new identity for his new life with his mother and her new husband. This explains the birth year of 1875 shown on his death certificate. Maybe he felt like he was reborn into a new life when his mother remarried – it’s also possible he was ashamed because his parents were divorced.
Whatever the reasons, it was a very satisfying feeling to find out what happened during those years. The other feeling wasn’t so satisfying and was more like, “Good job! I wonder what else you’ve missed?”
Now we finally understood what was going on at that time and what name combinations to search. As a result, Charles showed up in the Detroit city directory in 1885 using his new name and working as a teamster at age 17. Using city directories and census information, we followed him through his years working in Detroit until about 1918 when, for some unknown reason, he left his wife and went to Toledo where he worked as a foreman until he died in 1949.
If I had been reviewing my genealogy records regularly and making notes, it’s likely I would have put two and two together much earlier. Each review would have brought that discrepancy with the year back into the light, and I wouldn’t have waited so long to investigate it.
Get Organized First
Auditing is a process used for financial records, but the general ideas can be leveraged to ensure you get the most information possible from genealogy documents and information.
Think of it like this: one way to find a needle in a haystack is to set fire to it. In a sense, this is what happens when you audit your genealogy records.
Before auditing, however, you’ll need to get your records organized. This makes it easier to see what needs to be done and lets you know when you are finished reviewing. FamilySearch Wiki suggests you set up your organizational system in a way that’s easy for you to use.
It should have these features:
- Convenient and accessible
- Keeps your records safe
- Helps you find your information quickly
Ideally, each ancestry hard copy document in your files, or those stored electronically on your computer, has an ID number. For those of us who are detail-oriented, there might also be a master list of documents that lists each one by number, has a description of it, and room for notes.
If your records are not organized like this, it may seem like a daunting task when you stare at the piles of information you have accumulated. Yes, it takes time – but once it’s done, you’ll find it makes it easier to find what you need and understand what you have.
As you create your organizational system, make thorough, detailed notes on each piece of information you have. This serves as the foundation for understanding what you know about each person, what you don’t know, ideas you have, and conclusions you draw along the way.
Microsoft Excel is a great program to use for all kinds of organizational tasks including a project like this. You can make individual tabs for each person or family with lists of pertinent records.
Family History Daily offers a variety of article about how to organize your research here.
Binders with section dividers are an excellent choice, too, for printed records. This option lets you keep hard copy genealogy records and data/picture CDs in the binders along with documents and review notes. But don’t forget to always back up your data digitally as well. See this guide for help.
Getting All the Information the First Time
Every detail in a document could be important in your search, so you want to make sure you are patient, examine it closely, and capture everything the first time.
In addition, ask yourself if you understand what each bit of information is, what it means, and how you can use it to your benefit. If there is anything you don’t understand, do the research and seek help from your peers on discussion boards.
You can capture any information you want for each record in your spreadsheet, notebook, etc., but there are a few basics recommended for all records. First, assign an ID number to the record based on your identification system, then note these facts:
- Type of record – Birth certificate, death certificate, newspaper article, etc.
- Form of record – Certified copy, photocopy, printout, original (for a letter, newspaper article, etc.), handwritten note, PDF scan of the original.
- Condition of the record – Excellent, good, fair, poor. Note any discoloration, damage or fading.
FamilySearch Wiki recommends ‘documenting as you go‘ as a method for focusing on a single record, squeezing it dry of all its information, and archiving it so it’s easy to find. You can also incorporate the auditing ideas below into a regular routine you follow for every new piece of information you find.
Doing a Genealogy Record Audit
It may not sound simple but reviewing your documents doesn’t have to be difficult. The point is having a system that’s easy to use (so you don’t dread it) and one that’s effective for finding errors and overlooked information.
Start with the first record according to your ID numbering system. Here are the steps:
- Make a new entry in your spreadsheet, notebook, binder, computer program, etc., and enter the current date.
- Read the record to yourself and then out loud.
- Check all the information in the record against what you previously recorded in your family tree and other locations. Check for transcription errors, transposed numbers, etc.
- If you find errors, overlooked details or something occurs to you as you’re reviewing, record it in the new entry section you created in Step 1. (Flag it for follow up and check other records that may be affected.)
How to find hidden details or errors in your records
Have a friend or family member read the record and compare the information to what you captured. The second set of eyes is one of the best ways to double-check information, find details that were missed, and call out things that look strange or inconsistent.
You might also try discussing the record. This makes your brain process the information in a different way which may give you more ideas about other avenues to explore.
For documents in a compatible form, I highly recommend using a text to speech reader app or program. Information sounds different and reveals more details when it is read to you as opposed to reading it to yourself or out loud.
There are many apps and programs available to do this, so check and see what will work for your operating system and budget. For example, if you have PDF documents, Read Aloud is a free add-on for the Google Chrome browser that reads PDFs and web pages. The website Natural Reader lets you drag and drop files, type text or copy/paste and have it read to you. The basic service is free, but the paid premium and commercial plans offer more features.
Remember: you don’t have to sit down and audit all your records in one exhausting session. This may be impractical in most cases unless you can go without sleep for a week.
One solution is developing a continuous or ‘rolling’ audit system where you are always reviewing a few records each day, week, or month. Another option is setting aside blocks of time to review records by type. For example, review all your marriage records in one sitting.
Like the saying goes, the easiest way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
These Trees Are Blocking My View of the Forest
The odds are good that hidden somewhere in your genealogy records is overlooked information and other clues that will lead you to fill in gaps and solve mysteries about your family.
If your records aren’t organized, try using some of the ideas in this article or modify them so they work for you. Your goal is to have organized records, a system for reviewing them on a regular basis and for recording any additional information you find.
Bear in mind, this is not just about the information that gets overlooked, but how you think about and perceive the evidence you’ve accumulated as time goes on. If it’s been years since you read the newspaper article about great-aunt Bertha’s run-in with the law and subsequent arrest for cow tipping, read it again, read it out loud, have someone else read it and then discuss it, or scan it into a PDF and use a text to speech reader. Your mind will process the information in a different way and lead you down new paths of discovery.
Take a step back from your research and reexamine the records you already have today.
You might also like:
Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree?
Don’t Do Another Minute of Genealogy Research Until You Do This One Thing
Barb Bauer is a biologist and freelance researcher and writer living in Michigan. She uses the investigative and critical thinking skills she honed in graduate school to research her family history and help others understand their past. Among her genealogical activities are fulfilling photo requests on FindaGrave.com, researching her family’s roots using their Ancestry DNA test results, and learning to decipher raw DNA analyses on GEDmatch.com. Barb’s other interests include vintage photography (she’s been a collector for over 20 years), cemeteries, science, antiques, cats, gardening, and backpacking. You can learn more about Barb and the freelance writing services she offers by visiting her website.