Fresh StartsPosted: 30 Dec 2014
Around New Year it is traditional to take stock and make resolutions. The findmypast Start Your Family Tree Week and GeneaBloggers Genealogy Do-over are current manifestations. There is no real reason to start a fresh phase at New Year. Dear Myrtle considered Starting Over back in June 2014, because she wanted to create better source citations and bring together all of her information in one place. Genealogical research is iterative, so ideally, each phase builds on knowledge previously gained. Unless your previous work is in a very bad state, I suggest a re-appraisal with some blunt honesty rather than starting from scratch. You probably did do some good research, and learning to recognise that is important.
It has often been repeated that you should work from the known. In the excitement of early discoveries you likely skipped over recent generations and dived in with grandparents or great-grandparents. Stop a moment. Who is the person you know the most about and have the most documents for? That person is you.
Start with yourself
How well have you documented your own life? Yes, you know all about it, you were there after all. That gives you a huge advantage as you know why documents were created, and the procedures involved. That understanding brings insights that would be much harder to come by using older documents from previous generations. Even if you have been researching your family for years, this is an exercise worth undertaking.
How many documents about yourself can you produce right now? My UK-centric list is as follows:
Identity & membership:
- driving licence
- birth certificate
- national health insurance card
- European health insurance card
- Library cards & readers tickets
- membership cards
- school reports
- school yearbooks
- academic qualifications, certificates, transcripts
- Vehicle registration certificate
- Vehicle excise duty disc (known as road tax)
- MOT certificate (Ministry of Transport test of vehicle roadworthiness)
- insurance cover note & insurance terms
- house deeds, mortgage documents, or tenancy agreement
- utility bills & contracts
- TV license
- bank account statements
- credit card statements
- invoices & receipts
- credit & debit cards
- store loyalty cards & discount cards
- cheque book
- shopping lists
- letters, birthday & Christmas cards, postcards
- baptism certificate
You will likely easily find important or current documents that serve to identify you, or demonstrate rights and assets (e.g. passport, driving license, current bills). What about the other stuff? Where are you on the spectrum between minimalist and hoarder?
Think like an archivist
Knowing what you have and where it came from is a vital first research step. A list of what you have, like mine is a starting point. Your own personal documents have an impeccable provenance – they were created because of your interactions with the world. But only you know about that context, so add some description to you list. Fill in the blanks that would really help a future researcher. For example, who was the Aunty Freda who sent you that holiday postcard depicting an elephant? For some more guidance on archival concepts take a look at Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description.
Go Slow, a Little Bit at a Time
Note that I have not yet done any analysis of what the documents contain, made any plans to seek more information, created source citations, or come to any conclusions. I have just taken stock of what documents I have that are about me.
I won’t describe every document at once, just a few at a time. Once I have recorded all that I know about a document, I will have the basis for a source citation. I certainly am not going to commit to a particular citation style, because I have several different audiences who have different understandings and expectations. Gradually, my personal archive will grow along with an archival-style catalogue. I plan to not need a future do-over!
© Sue Adams 2014