Years ago, Kerry Scott was a 21-year-old woman who had just moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She knew no one in the area. Or so she thought. One day, she got a mysterious letter. A 90-year-old relative had written to Kerry to tell her she wasn’t alone at all. She had many relatives in the area, but she needed to visit local graveyards to find them. Intrigued, Kerry sought out this elderly correspondent. Sadly, Kerry discovered that the old woman had passed away shortly after writing her. Kerry picked up the clues her late relative had left her and visited one of the cemeteries listed in the letter. The people there had a surprise for her—generations of family members and packets of documents belonging to them. Thus began her love of genealogy, a lifelong quest to discover her roots, and then later, to help others find theirs.
Today, Kerry is the author of How to Use Evernote for Genealogy and a prolific blogger, genealogist, and instructor at Family Tree University. Teaching and offering assistance to those beginning their genealogical quests, she developed a methodology for getting started:
1. Start Where You Are. Most genealogists already have a mountain of papers. Don’t try to digitize everything you have by putting it in Evernote all at once. That will prove time-consuming and won’t advance your search. But the minute you get new material, enter it into Evernote. “As I work on each branch of the family,” Kerry explained, “I put documents related to each person in a folder related to the family line to which the person belongs.”
2. Develop the discipline to use Evernote. Evernote is an incredibly powerful tool for genealogists, but it’s only as good as what you put into it. Using it consistently for research is key to success with it. Kerry understands how family researchers work, and how easily information can get out of hand. Information sources are easily lost in stacks of paper. “Source citations are very important in genealogy,” Kerry said. “We have to be able to trace where we found each piece of information, so use Evernote Web Clipper instead of a printer because Evernote automatically provides URLs that help you craft your source citations.”
3. Determine your structure. Evernote gives you many options to use it in ways that make sense to you, so think about how you want to organize. Kerry organizes Evernote the same way she uses paper files. “Everybody has two sides to their family,” she said, “and so I had two cabinets. Inside each cabinet were four drawers. Each drawer represented a great-grandparent. We all have eight great-grandparents, and most people start their genealogical search there. We call these ‘the Eight Greats.’ For someone who organizes their stuff that way, using notebooks and stacks is the closest to what you’re used to.” Some people, she conceded, organize their searches differently. “Some want to put everyone who has the same last name together in a binder. Or they keep separate files containing birth certificates or marriage certificates. It depends on what you’re trying to find. For people who prefer that type of organization, tags are a great resource.”
4. Use Evernote for everything. Kerry says that the more she put into Evernote, the more useful it became. “I get frustrated when people refer to it as a note-taking app,” she said. “That’s just a tiny fraction of what it can do.” She related a story of a time she took a photograph of a spoon with a date engraved on it and put it in Evernote. She didn’t know how the spoon would fit into her search. Years later, she put in a scan of an old newspaper article, and Evernote instantly related the file to the photo of the mysterious spoon she had taken and forgotten about. Evernote found a long-lost relative’s family reunion. “There’s no way the human brain can do that,” she says.
5. Use Evernote in other aspects of your life. You’ll get used to using Evernote much faster if you make it your constant companion. Kerry keeps everything from grocery lists to owners’ manuals in Evernote. She scans her kids’ drawings into Evernote, as well, to keep a running log of her life. “Future genealogists will thank you for it,” Kerry said. “We spend so much time chasing dead people, but we forget—someday, we’ll be the dead people and others will be researching us.” She reports that she’s spent hundreds of dollars and flown around the world in search of tiny snippets of documents like school records. “What I wouldn’t give to have a shopping list or a laundry ticket from an ancestor,” Kerry mused. “It turns out that it’s the minutia of our lives is what gives us the greatest glimpses into the way we live.”
“We spend so much time chasing dead people, but we forget—someday, we’ll be the dead people and others will be researching us.” -Kerry Scott
6. Let the indexing work for you. “We get so many documents when we are involved with genealogy, we will never live long enough to index them all,” Kerry says, with a touch of the humor that permeates her blog. “Scanning every document and photo and letting Evernote index it all for you is mind blowing.” Whether it’s an immigration certificate, a picture of a headstone, a map, or a letter, Evernote’s text recognition technology can read the words and group similar items together in seconds. “If you use Evernote for nothing else,” Kerry advises, “use it for indexing.”
7. Use the audio recorder. The day you begin the search for your roots, Kerry advised, start with the Evernote audio recorder and interview relatives you already know. “Audio is great,” she says. “Sometimes, people don’t like having someone taking notes when they talk. With Evernote, you can be discreet; just put the phone down and let them talk.” (Evernote recommends obtaining permission before making audio recordings. –ed.) The most important thing, is, talk to relatives you have while they’re still here.” Later, Kerry said, you can tag the files according to your system, and they’ll pop up later during a search.
8. Use the camera. It may be difficult to get relatives to part with precious family documents, even long enough to have them copied or scanned. “There is no way your aunt is going to let you take the 150-year-old family Bible to the copy place,” Kerry laughed. “But now you have a scanner in your phone with the camera features in Evernote. It’s the fastest and most efficient way to gather old pictures, documents, anything that could be a clue.”
Kerry, who teaches Genealogy at Family Tree University, is a strong proponent of using emerging technology for a search for family roots. DNA testing has put a tremendous amount of information into people’s hands, and they’re discovering relatives that might have escaped a historical paper trail altogether. “You get an overwhelming number of cousins,” Kerry said. “It’s impossible to figure out how they’re related to you unless you can index them. There might be one little clue from years ago and one from yesterday. There’s no way I can relate them but Evernote helps link these things together and see patterns. You couldn’t have created a better tool for genealogists if you’d set out to do that.”
Readers! You can win a copy of Kerry’s book, How to Use Evernote for Genealogy. The rules are simple: Leave a comment on this blog post telling us about the most amazing connection you’ve found during your genealogy research. We’ll read through them all and pick the winner! Official rules at http://bit.ly/28Rthb0
This contest is now closed. Congratulations to Michael Pierce, who won the book. Special thanks to Family Tree Books for graciously providing the prizes for this contest!