When I acquired the Bill Lawrence collection on New Year’s Eve, I was taken by surprise. I wanted to ask questions, so I whipped out my phone and started recording to capture information. I find that when making notes with pen and paper, I always miss chunks of information, especially at family gatherings where there are many distractions.
Audio recording is not a quick short-cut. It takes a lot longer to make sense of a recording than of written notes. The environment in which this recording was made was less than ideal. There are multiple simultaneous conversations, and the conversation wandered off topic to take-away orders and gossip that might be libelous if repeated here. In a recording of 33 minutes, just over 7 minutes relate to Bill’s collection and life.
So, I needed to extract the relevant parts and transcribe them. Stories Matter is free open source software built for oral history. It includes audio clipping and basic transcription functions.
Listening to yourself asking questions can be revealing. I had not realized that I interrupted Gill a couple of times, which probably limited the information she was giving me. In the following clip, I was good and just listened:
How much of that did you get? I have the advantage of having been present and knowing the voices of my parents, aunts and uncle. Here is the transcript:
GILL: That school that Bill went to, Ron, d’you remember Gilbert Harding?
GILL: He was at the same school
VAL: At the same time?
DOROTHY: Uncle Harry was as well, wasn’t he?
[talking over one another]
DOROTHY: Not at the same time
GILL: Cuz I remember them talking..
DOROTHY: Oh, I thought it was called an orphanage, because it was for children who had lost a parent or..
GILL: Yeah, but it wasn’t in the sort of normal way, every kid had lost both parents
DOROTHY: No, no, it was a school, but it was a boarding school, and they took in children that had lost parents
GILL: Yeah, and err.. Cuz, apparently when she [Bill’s mother] came back here her brothers said, you know, you must find some work to do and that, so she put Bill in there. But he was telling us and showing us this book and he was saying it was that bloody cold at night in this dormitory. An, you know, they used to get out of the dormitory at night. And the headmaster used to grow vegetables, so they’d go and pinch some carrots and eat ’em straight out of the ground, unwashed, cuz they were so hungry.
In just 1 minute and 16 seconds, this conversation raises a number of questions:
- Who was Gilbert Harding, and why should Ron remember him?
- What was the name of Bill’s school?
- Was it a school or orphanage? Why the confusion?
- Who was the ‘Uncle Harry’ who also attended the school?
- What book did Bill show when talking about his school?
With a little digging I have made progress on the first three questions, but will need to ask Dorothy and Gill for clarification on Uncle Harry and the book.
Gilbert Harding (1907-1960) was a radio and TV personality in the 1950s, which is why Ron remembered him. Gilbert attended the Royal Orphanage of Wolverhampton, also known as the Wolverhampton Orphan Asylum and the Royal Wolverhampton School at periods before and after his time there.
The school was open to children between the ages of 7 and 15 who had lost one or both parents. So, Bill, born in 1915, would have been an eligible age between 1922 and 1930, and Gilbert Harding between 1914 and 1922. So, Bill could only have been contemporary with Gilbert in 1922.
The Children’s Homes website gives insight into the social standing of children granted admission. Admission was granted to “orphans of professional men, principals engaged in agriculture, manufacture, commerce, or trade, or of mercantile or other clerks, or otherwise respectably descended”, but “orphans of journeymen, artisans, labourers, and domestic or agricultural servants, or child with a stepfather” were not eligible. The admission policy is not what we typically expect for an orphanage, which could account for the confusion over the status of the institution. It was both an orphanage and boarding school.
© Sue Adams 2016
Jill Ball’s recent hangout on air entitled Let’s get organised caused me pause and think. The question of how to organise the physical and digital ‘stuff’ we accumulate during genealogical research is a common one that elicits a wide variety of responses. This discussion revolved mainly around digital files.
The panellists broadly follow two patterns of file organisation, person oriented and source oriented. Person oriented systems typically arrange files in folders for surnames and individuals. Source oriented systems typically arrange files in folders for each source type. Some people also have place and project folders.
