Friday, February 24, 2012

Digging a Little Deeper - Digital Vs. Paper

Yesterday, I asked "What format do you prefer for genealogy information?" I am always taken aback with what strikes a cord with readers. Apparently that one did. I had many comments on the blog itself as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

One thing that surprised me was how many people are either completely digital or mostly digital in their genealogy research. That's not a bad thing just not exactly how I operate.

Let me bring you a more specific scenario and see how you respond.

When you are working on a specific challenge or brick wall how do you go about your analysis? I am not talking about regular fact finding genealogy research where you gather information about ancestors. I'm talking about that one (or two if it is a husband and wife/father and son, etc) ancestor that stops you dead in your tracks and makes you think.

When I am working on a really tough problem I can't work from my database or my digital files. I need to see the relevant documents spread out in front of me, side by side. I need to be able to read documents over and over in case I've missed something. I have one document, a deposition, that I acquired five years ago that I am still reading and gleaning information from.

I just can't do this sort of thing electronically.  I can do background research online, create a research plan on the computer, type up my notes in a word processor, etc but I have to do this on paper.

Even if all the documents were stored in a software program, I couldn't bring them up on the computer side by side big enough to compare them.

So, tell me, am I unique in needing visual print outs for this kind of analysis? Are the rest of you doing this on the computer?

They say there are different styles of learning. Maybe there are different styles for analysis too. But I was really surprised by all of you who keep everything stored solely in the computer. 

Now I'm starting to think I'm old fashioned! :)


  1. Consider that you can always print out your digital copy when you need to stare at it on paper, but you can't bring up the paper copy on your computer at any time you might need to see it while doing research.

  2. I guess I see analysis and research as two separate activities. For me research is identifying resources, planning, seeking out, retrieving and documenting. Analysis is what I do back at the house/office when I take an in-depth look at what I've find and compare it to previous findings and any new findings.

    I think there are two items that separate me from others. 1) I don't currently bring a laptop/ipad with me when I do "research" [most of my research tends to be offline] and 2) I don't typically do research and analysis at the same time.

    I think other people might be able to multi-task better and do both of those at the same time. I think my brain can only handle so much.

  3. Just want to reiterate that I don't think there is any right or wrong in regards to our personal styles or methods. Just didn't realize I was quite so out of date.

  4. I'm with you on having to spread everything out on the table and see it all at once. Paper is necessary to me for doing complicated analyses.

  5. You are definitely not alone in this. I love my genealogy program, using OneNote, blogging and all of my other technological products, but the only way I truly "get" information is to have it spread out in front of me on paper. I can see things on the papers I never would be able to on a computer. Plus, I need all of my documents in front of me for a given problem, which is not possible if I only have a digitized version.

  6. Marian,

    I suspect you're ahead of the rest of us as end up with more info on a few people than I have on 20,000 individuals in the book. Because I cannot get to primary data in New England have taken what I've been given and since one of those researchers was Sybil Noyes of the "Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire" I have a higher level of trust than with most other researchers. She is a descendant of Whitten of Maine but didn't give me the benefit of including herself in her research - I found her in the census. Some day I dream of using your approach as you're absolutely right, you couldn't show everything on the computer unless....

    The latest trend is using multiple monitors and I've seen a setup in the computer store with three. Maybe that would work ; ) Unfortunately I don't have space for more than one unless I hook up my 32 HDTV.

    The other thing is paper in binders is more flexible than digital data as we think everyone has a computer but many people you likely deal with don't and much appreciate a paper copy. On one trip to Nova Scotia I took a laptop and portable printer for just such cases. I didn't have to use the printer much, though.

    Cheers, Ray

    Cheers, Ray

  7. I much prefer digital copies over paper, maybe because I had a computer before I became interested in genealogy. Almost everything I have on paper has been digitized, all documents and records have been. Everything that hasn't been digitized (mostly pages from books) is in two notebooks and I hope to get them scanned soon.

    For analysis, I'd rather view documents on my computer where I can zoom in instead of using a magnifying glass when need be. I use Transcript for transcribing records so I'm not constantly looking back and forth between paper and my screen. When I need to compare two records, it's no problem to open them side by side. I don't get paper copies of records anymore unless that is the only option at the repository. If I do have a paper copy, I scan it before starting the analysis process.

  8. I'm with you in separating research and analysis. I like to get the research done and then analyze the information. I also spread things out and like to see the documents in front of me and don't take a laptop or other device with me to do research.

