My best tip for any kind of research is straight out of comedian Jonathan Winters’s mouth in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! “We have GOT to get organized!” Knowing my own tendencies in the opposite directions—piles of books and papers, urgen notes that I can’t make sense of, numbers written down that mean . . . ? I have developed a number of habits—compulsions, you could say—to get past my disorder disability.
If you want to do genealogy or really any complicated or long-term, even short-term, research project, you might want to think about what “systems” (yes, I’m laughing) you can develop to make your life easier. Think of them as supports, not burdens.
A good example is maintaining a list of books you want to consult. A lot of information I need is online, but often a source lists a book or journal that isn’t. But it may be available in a library somewhere. HathiTrust lets me find out which US libraries have it (possibly even electronic copies).
I copy and paste the bibliographic information about these elusive publications into a file called “Library Searches,” organized by, naturally, library. When my genealogy club visits the New York Public Library, for example, I have a ready-made list of books that I know they have. A recent vacation in Virginia included two days in the Library of Virginia, ditto.
Another benefit of the list is that, during COVID, when I couldn’t visit to libraries, I could still request books through InterLibrary Loan. Given my flea-sized attention span, I naturally learned to write a few words in the description of each book about what to look for and which family, otherwise . . . When I’ve seen a book, I flag it in the list so that I don’t search for it again. (You hear the voice of experience.). My Library Searches list is now thirty-three pages long. Thirty-three pages! That may sound onerous, but bear in mind, it’s been built up one book at a time, over a period of years.
Creating footnotes (reference-type) is another good habit to develop. When you write down a fact, add a footnote, preferably with a link. While you can always delete excessive footnotes at some point, it is a cardinal rule of research that, if there’s a fact you neglect to document, that is the one piece of information you’ll want to double-check later. Again, I learned this the hard way. I keep a list of “facts sources” at the end of short stories when I’m working on them, for exactly that reason.
Knowing I would have time at the Library of Virginia, I copied and pasted the section of the Library Searches list into its own file and used it to query the library’s online catalog. When I showed up in Richmond, I gave the librarian my list with the call numbers, and she knew exactly what I was looking for. This advance online catalog research identified a number of promising books I hadn’t known about too.
With this next thought, you may think we’re wandering off into OCD territory, but I’ve found that libraries with family history information tend to have some books and records organized by county—early marriage records, will books, and the like. So I made a list of my ancestors who lived in each county and generally when. Again, this was something I could do in advance of my visit. And, when my bored husband turned up at the library to see whether I was ready to leave yet, I gave him that list, pointed him toward the county shelves, and he became an able research assistant.
Whatever systems work for you, they’re an antidote to the stress of trying to remember stuff. Help yourself out. Find a way to stay at least somewhat organized!