Retrieval strategies include using file naming conventions, tagging, assignment of unique file ids, indexes and spreadsheets. Panellists use Family Historian, Custodian, Evernote, Excel and coggle.it to help them keep track of the ‘stuff’.
In Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description, I advocated recording source information in a hierarchical archival style catalogue. Archival catalogues typically arrange source items by the provenance and context of their creation and use, which is reflected in multiple levels of logical organisation. Storage is not necessarily the same as logical organisation.
Are Hierarchies Hard?
Genealogists create family trees. A family tree is a hierarchical branching structure where layers represent generations of ancestors. So, genealogists would readily adopt a source hierarchy, wouldn’t they? The discussion made it pretty plain that is not the case.
Jill advocates a flat digital file structure. Among the panellists who use a hierarchy of physical or digital folders, the number of levels is restricted to no more than 2 or 3.
Why do people find hierarchies difficult?
Navigation through hierarchy levels is hard to get your head around. I have been looking for a tool that helps means me draw hierarchical trees and visualise my catalogue structure. Thanks to Alex Daws’ suggestion I tried the mind mapping tool, coggle.it. My genealogical ‘stuff’ falls into the categories depicted:
For the interactive version follow this link:https://coggle.it/diagram/550aa664a7d032c23734a105/7e12c7b8433ffe43f86b5994f61abf9977f826ac312616349825bbda313db27a
I have included a selection of top level categories and expanded a few of them. On the right are the things I acquired from family and collaborators, and my personal documents. On the left are the things acquired from physical and digital archives.
The personal collections are organised by their provenance, the person from whom the items came. This visual representation makes it easy for me to see I have omitted a helpful relative, Pat (how ungrateful am I!). I have expanded the part Raymond’s collection which I discussed in Provenance of a Personal Collection. The sub-categories reflect the use (e.g. probate) and history (e.g. belonged to Winnie) of the items.
Complete collections can be organised without taking account of possible future additions. The branches colour coded in yellow are complete. Raymond and Mabel are deceased, and personal study projects relate to courses completed.
The personal collection labelled Sue is my own. It includes collections that were created by my own life, the types of things discussed in Fresh Starts, my genealogy business records named Family Folk, and the results of my research such as blog posts. The category named Genealogical Research Collection is my personal sin bin. It’s arrangement reflects my early attempts to organise things, and indirectly documents my development as a researcher. Rather than rearrange things I have documented the existing arrangements.
Digital and Physical Archives
The left side of the source tree depicts my understanding of the arrangement of things I accessed through archives. I have expanded the top levels for just one record, the marriage of Joseph Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson at Claverley in 1808, that I discussed in Three Wilson-Wilson marriages and the Family History Library Experience.
The original marriage register is held by Shropshire Archives and the archive catalogue entry includes the hierarchy that shows how the marriage register fits into the archive’s collections:
Notice that the top level is missing from the archival catalogue. Parishes are collected together in a group denoted by P or XP, but there is no catalogue entry for this group. Many archive catalogues could be made more user friendly by the inclusion of top level groups and a visual interface. This catalogue entry also refers to the microfiche copy of the registers.
I have followed the archive catalogue in my source tree, but added in the missing parish level and separated out the microfiche version. The Family History Library transcript and microfilm are arranged by call number and film number, a peculiarity of that institution.
Digital archives typically consist of an index or database that may reference a collection of digital images. Database entries are accessed via search functions. The arrangement of digital image collection is similar, but not identical, to the arrangement of physical archive in this case. Some digital image collections differ substantially from their physical counterparts.
In addition to the original, there are 6 different versions of the marriage record. They were derived from the original either directly or indirectly via several different copying processes, but that is hard to show on my source tree.
Citations and Source Identification
Traditionally many academic disciplines cited published and unpublished works in the form of a bibliographic citation, but only included the data they collected in summary form. In many disciplines it is now recognised that the academic paper alone is no longer sufficient and the underlying data also needs to be shared. How to Cite Datasets and Link to Publications explores the issues and makes proposals for scientific data sets. Citing genealogical sources is more similar to citing scientific data than to citing finished works.
