Using task lists to stay organized

Family history research is a lot like detective work. Sometimes, you will be able to quickly find the information you need about a person or a family, but more often than not, you have to work to find the information you’re looking for. In fact, except for the obvious case of vital dates and place names (and they’re not as simple as it appears on the surface), you may not know what you’re looking for until you find it. Instead, in the process of reading through the documents available to you, you find little intriguing details, such as an allusion to a girl trapped in a mine shaft, a brief mention of someone having contracted smallpox or cholera, or Quaker meeting minutes in which a person you are studying is voted out of the meeting, In fact, these are examples of tantalizing details I’ve come across in my own research. Usually, I would have no idea of what to do with them at the time, so all I could do is record them and (temporarily) move on. In reporter or detective jargon, these are “leads”, hints or details that can lead us to more information as we chase them down, even if at the start we have no idea how helpful they’ll be. I started to say important, but that’s not really right. If a girl is trapped in a mine shaft, that is important. It may be that we will have ha hard fitting it into a coherent narrative, or even finding any more details than we have. It may be that we can find no corroboration or additional sources, but if we can, then we’ve taken a big step towards writing an interesting chapter of our family history.

Different people will have their own preferred method of organizing leads and preliminary information, and I do not pretend that there is any one best solution for everyone. Instead, I’ll briefly consider a feature of both Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com: task lists. When you come across a piece of information that you need to investigate further, you need to record that somewhere. At first, you may just be able to remember it, or write it down on a notepad, but as your family tree grows, and as the number of documents and photographs you’ve collected grows, a more systematic approach can really be helpful. In Family Tree Maker, there is a task pane in Plan View, and it is likely the first place you will see the a task list.

task list  in TM3

There are several things to notice here. First of all, the task has a priority. I set it to low because this is an item I want to come back to when I have time. It’s not keeping me from making progress in other areas, nor is there much of a risk of making mistakes if I don’t investigate this lead right away. Finally, it’s an interesting story, one I really want to investigate, but it’s not a vital date or other data element that is central to genealogy. So, by setting the priority to low, I’m not saying it’s unimportant or uninteresting. Rather, I’m setting my own priorities. Next, note that the task is associated with a specific person. You can create general tasks, and this is normally the only type of task you will create in Plan View, but most tasks will be associated with a specific person. This is important because, most of the time, you will move from one person to another while doing research, and you need to be able to keep track of what you want to do when you come back to the person you’re working on. The task has a creation date, and this can be important. You may wish to filter by task age so that old tasks aren’t simply forgotten. Or, on the other hand, you may write something down and come back to it thinking, “Why did I want to do that?” It may be that a task simply is relevant anymore, and knowing its age can help you decide whether or not to keep it.

person tasks in FTM3If you look at the toolbar above the tasks, you will see several buttons. One allows you to create new tasks. This is the only one that is enabled (not grayed out) because no tasks are selected. There are also buttons that allow you to edit tasks (for example, to change the wording), delete them, remove completed tasks, or apply a filter. A filter is a rule that can be used to select a subset of tasks, making it easier for you to see what you need to focus on. You can also print your task list in Plan View.

Most of the time, though, you will be working on specific people and will want to work with tasks associated with people. In Person View, select a particular person and be sure the Tree tab is selected (not Details). Then what you see will be something like this. Notice that there are toolbars. The one on top allows you to select Facts (the birthdates, marriage dates and so on that you usually think of when you think of genealogy), Media (usually photographs and scanned documents), Notes (additional details that you want to keep track of in your family tree – think of these as marginal notes), Web Links (bookmarks for websites that contain further information or are helpful in the context of this person), and Tasks. Since the last of these (tasks) is selected, we have secondary toolbar just below it which is very much like the toolbar we just saw in Plan View. It is here that you can create tasks linked to a particular person. You don’t have to go back here to view these tasks, you see all of them in Plan View (that way you don’t forget!) but you can edit tasks, delete them, or mark them complete here in the same way.

What if you don’t use Family Tree Maker or similar software? You can still maintain task lists using paper or your favorite note management tool. Evernote is quite popular among genealogists,it is device independent and has some nice  features for sorting notes. If you want to associate tasks with specific people, you probably want a method of assigning unique identifiers to people, and then you can use that identifier to tag the task. It would take us too far afield to discuss schemes for assigning identifiers to people right now, but if you use a software tool, it will probably do this work for you. There are several numbering schemes you can use, or you can use names and sequence numbers for uniqueness.

A final option worth considering is a general purpose database. It requires more work to set up the database schemas, but you can store information about people using the database management system (DBMS) of your choice: MySQL, PostgresSQL, Microsoft Access, FileMaker Pro, etc. Realistically, though, this is a lot of work, and unless you’re a computer programmer or database administrator, you might not want to take it on. On the other hand, if you want to go this route, there’s a real opportunity to develop a tool that will benefit the genealogical community.

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