Good Notes Should…

I finally received my copy of Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 4th edition. I have two of the earlier editions, but Greenwood’s book is essential to genealogical research in the United States–especially once home sources have been used and “easy to figure out people” have been “figured out.”

The book is especially helpful in developing a general understanding of most records utilized by genealogists–particularly courthouse records such as land/property, probate/court, and vital records. Its coverage is much broader than that and it’s treatment of these records is somewhat general (state laws and practices create some differences), but it gives the reader a good general grounding in these records. That’s especially helpful when research leaves the relatively easy to interpret census and vital records (errors in those records notwithstanding).

I’ve read it before, so I’m not sitting down and reading it cover to cover like I did years ago. Like most genealogical “textbooks” it can be used as a reference for specific information or as a review of a certain topic.

In leafing through, I found a particularly helpful nugget when Greenwood states on page 155:

Good notes should also tell the purpose of your search of each source.

That’s excellent advice. I will admit that I don’t do this all the time, especially when the reason fits my informal definition of “obvious.” If  my research notes indicate that I looked in an estate index in Mercer County, Illinois, for Andrew Trask between the years of 1870 and 1890, then it’s probably because I have reason to believe he died there sometime after 1870 and had property in that location. Of course, my notes should indicate just what I was searching when I searched the “estate index.”

I need to be clear when I indicate that I searched the “estate index.” Is that the actual title of the index? What did that “estate index” actually index? Was it an index that only included numbers of the “case file” that contained the original documents created during the settlement of the probate? Was it more of a general index that also included index references to all the probate journals (eg. administrator’s record, order probating will, executor’s bonds, administrator’s bonds, inventories, etc.)? I need to be specific in what I searched. The “estate index” may not be an index to all the various records and if I just my own created title for what I searched, I don’t really know what I searched at all.

The title matters. And if the title to an index is not clear–look at what is actually indexed in the index. Make a note of that.

If you are really clear in describing what you searched, for whom you searched, and the time period, the reason why should be clear for most records.

After all, if I’m looking for Andrew Trask in the “estate index” in Mercer County, Illinois, between 1870 and 1890 it probably is because he was last known to have been alive in 1870 and had reason to have an estate probated in Mercer County, Illinois (which would likely be because the bulk of his property was in that location).

And if all that’s not clear from your research notes–then add it.

It’s not to make busy work for us while we research. It’s to save time later when we look at our notes so we don’t ask ourselves:

what was I thinking when I looked in that index?

It also allows us to later go back and vet our process when we don’t find what we think we should or when we still have unanswered questions. Later, when we review our reasons why we searched something, we may discover that our “reasons” were the problem.

Or sometimes not.

But we don’t know if we don’t have them to look at.



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