Genealogists typically want to pin point a single record or piece of data within a data set. For the marriage example the following locate the record within source items:
|Original||page & record number|
|Microfiche||counted row and column numbers, record number|
|Transcript||page number, record number|
|Microfilm||Item number, counted image number, record number|
|Digital image||browsing breadcrumb, image number|
|Database entries||search terms|
Genealogists need to know exactly which source item was used, because they differ in accuracy and reliability. My source tree distinguishes between the 7 source items, but does not make the relationships between them clear. Here is how I think each was derived:
Copying and processing potentially produces errors, so genealogists need to check against originals if possible. In the marriage example, I used the FamilySearch database to find the transcript and then checked the transcript against the microfiche copy of the original, because they were available at the time. Now I would use the high quality digital image that has since been published. The archive quite rightly restricts access to the original so that it is preserved.
The complicated-looking citations in Evidence Explained identify the source, the equivalent of my source tree. Multi-level citations, indicated by “citing”, give the relationships between derived versions and the original.
I have tackled some quite complex ideas in this post. I hope find some worth considering as your genealogy organisation systems develop. As Julie Goucher said, there is no one size fits all.
I thank Jill and all the panellists for challenging my assumptions, sharing their frustrations and confusion, and openly debating the issues. Conversations like this are valuable contributions that genealogy vendors and software developers need to hear. As a member of FHISO, I am listening.
© Sue Adams 2015
What does your family tree look like?
Most people think of their family tree as a kind of chart that depicts relationships between family members. Using a tree diagram to represent knowledge is common to many disciplines and has been around for a long time, as the New Scientist article Why do we love to organise knowledge into trees points out.
Family tree diagrams are most useful as visual representation of a limited set of conclusions. Used as a bare bones summary, they are highly effective. If the diagram does not fit on an A3 sized (roughly 42cm x 29 cm) piece of paper, the message has probably been lost. The branching hierarchy breaks down once lines start crossing, often within just a few generations.
Genealogical research extends a long way beyond a subset of conclusions, and relationships are a lot more complicated than a branching hierarchy.
So is the all pervasive tree metaphor useful? As real trees don’t look much like the branching diagrams either, I wonder if the metaphor can be repurposed.
Your Personal Tree of Knowledge
Think of your family tree as your personal understanding of your family history, genealogy and connected micro-histories: a personal Tree of Knowledge.
A common definition of a tree is a plant with a woody stem or trunk. Real trees also have roots, and canopies that grow leaves, flowers and fruits. Think of the roots as sources of information, the trunk as processes of analysis and the canopy as the conclusions you draw from your research.
The roots of your tree seek out the documents, artefacts, memories and other sources of relevant information using search and browse tools, catalogues to find and access the archives, online repositories and family members hoards.
The trunk of your tree is where the hard graft occurs. Information is evaluated for reliability and accuracy. Many pieces of information are combined to test theories. Evidence points toward tentative and firm conclusions.
The canopy of your tree is the part that others typically see. The products of you work such as family tree charts, stories and the many other ways you communicate your findings are available to others. A high quality product of your work may a seed and guide other researchers to grow their own family tree.
Family history research is iterative. Your tree is fed by both new sources and in interactions with fellow researchers, much as a real tree needs both water and mineral nutrients from the soil and sunlight. Tentative conclusions and other researchers point to new avenues of investigation. New information changes our conclusions. Interactions between ideas and information grow a broad tree trunk. A healthy family tree has a sturdy trunk.
Grow your own family tree
Growing you own tree of family history knowledge is far more rewarding than picking parts of some-one else’s canopy. It takes time and effort to nurture your understanding. That does not mean that you should not collaborate with other researchers. Good collaboration is about helping one another tend our trees.
I aspire to grow a magnificent oak. The form of your tree will be different to mine even if we are closely related. Size does not determine the health of your family tree. A healthy family tree, even a tiny seedling or young sapling is a thing of beauty. Take a closer look at yours.
© Sue Adams 2014