Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Using Microsoft Access 2013 for Genealogy: Part 1




Let's be real for a minute. As genealogists, one of the worst mistakes we can make is being our own worst enemy. Many moons ago, I did this through being disorganized. But as I wrangled my digital files into submission and limited all of my papers to a single binder, organization became one of my greatest strengths.

Now that I'm organized, my new enemy is inefficiency.

Inefficiency: The Genealogy Edition

Let me set a scene for you. You find a family group sheet or a report you really like to track certain information about a family. Maybe it's your research log, or tracking vital records for a family, or any type of family group sheet--anything you use to analyze your research. Naturally, you have copies of those reports for different ancestors. So the number of them begins to grow exponentially.

But then what happens when it's time to update them? Do you hunt down each one of them, and update them individually? When it's time to delete the outdated ones or backups, there's no easy way to do that. And what happens if you find a new report you like more, or want to make changes to the one you've been using? Do you copy and paste all of that information from your old form onto your new form? That takes forever!




The moment I have a blank document where I'm typing information I already know, about people I've already discovered, that to me is inefficiency. For a long time, it seemed like a necessary evil because I didn't know of any programs that could avoid that needless repetition.

Then I discovered Microsoft Access.

Introducing: Microsoft Access

Microsoft Access is a great source of untapped potential for genealogy. In terms of a learning curve, the transition is minimal--it uses the same menu and command structure as the Microsoft Office ribbon. Learning the unique functions of Access was simple. Everything I needed to know, I learned from YouTube. Creating a fully customized database is no more difficult than creating a PowerPoint presentation

Looking at you, Evernote!
No coding, no tinkering with new platforms or websites. No more apps bricking up my phone. No more wondering if some website is going to get hacked and all of my data is going to disappear. And no more sacrificing functionality because a website like Evernote seems to think that fully functional rich-text editing is some kind of luxury.


For me, Microsoft Access's single greatest strength was how it unified my research tasks. I don't have research logs, document tracking, DNA matching lists, repository contact information, and other such documents and information scattered all over my computer and different platforms anymore. All of that information is organized and working together in the same stand-alone program.

How else does it help my productivity? In Microsoft Access, the data entry mode and creating reports from that data are two different steps, not one. If I create a family group sheet in Microsoft Word, the only way for the information to end up on that family group sheet is if I type it on there. The same is true of Excel, OneNote, and Evernote. To create a new document or page means I have to copy and paste, or type, for every additional report I create. The creation of the form and the data entry and pretty much the same step.


In Microsoft Access, the form on the left creates the report on the right

 In Access, this is not the case. It allows me to create forms for data entry. I enter the data, and it saves that information into a spreadsheet. Once that information is on the spreadsheet, it's there until I delete it. So I enter the data ONCE--for any person, from any family line--on the same data entry form. It will store it all that data together on the same sortable spreadsheet, which I can export in a variety of formats. But I'm not just limited to displaying that information on a spreadsheet.

When I want the information on a specific individual or family, I can easily create a report from Microsoft Access. It takes the information from my spreadsheet, and will create any combination or number of reports that I want it to create. It will sort, organize, or reorganize the data on that report in whatever way I wish. I can change the report content or design without having to retype any information I've already entered. It simply pulls all of the same data from the spreadsheet, and enters it for me on the report.

No more hunting down a specific document to update, which is already outdated the second I finish it. I don't even create reports until I need them anymore. Every document I create is up to date, existing in real time with the rest of my research. All I have to do is backup my database, and it backs up literally hundreds of forms--all at the same time.

If the definition of efficiency is only having to do something one, Microsoft Access is the only program I've found that allows me to be efficient in everything I do.


NERDGASM!

If you're spending more time tinkering with documents and websites than getting your research done, maybe it's time for a change.

And maybe that change should be Microsoft Access.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Family History Library: Crushed by a Waterfall of Knowledge

I recently took my first trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

I have wanted to make that trip for so long, and I finally got a chance to go. I'll be the first to tell you that I expected a Shangri-La of records, where I would not be in want of discovery because it would simply be everywhere. I imagined my most productive day magnified a thousand times. I couldn't wait to be crushed by a waterfall of knowledge.

As usual, how little my fantasy resembles reality was a comedy of errors from start to finish. I never imagined I could be so prepared for an experience, yet be so entirely unready.

How I Prepared

I use Microsoft Access 2013 for all of my cataloging, list making, and report generating needs. This includes creating a research list of books and microfilm specific to the Family History Library. I generated this list over a long period of time, until the cost of requesting all of the microfilm for use in my local family history center exceeded the cost of a trip to Salt Lake City.

I checked every roll of microfilm to make sure it was stored on-site at the Family History Library. A certain portion of their collection is stored off-site at the Shadow Mountain Records vault, and needs to be requested in advance. My research was focused primarily on verifying vital statistics of my father's lines in Virginia and North Carolina. Nothing exotic or difficult. While the volume of stuff I wanted to look up was probably beyond my grasp for a first time trip, nothing I desired was exotic enough to present a real challenge.

