"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
September 02, 2015
A Top Tool for your Family History Toolbox
by Kathryn Grant

When you start searching for information about your ancestors, you quickly realize that relying on one record alone is risky. One record rarely tells the whole story; in fact, one record alone can be badly misleading.

Here’s an example. Perhaps because of her unusual name, Philenda Sawyer was enumerated in one census as a male. But every other record shows her correct gender, including other census records and two marriage records. However, someone apparently relied on just this one record to enter the family’s information in Family Tree, and Philenda was incorrectly entered as a male.

Here’s another example, one of my favorites. A woman who married into my family line tended to report herself as aging less than 10 years between censuses that were taken 10 years apart. Finally, when she died in her 50s, her age at death was given as 39. (I totally get that.)

But when we realize it’s risky to rely on just one record and we start looking for multiple records, we run into a different problem. With the vast online resources available today, we’re likely to find a flood of information — more than we can easily retain in our minds.

“Wait — how old was John Bescoby in the 1851 census?” Or, “I thought the 1871 census had a different birthplace for Mary Stuffins.” How do you keep it all straight?

The solution is to use some kind of tracking tool (also called “research log”). There is a variety from which to choose. They may be detailed or simple, paper or electronic. All have one goal in common, though — helping you capture and organize the information you find about your ancestors.

My personal favorite is a tracking tool called the timeline grid. The timeline grid is a simple table you create in a word processor or spreadsheet program. It centers on one nuclear family (i.e., a father, mother, and their children). It’s most useful for countries and time periods with regular censuses. Every census gets a column, and every person gets a row.

You can read more detail and see examples in this FamilySearch wiki article and this slide presentation.

Using the timeline grid has changed the way I do family history. It’s made research easier and more fun. I’m more organized, and I don’t find myself unintentionally repeating work I’ve already done.

Here are some other advantages of the timeline grid:

  • It’s flexible: I can adapt it to the needs of individual families or research projects.

  • It’s compact — it shows a lot of data in a meaningful way in a small space. I can easily see what I’ve found and what I’m still looking for.

  • It provides a snapshot of a family through time.

  • It makes patterns more obvious (for instance, a woman not aging a full ten years between censuses).

  • It makes conflicting data easier to see so it can be resolved.

  • The timeline grid is easy for someone else to read and make sense of, even if they didn’t do the original research.

  • If you keep your timeline grids in a cloud service like Google Drive or Dropbox you can access them wherever there’s an Internet connection. In addition, you can easily share them with other researchers.

  • The timeline grid is a useful guide when adding names to Family Tree and clearing them for temple work.

Will the timeline grid work for you? That’s for you to decide. But one thing is certain: you’ll avoid a lot of wasted time and headaches if you find and use a tracking tool that works for you.


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About Kathryn Grant

Kathryn Grant is a user assistance professional with a passion for usability and process improvement. She also loves family history and enjoys the challenge and reward of building her family tree.

As a child, she lived outside the United States for four years because of her father's job. This experience fueled her natural love of words and language, and also taught her to appreciate other cultures.

Kathryn values gratitude, teaching, learning, differences, and unity. She loves looking at star-filled skies, reading mind-stretching books, listening to contemporary Christian music, attending the temple, and eating fresh raspberries.

Kathryn teaches Sunday family history classes at the BYU Family History Library, and presents frequently at family history events. For more information, visit her Family History Learning Resources page

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