Family History ACT

The Heraldry & Genealogy Society of Canberra Inc.


Planning our research in 2021

2020 was a year of disruption, but somehow the pandemic sharpened our focus on what makes life meaningful. Let’s use that focus to start our research plan for 2021.

Why plan?

A plan helps convert our dreams into goals, and our goals into results.

A plan combats the enemies of drift and distraction. Genealogy companies bombard us daily with matches on our family tree and DNA. A plan helps us to hold our focus and return to the task at hand.

Our plan is not set in concrete. Plans must respond to opportunities circumstances. We are the ones who control our plan, and we can change it as often as we wish.

Remember our lifetime research goals

As the new year gets underway, let’s pause to reflect on our lifetime research goals. They should flow from the heart, not the head. Remembering our heartfelt lifetime research goals will motivate our year’s work.

Most of us will have a goal of leaving a legacy for our loved ones, in the form of a family tree and a family history. We may also be motivated to leave a lasting tribute to our forebears. Our goal should be personal to us.

How should we choose tasks for our 2021 research plan?

We can choose any tasks we want to accomplish in 2021. We could select a range of tasks based on these useful themes: responding to opportunities, using our unique knowledge and skills, cultivating our research capacity, and improving the way we work. Let’s consider each of these in turn.

Responding to opportunities

This year there will be no opportunities for international travel, but the pandemic has compensated us with a new opportunity – we can attend RootsTech in February, free and online. We might never have considered travelling to Utah, but attending RootsTech online could motivate and inspire.

But the most important opportunity for the genealogist lies with our oldest living relatives. This year I lost an uncle and an aunt. They were my last two living elders. The day before my uncle died, a few months short of his 100th birthday, I held his hand and updated him with progress in my research. He listened attentively. I thanked him again for the legacy of family knowledge he had given me, including the genetic legacy of all his DNA tests. He acknowledged my gratitude with bright eyes, a big smile, and a squeeze of my hand. He died peacefully the next day.

Our elders are not limited to our direct line. Uncles and aunts are as good as parents, great uncles and aunts are as good as grandparents. Older cousins are as good as our uncles and aunts. Their knowledge will complement what we already know.

There are tensions and estrangements in most families. Often the origins are not understood, or forgotten in the mists of time. This year’s pandemic has made many older people feel isolated – 2021 could be the perfect year to rekindle contact with estranged family elders.

Choosing tasks that we are uniquely placed to do

Searching databases and building big trees may not be the best use of our talents. We are experienced genealogists. We all have knowledge that we will take to the grave unless we record it. We may be the custodians of oral history which we heard while growing up, or we may have developed an understanding of history and culture through our own study. We may know the foreign languages used in family letters or in the repositories of countries where our families once lived. We are uniquely placed to bring these skills to our research, so we should identify tasks that make use of our special talents.

Another source of tasks for expert researchers is brick walls. We all have them, but there is more to a brick wall than blank spaces in our chart: there is the research we have undertaken, the social and historical context we have investigated, and the possible explanations we have explored. There is a story in brick walls that can make a rich contribution to our family history. Why not plan to document a brick wall in 2021, with a well written account of an unresolved mystery?

Cultivating our research capacity

We should continuously improve our capacity to conduct good research. We could plan to acquire new skills such as using GEDMATCH tools, or sharpening our ability to identify period dress in photographs, or improving our historical knowledge. We all have much to learn, and our HAGSOC Library and HAGSOC Education services offer opportunities for learning and development. It should be easy to include some learning tasks in our research plan for 2021.

Improving our work methods and organisation

Of course, we should ‘tidy as we go’ in our research, but it’s easy to fall behind with housekeeping. Unless we are comfortable with the idea of leaving a messy legacy, we could schedule some housekeeping tasks in our research plan for 2021.

Here we are especially spoiled for choice. We don’t need to reform our lives or conduct heroic clean-outs. One or two small tasks with tight boundaries will suffice.

On our computer, we could review our file structure, so that the folders reflect the structure of our family trees.

We could make a list of our passwords and subscriptions, and put a copy of the list with our will.

We could sort, scan, describe, label and caption items in a part of our collection – that box under the desk?

We could dispose of bits of paper that have no enduring value.

There are many small housekeeping tasks that would imbue our 2021 research plan with an aura of virtue!

How should we define the tasks in our plan?

Once we have selected the tasks for 2021, there are two things that will help ensure that our tasks get done. Each task should be small, and each task should be complete in itself.

Define small tasks

Break large projects into small tasks. A half-day task is more likely to get started and more likely to get finished. Finishing boosts our satisfaction and motivation. Small tasks sustain concentration and reduce distraction, and help bring variety to our work.

Define each task as complete in itself

Although small tasks are usually components of larger projects, each small task should be complete in itself.

I suggest we all accept that our family history is what we left on the desk this morning. It is complete in the state that it is in now. If we are run over by a bus today, it will be forever as it is. If we avoid the proverbial bus and continue to work on our family history tomorrow, we will change its content and appearance, but each time we get up from the desk we will leave our family history complete in its latest state.

Why should we take this attitude? Firstly it is fact – what has not been created yet, does not exist. Thinking of our family history as already complete, can transform the way we work and improve the quality of what we produce. Each time we start a family history task, it is helpful to ‘begin with the end in mind’. As we start updating our complete family history, we will have a sense of updating and editing our final product, rather than resuming a lifelong project. If we add a new person to our family tree, we make it a complete task by adding the source citation, filing the associated documents, and updating the family history narrative.

A major benefit is that we update the narrative as we build the tree. According to project management methodology, the task of writing is situated on what project managers call the ‘critical path.’ The critical path in a project is the timeline of the component which will take the longest time to complete. The manager will start that component as early as possible in the project. In family history, our longest task is the writing, creating the narrative versions. If we plan to complete our searching and tree-building before we start writing, we risk dying before we finish! If we write as we go, our work will not only be complete, it will be much better.

Writing as you go can be done one sentence at a time. The notes field in our family history database is a good place to write the narrative applying to an individual or a family. If we write well, the notes field can easily be harvested and used in a more ambitious writing project at a later date. Here are some examples of writing as we update the tree:

  • ”In about March 1835 the 2nd Battalion was transferred from Dover to Guernsey where William and Mary’s third child was born.”
  • “We have found no record of death for William’s father John, but his disappearance from William’s life coincides with a major cholera outbreak in New York in 1849, when many burials were not recorded”.

So let’s start thinking of our family history as already complete, and identify some small, whole tasks in our 2021 work plan.

It’s your choice . . .

Of course, there are many paths to success. What works for one person may not work for another. I offer you these thoughts in all modesty, because although I have written many parts of my family story, I have not yet published my family history online or in print. By drawing on my working experience in planning and project management, I have managed to lift my game in family research. My family history database is growing in substance and quality. My documents and pictures are stored in more efficient file structures. I use document naming conventions that support meaningful sorting. More ‘bits of paper’ are finding their way to the recycling bin. And best of all, I continue to discover new information and solve old problems. All of this is helped by working to a plan.