  9. Marian,

    I see your point, and I hadn't commented on your earlier blog post with the "brick wall" in mind. My comment was from the day to day stuff. The good news, for me, is that I DO print out documents, be that a Census Record, or something out that I have digitally, but I try to keep everything in my genealogy management system. Digital stuff and all.

    Having said that, for my "home work" assignment, from your 10 Tips for a Brick Wall, working on Randy Seaver's brick wall, I did print some stuff out, to spread it out on the table. But printing, for me, is almost a last resort, but I have to use the computer to keep some of the details sorted out for me. But then it shows me that I didn't look in the right place. OR I might need to generate a report differently.

    I also want to say that Family History is a hobby for me, so I may not be on a deadline to finish a task. I have lot's of ToDo lists (in my genealogy database management system).


  10. I was doing genealogy long before personal computers, so I still need the paper to do analysis. I like to hold and read the deed. I like spreading the papers out and seeing things together. I even have to print out hard copies of articles I am writing to edit them. I just can't do it on screen. The computer is a convenience but nothing supplants paper.

  11. I think that part of the issue is that we are all researching different documents, locations and time periods. Someone researching a 20th century brick wall is going to use different resources (more likely typed) than someone like me who is doing mostly 18th & 19th century deed and probate research and town record books. I'm dealing with a lot of icky handwriting.

  12. Analyzing and Research
    Usually my analyzing and research are done separately. I live a 3 hour drive from The Family History Library in Salt Lake City. I don't get there often and when I do, my time is valuable. Before I go I prioritize the books and films I need to look at. Every once in a while I find something that leads me in a direction I did not plan on going so you could say I get sidetracked, but this sometimes pays off. For instance the day I was pulling a book on Ohio Marriages from the shelf and noticed an Ohio Divorce book next to it. I pulled the divorce book out as well and hit pay dirt.

    Paper or Digital
    Much of my personal research was done before digitization on my then PAF program was possible. In fact, when I first started family history PAF was a DOS program. Things have come along way since then. I also inherited my aunts genealogy, a whole filing cabinet + worth which was all done before digitization was possible. So I must say most of my documents are on paper. Now my local Family History Center has a wonderful scanner copier, I hope to digitize my records, but plan on keeping the paper copy also. I also have some documents that are digitized only, but plan to print them out once I get everything entered into my Legacy program. I guess I am saying that I like both ways. Sometimes you might notice something in a paper copy that you would not notice in a digital copy and vice versa.

  13. I'm with Linda in much preferring digital images of documents, so that I can zoom up close on that icky handwriting. I also use tricks like turning the image into a negative, which often makes difficult sections more legible. Rather than have photocopies of documents spread out on a desk, I compare digital images side by side using a split screen. I've been using a computer for genealogy since 1985, starting with a DOS program :-)

  14. I systematically use digital as storage, with a hard copy on paper as backup. All original documents are in secure archive. For analysis I will have all three at my finger tips!

  15. Hi there, Marian,
    More and more, I'm all digital, all the way. That said, I write analytical research reports, so after I've digitized the "asset," it gets tagged with a source label citation which can be easily converted to a word processing document. To that document, I'll generally transcribe the item, add separate comments or summarize research about the source or it's contents. I may summarize emails exchanged in the research process. Then it all gets wrapped up in a pdf file. For me, digitization alone is simply an approach to storage and retrieval.
    You wrote, "I have one document, a deposition, that I acquired five years ago that I am still reading and gleaning information from." ---Ohhh, me too! So, my word/pdf files are even versioned--v1(2003), v2(2006) ....
    You also wrote about separating the research from the analysis. Though I'm starting to feel a bit alone on this, my research is an analytical process. (Which is probably why my "research logs" take more the form of analytical outlines.)
    Wikipedia defines "research" as the "search for knowledge ... to solve ... problems, prove new ideas, or develop new theories." The entry goes on to talk about "Research in the humanities," saying "[such] scholars usually do not search for the ultimate correct answer to a question, but instead explore the issues and details that surround it."
    The same source defines "analysis" as "the process of breaking a complex topic or substance into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it."
    Great topic! --GeneJ

  16. Marian,

    Just to get some semantics out of the way -- to me, "research" is far more than finding records (and all that that entails). The analysis of these records is part of the research process. That being said, most of my research is done at home in my office, and on my computer.

    When I go to the Archives or other repository, I either print records from microfilm or take digital photographs of unmicrofilmed records. The paper records I scan as soon as I get home.

