Janine Adams is the founder of Organize Your Family History, a blog that is all about organizing and documenting your genealogical findings in a way they are coherent and accessible. In this interview, she reflects on the changes that digitization has brought to genealogy and the benefits that await those who will be able to adapt.
Please describe your background.
I own a company that helps people get organized in their homes, so we’re usually handling physical stuff in people’s homes, basements, and attics, which often include old paperwork, photographs, and documents.
I’ve had an interest in genealogy for a long time. I started doing it in 2000, but I did a really bad job because I didn’t organize it well so I stepped away because I got overwhelmed.
In 2012, I decided to get serious about it and do it right. That’s when I started my blog, Organize Your Family History. It’s designed to help people who are overwhelmed by organizing their research findings.
I think a lot of genealogists love researching, but dealing with the results and keeping them organized becomes a real problem. They get overwhelmed and it’s understandable. Most people don’t love organizing things, but I do! Organizing the results is my favorite part of genealogy.
I started my blog mainly to help me stay focused on my research, and help other people as I go. I knew that blogging about it would make me more accountable and I’d have to take it seriously.
I already had another blog since 2006, so I’m used to blogging twice on both blogs. I do write about organizing and genealogy, but I also write about whatever crosses my mind about my own research or about new resources I find. I have a lovely group of readers who are very responsive. I also give talks at conferences every now and then where I get to meet readers. Some of them have become close friends.
In my research, I morphed from paper-based to digital. I used to print and file documents in color-coded folders, but now it’s all digital. Even if I find some original document in paper form, I scan and file it digitally. I may or may not hang on to the piece of paper depending on what it is. For instance, I have some personal correspondences between ancestors, and I don’t throw that away. But I did scan it and then I processed it digitally. I’m a big proponent of that because I feel it makes genealogy easier.
The generation of genealogists before me did not have the online opportunities that we have now. Old school genealogists worked so hard, going to dusty old courthouses to get documents and then transcribe or photocopy them.
Since the beginning of this century, we started getting increasingly more opportunities to do research online. The big companies are expanding and adding more features to their offerings. Of course, lots of smaller repositories are offering incredible online services as well.
For people who are accustomed to paper, the entire analysis of a document is just reading it with your eyes or with a magnifying glass, so you could see every small detail and then go and research further based on your findings.
Nowadays, it’s much easier because you can just click a button in your PDF reader and zoom in on whatever it is you’re looking for.
I think that for a lot of people, the transition from reading things on paper to reading them on a computer screen was challenging. A big part of it is being confident that if you download a document, you can find it on your hard drive. When you download something from Ancestry, for example, it has an alphanumeric filename that is completely meaningless. If you don’t rename and file it, you may never find it again, or you’re afraid you’ll never find it again. So for a lot of people, it feels safer to have it in a file folder or a binder, or more likely, in a pile of stuff that needs to be filed or put in a binder. But in fact, it can be very easy to do if you just follow a series of steps, rename, and file and make sure to back it up online or in an external hard drive.
The other thing I hear from people is that they will always have paper files because their hard drive could fail. In that case, I hope they are storing all their papers in a fireproof and waterproof chamber because paper is not exactly indestructible. With digital, we have multiple ways to back it up and if you do that then you’re quite safe.
Do you use any programs to analyze your findings?
I use Reunion, a family tree software for Mac, where I enter all the facts into a database. Once I’ve downloaded a document, I analyze it and create a source citation, and then put all the facts into my Reunion database.
My policy is that nothing goes into the database unless it has a source citation. For the early facts I entered, the sources weren’t necessarily great in the analysis, so I’ve been going back to the 1200 source citations in my database, reviewing the earlier ones and making sure that I actually took all the information from these source documents.
At the beginning, I was focusing on my direct line ancestors and ignoring their collateral relatives, which, of course, was a mistake. So I’m trying to make up for that now.
Reunion allows me to capture what I need and it’s worked well for me. I haven’t explored other options, which means that I don’t know what I’m missing. It’s possible I could be doing better with a different program, but it seems to work with the way I think. What I always tell people is that there’s no perfect way to organize anything. The best way is the one that’s easy for you to keep up with.
I’d never consider not subscribing to Ancestry, they were a big source of information for me. I also love FamilySearch, though it took me a little while to get comfortable with it as a source. If I was starting now, I would use that more than I did at the beginning.
Looking for the same things on both FamilySearch and Ancestry can be very beneficial because they have different scans and different indexes of the same documents, so you might have more success searching one over the other. Cross-checking the information they provide can potentially give you a better understanding of whatever it is you are looking for.
What are your tips for people who are researching their family research?
I think that all genealogists, and particularly beginners, get wrapped up in trying to do it perfectly. One of my main mantras is that there’s no such thing as perfect. If you wait to start until things are perfect, you’re never going to get started. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
So, pick a genealogy program that seems to work for you, which is actually what I did 8 years ago. Start with yourself and gradually add ancestors as you go along, working up the tree.
Don’t ignore your collateral relatives, the brothers and sisters of your direct line relatives. Put them in your database. Even though it feels tedious, it’s absolutely invaluable and well worth the effort.
In my podcast Getting Good Enough, which is about letting go of perfectionism, we have an episode (Episode 20) on genealogy. I also give a talk called The Imperfect Genealogist.
For example, it’s really important to have a source citation for everything. You need to be able to go back and look at any fact and figure out where it came from. It can be hard for people who are wrapped up in perfectionism to actually create a source citation out of fear that they’re doing it wrong. I use the templates that come with my software and just create source citations on the fly. That has held up for me over these 8 years.
Professional genealogists have a different standard for source citations that they adhere to, which is great, but if I can find the document again or if somebody I’m sharing my research with can find the document again, that’s good enough for me.
I always encourage people to use source citations, but if they get too caught up in worrying about it being perfect, it feels too overwhelming to create the right source citation, so they end up not doing it or ignoring a source because it’s too hard to cite.
I love websites like Ancestry and FamilySearch for the source documents they provide, which are absolutely invaluable. I’m less of a fan of their family trees. I rarely look at their family trees, because they’re usually not very well-sourced, helpful, or trustworthy. They provide clues, but I would never use a public family tree as a source. But for all the documents that they provide, it’s definitely worth a look.
When you say you would never use those as a resource, why is that?
Let’s say somebody I’m related to has a family tree. I will look at it, and if there are sources attached to it, I would evaluate them to see if they’re reliable before I proceed. But in my research, there’s not a single source citation that says “public tree from Ancestry.” What I want is the documents that back up the facts in those trees.
The same goes for FamilySearch. They have one tree that anybody can contribute to and change. So, if I know that I have tons of documentation on my great grandfather, and somebody whose research is different, who is also related to him, could come in and just change it because they think it’s true. I don’t even pay attention to the Family Search tree because it’s too much trouble to verify. I’d rather spend my time there looking for the documents.
How has DNA changed things for genealogy?
It’s incredible! I haven’t done a lot of it but every now and then I look at my matches and then reach out to people. The possibilities are endless. I know that for those who understand DNA, genetic genealogy can make great strides in triangulating relatives to answer research questions. It took about five years between when I took my first DNA test with Ancestry DNA, until I actually understood the results. After going to many seminars, I took one with Diahan Southad and it finally clicked.
People take DNA tests to find out about their ethnicity and then discover relatives they didn’t know existed. I wonder sometimes whether people realize that by taking these tests, they might be opening a Pandora’s box. But I do think it opens a world of potential, which is fantastic. With genetic genealogy, the sky’s the limit. It feels like I don’t even know what to foresee in terms of what opportunities might come around.