Genealogist at Work-Times Have Changed Even for Genealogists

When I started researching my genealogy over 25 years ago, I had two small children, chronic debilitating migraines, and stayed at home.  Most genealogical records were found at state and local courthouses or archives.  Our public library had the Federal Population Census for Tennessee and Alabama.  The 1920 census had just been released, so they had all the census years up to 1910 for those states. I had photocopies of Family Group Sheets done for my great aunt over the years at family reunions and I had a very expensive computer and genealogy program. My first computer cost about $3,000 and Roots III was around $350!

So when the kids slept, I would enter data into my computer.  Whenever I got a free Saturday that was also migraine free, I would drive to the local library about 40 minutes away and photocopy as many census pages as I could for my family at $.25 a pop.  They were on microfilm so I almost always came home with a migraine.  Genealogy was not for the poor in those days!  I would bring home my stack of papers, record the information in my genealogy program and file them away in filing cabinets in my home office (in those days, a corner of our bedroom in our 1100 sq ft house we shared with two kids and a cat). 

About three times a year, we would go home to visit either my mom or my mother-in-law and we would leave the kids with them, and we would head to the to Tennessee State Archives and there I would photocopy as many wills, deeds, marriages as I could before the carsickness of running a microfilm machine combined with low blood sugar would bring on a massive migraine and then we’d head home.  Over the next few months, I’d diligently enter the information into the computer and file the papers by family lines.  Blue for my dad, purple for my mom, green for my father-in-law, and red for my mother-in-law.  Over the years, I accumulated four full file drawers like this and some over flow of papers I photocopied doing genealogy. I have almost 8 full cabinets these days of papers and other stuff to go through.


The kids grew up, went to college. Genealogy programs came and went. I moved through Roots III, IV, V, Ultimate Family Tree, The Master Genealogist 4.0, 5.0, 6.0, 7.0. 8.0 and finally 9.0.  The 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses were released online and became available for free at  We moved twice. The computer became a series of laptops.  Today I work full time. The migraines, while not gone, have improved a great deal!  Genealogy has changed as well. Google Books have put a lot of older genealogy books online for free!  FamilySearch has put a lot of wills, deeds, marriages, birth and deaths for Tennessee online for free. I have gotten much better at researching.  Today, I research at least 8-10 hours a week from home, most often in my pajamas!

But one thing has remained constant over the years, those filing cabinets full of old photocopies, many that have deteriorated to the point where they are no longer even readable.  Letting go of those has been hard because of the time and cost of acquiring them to begin with. While in real life, I am a bit of a minimalist, in my genealogy life, I had become a bit of a hoarder.  This all despite that fact that the records I was hoarding are coming online, are better quality and are free to acquire. 

For the last two years, I have been organizing my research in Evernote, a note taking software that allows me to share my research with other researchers or simply from my laptop to my kindle, or my cell phone.  I have been moving all my documentation into Evernote, citing each document in The Master Genealogist, and transcribing the document for both places.  I have not visited the library or state archives at all in those two years, because there is so much new data online every day that I will never live to find all my ancestors wills, deeds etc online. New information comes online every day! 

But one place that I have been lacking is moving the papers from the filing cabinets to the computer. So basically that research isn’t getting added to the collection.  Now to be fair, probably 85% of it has been cited in TMG. Probably 70% of it has been scanned.  It’s that other 30% that today’s task is about.

For you see, for the next year, I will be starting a new genealogy task. I will be scanning, citing and TOSSING those photocopies in those filing cabinets!  Yes, I said tossing. They are of no use to anyone in that filing cabinet. They are taking up space in my home that could be better used for other things.  And they are a fire hazard.  So starting this morning, they will be scanned (or a better copy found online), cited and then thrown away.  This is not a small undertaking.  I expect it to take a good part of 2017, so this is my research goal for 2017.  Once it is done, the cabinets will be freed up to reduce visual clutter in my home office (what was the dining room on the original floor plan).  The documents will be added to my research log in Evernote. They will be added to my research in The Master Genealogist.

Now I know what every genealogist out there is screaming at their computer.  What about backups?  I routinely backup my data to an external hard drive. Once a year, Hubby makes CDs and takes them to work with him and I also have a flash drive that all my images are backed up to.  My images are no less safe on my computer than they are in the filing cabinet.  I do not plan on tossing original copies of wills, marriages, deeds etc. But now they will be better archived since they will not have to share space with documents that have little value and that were not printed on archival paper. (You really think the Xerox paper at the state archives was archival?)   Throughout the process, I will make regular backups and copies to take off site. This is Alabama after all, I understand having copies in more than one spot. And while it is not a backup, my documents are also in Evernote, which will at least have a copy of a document should I somehow lose it between scanning and backing up my data.