    With the digitized records able to be looked at in front of me, I usually start by completely transcribing, word-for-word, all of the records. Deeds, wills, court proceedings, even tax records, census records, and vital records. This is most easily/quickly accomplished if the original record has been digitized, where I can split my screen between the record image (as large as I need it to be to easily read it) and MS Word. In many cases, especially deeds where the original record has a lot of "boilerplate" language--after I have completely transcribed and read it word for word to be sure that that is truly what it is--I can then abstract the document to highlight only the important details.

    At this point, I have the original record, the transcription, and the abstract all saved on my computer. I find it far easier to compare and contrast the typed transcriptions/abstracts during the analysis stage than to try to compare and contrast the original records on paper in front of me.

    I also use tables to compare information across records. For example, tables showing the household compositions ("tickmarks") in the pre-1850 census records side-by-side, or a table of all evidence from various records relating to a specific life event. Again, this is not something that I would be able to do on paper looking at the originals, but something that is very easily accomplished on my PC.

    Of course, there is no right way and no wrong way, but this is a method that has worked well for me, developed over the course of a few hundred client projects over the past few years. But what works for me may not work as well for others.

  17. I'm mainly a digital person. But there's a place for paper in my world. When I was looking @family photos with my aunt, I took notes as she talked. As expected, the notes were muliple pieces of information. I had to lay it all out on paper to make sense of it--kind of like putting together a puzzle--before inputting it into my software.

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  19. Marian - As much as I love the ease of searching digitalized records,I print out on paper. I still rather have photocopies to study,plus my notebooks,in bed. I have made many discoveries,half-asleep,looking at records ~ especially when studying difficult handwriting.

  20. I think I'm with you Marian. I have the different certificates spread out, and to analyse them I use lots of notes, scribbles really. For instance, I am forever noting down marriage dates, and dates of birth of children and their death and marriage dates - adding and subtracting to see if the children can feasibly be from the same parents. It's surprising when you actually do this on paper that you notice the anomalies. One example where my pen and paper analysis was vital is when a "sister" of my great grandfather that experienced, long time researchers from my family had all insisted was related, could not possibly be a sibling, as a brother, noted in the Family Bible was born 3 months later.

    It was only by laying all the different certificates out and checking them twice that I was able to separate the "real" siblings from the assumed

    Where I keep my records, and how they are stored is not the question

  21. I am more in tune with you...being a visual / touchy kinda gal. I lay it all out and talk my way through it...out loud!

  22. I think that aspect of the concern is that we are all searching for different records, destinations and routines. Someone searching for a Last 100 years components wall structure is going to use different options (more likely typed) than someone like me who is doing mostly Eighteenth & 1800s title and probate analysis and city history guides. I'm interacting with a lot of icky hand writing.

    Digital Learning Trend

  23. On your other post, I mentioned my Excel-sheets for analysis in the comments. Here's an example of such a sheet, about the Parmenter family in Essex, England (that later shows up in Massachusetts). These sheets might help discovering family relations or groupings, by combining information and sort accordingly. In this case, I've added district information (hundreds) to the towns mentioned, to be able to group events in a different way. I've combined information of FamilySearch, the NEHGR, and the Essex Archives Online, to see if I can get a better overview of the different families with the surname of Parmenter in that area. Here's the (shortened) link to the sheet (on Google Docs):

    I'm still working with it, and I might combine sheets later, or add even more information, if I think it could be helpful.

  24. I am with you Marian because even though I have copies of my research kept on my computer I also have paper copies. I like to lay out my paper copies and study them that way. I find it a lot easier and faster to move the sheets around on my desk than on the computer. Plus I can always go to the computer to enlarge a document if I don't want to use a magnifier. I think that using both methods may not work for everyone but that doesn't mean that it is old fashioned.

  25. I like both. I have an awful habit of misplacing my paper copies when I pull them out to look at them. Now that I have started using OneNote, I have them organized in folders and in one place. I will print out, and study when needed, and put in a paper folder for future use (saving paper and ink). I do not read well on the computer, my concentration and focus just doesn't accommodate for it. I have learned much reading the comments. Thank you for the opportunity to learn more.

  26. Having sent a reply to Marian, I will reiterate here. Marian, We think the same way and act along the same lines. Maybe if computers were around for access 50 years ago I would think different. But to many times that document has been transcribed incorrectly and I want the real thing. I also am digging way into the past and not the recent past so that also means more transcriptions.

  27. Many of my ancestor's records were handwritten in French or Spanish as New Orleans was under both flags at diffferent times in the 18th and 19th centuries. I use a paper printout or copy so I can extract every morsel. Because these records were created on paper, I prefer using paper to understand them. It seems more natural to me.

