Fleming, Ann Carter. The Organized Family Historian: How to File, Manage, and Protect Your Genealogical Research and Heirlooms.

Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2004. 292p., softcover. Index, illus, CD. $19.99. ISBN 1-4016-0129-4.

As every genealogist knows, as soon as you start to gather original documents and photocopies and family photos and correspondence and research notes, it begins reproducing secretly, at night, all by itself. Pretty soon, your two ring-binders have become a packed four-drawer file cabinet and you haven’t seen your dining room table in months. Ann Fleming, president of NGS and a family researcher of wide experience, wants to save you from all that. The question is whether it takes an entire book to do it. She begins with all the reasons and ways you should organize your work and your results from the very beginning, including a discussion of file folders versus ring-binders, spiral pads versus a laptop computer or PDA, keeping to-do lists and a research notebook to focus you on the particular task at hand, and so on. Then she proceeds to the proper use of those basic research-tracking forms we all learned about in our first genealogical month: Pedigree charts, family group sheets, and research and correspondence logs. In the following chapters, she expands the discussion to more specialized forms and record-keeping methods, including those for federal and state census schedules, courthouse-type vital records, military records, wills and probates, land research, city directories, church records (though I’m not sure how such a diverse body of information can be handled on a standardized form), immigration and naturalization files, cemetery records and surveys, and school and medical records, among others.

And all those forms appear as PDF files on the CD that accompanies the book. She recommends you write a research report to further focus you on what you hope to accomplish during a particular project or research trip, including an individual or family timeline, and she makes excellent suggestions generally on preparing yourself for that trip, whether to Salt Lake City or to a nearby rural county. (Yes, you really need to do a preliminary literature search and review what you already know.) The sections on how and why to care for family photos (don’t just discard all those you can’t identify), the necessity of a disaster plan (duplicate and back up your files in another location, one that will survive the next flood or tornado), and why you should have plans in place for the final disposal of all your work when you’re no longer around.

However, Fleming also spends far too much time providing discursive details (and many personal anecdotes) on the interpretation of all these records, which seems outside the scope of a book on organizing one’s research. She includes thirty pages of detailed discussion of the questions asked on each of the decennial U.S. censuses, for example, plus several pages on the Soundex and Miracode systems, another sixteen pages of details on American wars, and a lengthy discussion of how to interpret the terminology found in marriage and probate records. Much of this is, by necessity, generic. (No mention is made of the peculiarities of Louisianian legal jargon.) She tells you about the online Civil War Soldier System, recommends techniques for oral history interviews, reminisces about inheriting family heirloom furniture, discusses good courthouse etiquette, and describes the differences between microfilm and microfiche, the Register numbering system and how to conduct a cemetery survey. There’s useful information on the national Interlibrary Loan program, the IGI, PERSI, and photo-enhancement software — but none of it really belongs in this book.

Finally, she goes into a certain amount of detail on organizing your information for publication, either in print or on the Web, but what she says actually applies to organizing your genealogical data for any purpose, and much of it repeats what she has said earlier. She even discusses style sheets for publishing and provides a chart of U.S. postal codes (the use of which actually should be avoided in publication). The problem here is that the subject of genealogical publishing requires another full volume in this series, not just the twenty-odd pages at the end of this one.

In her attempt to be all things to all genealogists, Fleming never quite presents a single coherent system for organizing one’s genealogical records and materials, either. I don’t say she should have done so, necessarily. William Dollarhide and many others have developed and promoted their own schemes, all with good and bad points, and one understands that the series editor wants to appeal to the widest spectrum of possible readers — but when the advice is too general, its usefulness is greatly diminished. It might also have been useful to include tips for designing and developing one’s own forms (perhaps by providing templates on the CD) for more specialized purposes, like the UK and Canadian censuses, German parish research, and transcribing ship lists.

To one with experience in publishing, it’s pretty obvious what has happened here: In order to keep all the volumes in this series roughly the same size (which can be sold at the same price), considerable extraneous information had to be added to what would have made a good fifty-page section in a different book. Perhaps this one should have been titled Genealogy 201: Intermediate Methods in Genealogical Research and Organization. It’s a well-written and informative book, but it’s simply not the book the title says it is.

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Published in: on 23 February 2010 at 7:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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