12 November 2010

First impressions should be captured

Today was spent at a client's home. We were doing some organizing and research planning. This made me think of a column I wrote for Ancestry's old electronic newsletter a few years ago. I reread and updated it and present it here as some food for thought.

The following words are based on the premise that most of my work steps have not varied over the years.

The first impression when reviewing something new is often a fantastic impression. I have learned to not just think about the project or task and the research process, but to actually make immediate notes. In the excitement upon finding or receiving a family clue or record my mind goes off in a dozen different directions. Years ago after simply letting my mind go in these directions, I realized that many of those thoughts were actually great research routes to take. There were times when the first impression ideas did not magically reappear.

When something new arrives

When I open the regular mail, check my e-mail, or find something online – I do so with pen and paper at hand and make notes. This way I do not miss any of those important first impressions that may not rush into my mind when I actually begin the follow-up research.
The same pattern is followed when working with a new client.

The in-person version
There are many guides to doing oral interviews. Of course these advocate taking notes or taping the sessions. There is one more part related to family history research that is often ignored. Whether you are interviewing on the telephone or in person, make immediate “to do” notes as they surface in your mind. Maybe a statement the person makes gives you the idea that the 1900 census indexes be checked to help verify the location given. Get that task written down before the thought disappears.

The on-site version
Visualize yourself sitting at a microfilm reader or in the courthouse viewing a census, probate, or land record. The leads that record supplies are beginning to send your mind in a hundred different directions. The clues may be ones to help solve some tough research spots.

Don’t skip any of those thoughts
Make a list of those ideas or clues that jump out as you read through the paper or papers. You might immediately see mention of an event in the person’s life that begs for further research. Often some of the unanticipated ideas are not as evident on the second reading as you are sitting down to detail a research plan. At that second or subsequent reading you are so intent on the process that you have other ideas, but the first ones may not surface or are overlooked.

If you aren’t sure what to do

This advice may help you target your thoughts after the first impression. Make yourself a general list of various types and years of records to check for an ancestral area. (Such as state census, federal census, probate, church, tax, land, etc.) Then reread that newly found clue or record. Use that general list to determine other possible records to check. My client said that she is relying on me for assistance with this research planning.

Challenge yourself
I have a task for you. This is a first-impression experiment. Either go online or to a library to obtain a copy of a 1900 census record or a pre-1920 obituary. This record should be for someone you have never heard of before. As soon as you read the record and print it, pretend it is your own ancestor and think about the research clues you just found. As thoughts flow through your mind, jot down the research paths you need to follow from the clues in this copy. Now put the notes and the copy away in a file folder.

The next step
Take out your calendar or daily planner and make an appointment with yourself for at least a month from now (further out is even better). This appointment is a reminder to revisit that file folder. You will then reread the copy (but NOT your notes) and make another list of what research tasks you should do based on the contents of the record. Compare the notes and see if you had some impressions from the first reading that do not appear on the second and vice versa.

Add one more step
You could make a copy of this record and have a genealogical friend repeat the same process as you. It will be interesting to see the similarities and differences in the task lists when they are compared. In past columns I have often advocated bringing in another set of eyes to evaluate a record.

Another way to capture a first impression
Even without asking a genealogy friend to follow this same process, you can still capture a first impression. Once you have a copy of a record, an obituary, or a family letter you are often tempted to show it to someone else. Let’s say you are at your genealogical society’s next meeting and have brought along a copy of this item. As you excitedly show it to someone and ask them to read it, be prepared to write down the thoughts expressed. Perhaps this person will have some first impressions that you did not have. As they say “wow, you should check the . . .” or “If I were you I would see if there are also . . .”

Are first impressions the best?
I have often thought this, and, yes, I have been proven wrong on occasion – but not often. As with assessing any situation or person, the first impression is important – but may not present the whole picture. This is true in our family history research, too. Don’t let the rush of ideas get away from you when you first review a new record. At the same time, don’t let that be the end of your planning process.

1 comment:

Marian Pierre-Louis said...

I totally understand what you are saying and you make a very good point. Often when I am meeting with a new client they tell me what they already know. As they are listing off "facts" my mind is whirling with ideas on how I can verify what they are saying and what records I should access.

Also, I love your exercise with the 1900 census. I think I will give it a whirl myself even though you are already speaking to the choir!