  28. At 27 comments, it is interesting that the early responses tended toward the digital, while the later ones tended toward the paper. A few recent ones pretty well reflected by bias toward more paper... that is what I 'grew up' with. I love to see what people do with spreadsheets... but spreadsheets didn't come into my life until very late, and I still cannot effective use them, because I was never taught, and, have never had a real reason to learn. Roll that over a few times. I can do what 'comes natural' from repetition. I cannot do well what I do not do regularly. It seems to me that is what I'm seeing throughout this great discussion! ;-)

  29. Marian, I do file away in a bin all documents I receive, but not after scanning them into images files or pdfs, from then on its all digital. Like Michael Hait, I transcribe everything, often in conjunction with other researchers, and enter it into my database. I then publish it all online on my website - images, pdfs, transcriptions, etc. As far as spreading it out in front of me, that just means more browser tabs. I use the features of my website like the Improbability List to help me identify relationships in the data, inconsistencies, and areas to focus my research. When I do in depth analysis and proof arguments, I include these in my database as well as detailed notes and articles, again all published on my website with links to persons and sources. My goal is too keep everything together, and especially all relevant data in 1 single GEDCOM file.

  30. My biggest trouble is that paper and I are not friends. Paper gets man-handled by my children, no matter how careful I am to keep it and them separate. All those notes they sent home from school? AAAGGGGHHHH! So for me the whole safety net is making everything digital. That said, I use a pencil and paper many times making notes as I flip through documents and sometimes find that printing out the documents is beneficial in organizing things in my mind. Altogether, though, I'm heavily digital (I don't even have a filing cabinet!) I also find that much of the time all my hand-written notes get scanned in and archived as well and then in seconds I can find any document I want to review. Whether it is the original, the transcription, my notes or random thoughts that end up on my someday-to-do list.

  31. Wow you generated a word-storm on this topic! I started FH pre-computers so my natural affiliation is paper. I find it easier to digest what I'm reading (work or family history) by seeing it on paper and then strategising. Having said that I do like having documents scanned and information to hand so when I pick up my laptop I have everything to hand.. can't say it's quite there yet but it's definitely a plus. But I do find it's much easier to forget when you've just taken a photo/scan. As you say, that's me. Maybe it all depends when you started on this journey and how your mind works.

  32. I'm in the process of transferring my files to all digital, keeping, of course, the really important paper documents. I live in a small house and the paper files were getting to be a problem to store. Plus, I was tired of having to dig around when I wanted to check something. I had a lot on digital, but not enough. I've been scanning all I can into text files in Word and I have folders for each ancestor (I had a system I started long ago and have just elaborated on it). Documents are pdf or tiff. It's no problem to pop up 2 documents side by side to compare them. Or I just print them out. For the record, I'm 66, but have been a happy computer hacker since 1983!

  33. Marian, Nowadays I find myself collecting information in digital form wherever possible. On my Family History Library research earlier this month, I gathered almost all of my research on my laptop and camera. I came home with a handful of paper copies and that was just because the bindings on a couple of books were too tight to be able to scan with my Magic Wand. I prefer to digitize as much as possible.

    That said, when dealing with a particularly sticky problem, I'm finding it easier to put together a notebook and put all of my information in it. That way I can take it out, rearrange it, make notes, make spreadsheets, etc. My brain just doesn't seem to be able to handle all the pieces of information on one or two computer screens. I still use my computer but paper seems to help me solve problems.

    I'm thinking it's my age. I grew up pre-computer so in some situations, I just think better with paper.

  34. I find this obsession with paper quite amusing. I went paperless in my personal life a couple of years ago. Even a few years prior I went paperless in my genealogy record keeping as well and wouldn’t even consider looking back.

    As for having documents on screen side by side for review, it’s easily accomplished. I have a iMac with two 24” displays and all the desktop space I need. With the Mac you can even create multiple desktops on either or both screens. It’s a no-brainer.

    It isn’t like digital storage is something new. It’s been the way of the organized world for more than a decade and progressing on an almost yearly basis. Time is long overdue for all these genealogists, stuck in the 90s and priding themselves on their bulky, paper systems of notebooks, color coded files, labels etc. to get with the new millennium. The overwhelming power, speed, and convenience of modern-day digital storage, and the ease at which it can be accomplished (scanning and all) with just an iPhone, makes all these paper systems a wasteful thing of the past.

    To choose otherwise is to be left in the dust along with the buggy whip and even the compact disc.

    1. Rick,

      You'll be happy to know I have changed my ways since 2012. I now function with a two monitor setup. Not really sure how I could do anything without it now. No need to look at paper side by side. I don't do much with paper these days except for the occasional brainstorming session.