Prioritizing Your Efforts

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: November 11, 2003

It is a fact of life that we have more than one thing to do in our lives. For some reason the human body is required to eat and sleep. Families demand attention, jobs need to be done and careers follow. It is little wonder that all this family history stuff often gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. My articles here are just one example of things that fall to the bottom!

So, you've finally gotten caught up on the yard work, the laundry is at an acceptable level of completeness, shopping is done, the holidays are at least a week away and you have a couple of hours to spend on this hobby.

Where do you start? What should your priorities be? Here are a list of things to think about in setting up where to put your time and attention. This is based on my priority list, and the way I have been looking at things. You may need to adjust!

First - Save Time Limited Sources! This is the one priority that you cannot change. It must be number one and it must be done as soon as possible. What are Time Limited Sources? Almost exclusively these are people. If you've been thinking about asking Great Aunt Francis something for years, you better do it soon! She is a human being and there is a definite time limit on her availability. Forget the family feud that has been raging about the missing wedding invitation fifteen years ago! Make peace and ask the questions, or you will regret it for the rest of your life.

One of the things my grandmother did when she was getting older was to sit with my mother and identify the source of many of the items that were in her jewelry box and silver drawer. Pictures were labeled and stories told. Don’t wait until it is too late to try and figure out what the B on that silver label represented. Ask now!

Second - Preserve Unique Items! The next priority should always be to preserve what information you already have! Whether we are talking about birth/marriage/death certificates, photographs, letters and other documents, they need to be preserved for future generations. Medals, family Bibles, albums and Littlest Angel Boxes need to be stored properly and labeled. For further details see my article Preserving Records of Our Past.

Third - Archive the Information! The second most important thing to do is to share and document what you already know. The hours of research that you have accomplished should not have to be duplicated by future generations. You should document your information as completely and accurately as you can and share it! It is only by Sharing What You Know that you will truly insure that people can concentrate on finding the missing pieces of the family tree, instead of re-doing something already completed. Nothing is more discouraging to a researcher who presents a nicely documented line to have the person look at it and say “Oh, I’ve known that for years!” We want to build on what is known, not recreate it over and over again.

Okay from here on, you choose the priorities! I’m going to provide some thoughts to help you make your decisions.

Fresh research - I would always choose going to a courthouse or genealogical library over doing work on the internet. I can hop online any place I want, any time I want. Physical locations have limited hours. Courthouses burn down and libraries get flooded. Cemeteries are a little more accessible, but they too are falling into disrepair. Preserving a cemetery can be considered a part of the Second priority listed above! Farther is better. If you have a choice between a two day trip to a courthouse or a day trip to a local community, do the longer one! Who knows when you will be able to carve out another two days to make the trip. Perhaps you won’t want to drive that far next year. It is much easier to find another day to make that local visit then it is to travel a couple states away.

Validation of Existing Research - Not comfortable with that branch that Uncle Henry handed to you written on the back of a paper plate? Do some validation work! Verify the information and list the sources.

Resolve Discrepancies - You’ve got two different birthdays for your 3G Grandfather. Is it possible to find the correct one? Or is there solid documentation on both of them? I have one date from a gravestone and one date from a family Bible. I may never know which is correct. And that is assuming that he even knew!

Get organized! - If you take care of the top prioritized items above, you probably are in pretty good shape. It can be amazing what information you may discover in your notes that you had overlooked or forgotten about. It pays to take some time to create files and notebooks with the information you have and insure that it is all reflected in your documentation.

And please don’t forget, the living relatives should always take priority over those that have already gone!

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Updated on 10/25/2005