When I posted my crazy idea in a genealogy forum on Facebook, I got asked two very important questions I think need to be addressed. The first was the backup question. In 25 years, I have never lost a digital paper, but I have lost or messed up countless paper ones that got put on my desk and had something spilled on them or they got tossed.  Backing up is important, and tossing out these papers doesn’t change that.  But let me ask you genealogist addicted to paper. Where is your backup?  What would happen if a fire, or tornado hit your home? Do you have a backup of your paper trail?  Because it’s equally important to ask ourselves this.

The second question was about sharing.  You see, I have this theory. My children are 26, 24, and 19. They are starting to show interest in their family history. Mainly because their dad and I regularly post research on Facebook and on my blog. We also talk about our ancestors around the dinner table. Their ancestors are living, breathing people that are no longer with us, and they are very interested in their stories.  They are not interested in my clutter any more than I am interested in my mother’s clutter.  Sure, I want her marriage record, and I love her antique cuckoo clock, but the millions of unorganized papers she has collected over the years are probably going to get tossed out, because who has time to go through each one and see if they have any value?  My kids love hearing the stories, but the unorganized clutter in my filing cabinet is destined to find it’s way to the nearest dumpster once I am gone. My children are even more minimalistic than I am. So yes, sharing our genealogy research is important, but our family will be far more interested in the finished product than the paper trail we create getting there. They want to hear about the horse thief, the Civil War hero, the prostitute. They could care less about 4 filing cabinets of lightly organized papers that make absolutely no sense to them. So instead of worrying about the paper clutter, I am sharing the stories. I am sharing the pictures. I am even sharing the documents. But I am doing it in the manner my Millennials understand.  I post on Facebook, I tweet, I blog.  I snap chat.  Our family photos are in digital picture frames even.  In other words, their 18th century ancestors are living in a 21st century world. 

So yes, sharing is important. That is why I changed the focus of my blog this year to sharing wills, deeds, stories about their ancestors. That is why I am trying to organize the research I have done in a neat and easy to share format.  If any of them should decide to take up the research aspect of genealogy, my organized research in Evernote, and in The Master Genealogist will be a great starting point. Far better than I had 25 years ago.  Should I run into another researcher while I am out and about working on the same line, all I have to do is get their email address, send a document or two via email to them instantly. If they have email on their phone, they can get the document sitting right there beside me. How is that for sharing?

But here’s the main purpose of this year’s task. Portability.  As Hubby and I now have no children at home, we are able to travel and go to ancestral homes, Civil War Battlefields, archives in far away places.  By having everything scanned, organized, and on my computer and kindle, it is portable enough to take with me. My kindle weights just a few ounces.  My filing cabinet weights about 50 pounds.  I can search for words inside documents on the kindle.  I would have to be very organized to find the same document in the filing cabinet.  This last year I have moved all my scanned research to Evernote. I have tagged the documents and began moving my 4000 source citations from The Master Genealogist to the document notes in Evernote, so document, citation and transcription are all in the same note.  If Hubby asks to see great grandpa’s will and 1860 census record, both can be seen on the screen in front of us while we travel down the interstate.  When we are standing on a battlefield at the exact spot his unit was at during the battle, I can put up the 1870 census and see what his family looked like shortly after the war was over.  I can pull up a picture of him and his new wife taken a few months after the war and have him there with me once again. While visiting relatives, I can share their mother’s marriage record, or her birth certificate.  If they have a wireless printer, or email, I can send them a copy right there and then. Much better than promising to send it and forgetting until many months later!

So yes, genealogy has changed. In my opinion for the better. It is cheaper to research, easier to share, and many more records are coming available every day online. It’s a great time to be a genealogist.  So today, all those papers are getting scanned, cataloged, cited, transcribed and tossed. All my genealogy clutter will be digital hopefully by 2018!

Happy New Year.


6 thoughts on “Genealogist at Work-Times Have Changed Even for Genealogists

  1. Just wandered onto Facebook and there you were! I love this article; I relate to it and love reading such articulate confirmation of what I’ve come to understand about what is the meaning of all that I do. Looking forward to reading your blog regularly.

  2. Great article, and I feel for you. I think I’m going to have to do the same with my Dad’s stuff! For this reason (and because I love it,) I’ve been organising all our family photos, home movies (on super 8 and standard 8mm film), old videos of all types etc. It’s no mean feat, my father was a cameraman. There are zillions of photos and thousands of feet of film!
    I’ve just started a blog, about how to sort, organise, categorise, copy and share all these precious moments. If you’re interested, it’s called Hocus Focus! I hope it may be of some use to you.
    I loved your blog, and am a new follower!

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