Making sure all systems are go

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In the course of your research, it’s easy to get involved in too many families at once. For example, if you’re using birth and marriage records to trace your ancestry, you have to find documents for two parents, then four grandparents, then eight great-grandparents, then 16 great-greats, then 32 greats-to-the-third. Only five generations in and you’re now dealing with 62 individuals in 31 families. It’s at this point that some folks decide that genealogy is beyond them.

If you start tracing the descendants of these ancestors as well as their siblings and THEIR descendants, you’ve easily expanded your search to include the birth and marriage records of hundreds of individuals.

Each of these tasks is worth your time and effort. But with so many tasks, it is important to have a system to organize your work. Everybody organizes a little differently, so all I can do is suggest ideas based on how I work and hopefully you can tailor them to your way of working.

The key to deciding which task to do first is dependent on how easily you can access the sources you are working with. Let’s say you are working on Italian records for your town and you use the marriage records to find many ancestors’ names and birth years. You will now need a number of different birth films to find the birth records of these various ancestors. If you are lucky, there are many birth years on a single microfilm, and you can order only one or two films and find most of them. If you are not so fortunate, and your family comes from a rather large town, there might be only 2-3 years of births on a single film, and you may have to order several films to find what you need. For some areas of Italy, such as Basilicata, they filmed the births, marriages, deaths and other items for a single year all on one film, so you may have to order ten films to find ten births.

So you have a list of people in your file that you need birth records for. How do you know which people need a record and which do not? You do not want to waste time finding the birth records for the people that you already found. A long time ago, I started using Family Tree Maker and they had set up a series of custom fields that the user could define any way they want. So I picked three of those fields and defined the first as “Need Birth Record”, “Need Marriage Record” and “Need Death Record”. Instead of just putting a “Yes” or “No”, I used the space to record the microfilm number that I needed in order to find that record.

For example, I need a birth record for a person from Termini Imerese in 1888. I go to familysearch, and click “Search”, “Catalog”. I type “Termini” and it auto-types the rest. I select “Termini Imerese, Palermo, Italy” and it lists “Civil Registration” and I click that. Now I see the list of microfilms for the town, covering all types of records from 1820-1910. I scroll down to find the record “Atti di Nascita” (it may also say “Atti di Nati”) with a range of years. I find the one that covers 1888 and I “copy-and-paste” the film number. Just click and drag over the film number on the screen and “CTRL-C” to copy, then change back to your genealogy software, and CTRL-V paste that film number into the person’s record, in the “Need Birth Record” field.

You should page through the people in your file that were born in Termini Imerese and do this for each of them, since you already have the catalog microfilm numbers on your screen. You can copy and paste the film numbers for the births you need in 1851, 1890, 1822 and 1837. Sometimes, there are two films that cover the same year. One film covers births 1835-1837, and the next film covers 1837-1840. You should record both film numbers because you might not find what you need in the first one. So for this person born in Termini in 1837, the field “Need Birth Record” might show both film numbers.

Also, you have to remember that your birth year may only be an estimate. You found a marriage record in Termini in 1858 that says that the bride was aged 20. So she was possibly born in 1838 but may also have been born in 1837. Should you order both films right away, knowing she will only be in one of those films? My vote is, yes order both films. Use the other film to look for her siblings, so the money isn’t wasted either way.

Of course, if familysearch has your town’s microfilm viewable on the web site, you don’t have to order film at all. You can just scroll through the film from the comfort of your home, and if she’s not in the 1838 film, just go to the 1837 film at no cost.

So in order to decide how to attack the project, you need to know if your microfilm images are viewable from home, or viewable from a family history center computer, or not at all. If you have to order films, it will take a lot longer to find everything you need if you only order exactly the films you think you will need. It only costs $7 to order a film, so I suggest that you order the extra film, in order to keep your project focused and to complete the tasks in a timely manner.

So treat this like one large project and make a research plan. First, figure out who needs birth records and mark your genealogy software with the film numbers as I described above. Then create a report that only includes the people who have film numbers in that field. Ideally, sort the report by that field so the report prints with the film numbers all sorted. Now you have a list of films you need, and maybe you need the same film for ten different records if you’re lucky. Now go back to familysearch and order those films. When the films come in, look for each record from the same report. As you find the births, record which film you found them in, and the record number. Use the genealogy software “Source” for the birth as the place to record this. Do not use the “Need birth record” field to record where you found them. Then, and this is important, delete the film number(s) from “Need birth record” because you don’t need it anymore. The next time you run the report, it won’t print the same birth records again because you already found those. If you fail to delete the “Need birth record” film number, it will still be there and you’ll end up finding the same birth record twice.

If you have any questions about this method, send me an e-mail and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject.


About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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