No. It all fell apart... because I am human.

This could have been us, Family History Library, but you playin'

Mistake #1: No Experience Using Microfilm

My first mistake was focusing the bulk of my day on microfilmed records, when I have only used microfilm twice in my entire life. The first time I was 16 and especially helpless because I was having my first real repository experience. The lady who brought me to the Cecil County Historical Society looked up the obituary for me, and that was the end of it. The second time I looked up an obituary for my grandfather at the public library when I was 17, which I don't remember being at all strenuous.

But then again, I'd never seen a demon in my life quite like this machine.


My version of genealogy hell is having to load and unload one of these contraptions for eternity

The missionary at the desk showed me how to load the reels onto the machine, and it couldn't have appeared more simple. But I swear, I found every wrong combination of ways to insert microfilm into that accursed machine. In a choice that should have been a 50/50 shot, I somehow turned the odds against myself even more. If I was lucky enough to get the film loaded onto the machine, the images would be backwards, upside down, or both, and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong.

So I'd try to pull the reels off, and they'd be on there so tightly I'd have to give them a good tug. One or both of the ends of the reel would fly out of my hands and tumble to the floor. I'd pick them up and try again. I spent more of my time loading and unloading the stupid machine than actually finding records.

Once I'd find a record I wanted to copy, I'd have to pull it off of the infuriating the machine, take it over to the ScanPro, a slightly less infuriating machine, and somehow get the reels onto it. Then I'd have to find the image I wanted all over again. Then scan the record, print it, and rewind the film. Walk back over to my little microfilm cubby of darkness... then go back to get my microfilm spool I left on the ScanPro... every... single... time. Without fail.


I was reaching Infomercial levels of stupidity, and it was only 11 o'clock in the morning.

Mistake #2: Numbers are my Enemy

Anyone who has used FamilySearch.org is probably aware that they are super at providing the roll numbers for their microfilm collection. If you've ever found an indexed entry for a family member, and wanted to look up the original on microfilm, you're in luck. Check the bottom of the page, and there will usually be a film number and a reference ID number to help you do it.

The film numbers on the U.S. and Canada film floor range from 5 to 9 digit numbers. For someone like me who has a hard time reading numbers without transposing them horribly, digging through those drawers was not a pleasant experience. I'm still trying to figure out how the numbers of the outside of the drawers corresponded to what was in the drawers, because it was never all that clear to me. I tried to figure out a range as best I could and started yanking two or three drawers open until I finally found what I wanted.

It was a slow, cumbersome process in which I ended up pulling three wrong rolls by accident, and having to put them all back. Which on its own is not a huge deal. But all of these mistakes were starting to add up in terms of lost time.

Mistake #3: Fine Print

Once I plowed through every single roll of microfilm I had on my list, I'd been in the library for five hours already. I hadn't eaten, which was a huge mistake. I had about an hour or so left to look at books. So I headed up to the third floor where the books are supposed to be...

SPOILER: True to her word, my name was actually in the book

I was searching for this book. As I headed over to the 929 section on the third floor, I saw they were all reference books. I knew I had to be in the wrong place, so I asked a missionary. He said to head to the first floor. Back to the elevator I went...

So I head over to the shelf where the book is supposed to be. As soon as I get to the shelf, I can tell something is wrong. There are too few books on the shelf for this to be the right place. So I go to find someone to help me.

We pasted the call number I had copied from the FamilySearch catalog back into the website... and for whatever reason, the computers in the library were bringing up every book but that one I wanted. I've never seen a call number cataloging system like theirs, and I wasn't impressed by how difficult it was making a very simple process. I also had to spend a good five minutes convincing the woman helping me that I wasn't nuts, the book I wanted existed, no that other book there is not it, and no it wouldn't be digitized because it was published in 1996.

Eventually, however, she did arrive at the cause of the problem:




If the book you want is labeled as High Density, it means the book you want is stored in a part of the library you are not allowed to access. You have to head down to floor B1 and ask someone at the window to retrieve the book for you. Give them the number in the green circle. My example here is 0293154. Trust me. There's no less than 20 minutes of my life I could get back had I known this information. They will pass you a clipboard and ask you to sign out the books you're using. When you're done, take the books back to the window.

Mistake #4: Budgeting Time

I knew this was going to be difficult for me the entire time I was planning this trip. Time management is a particular weakness of mine. But I recognize that the only way I'm going to get better is by gaining more experience in research settings.

Current Status: This
That said, I honestly wish I would have gone after the book first. I wouldn't have gotten as many copies from the microfilm, but the microfilm records didn't provide any additional insight like I thought they would. Had I gotten less accomplished, I'd still be in the same place I am right now. Now I know that the indexes from FamilySearch haven't left anything out. What you see on the index is what you get on the original image, at least for every record I tried find.

This one book ended up being the best find of my whole trip. But I had already been on so many goose chases that by the time I had the book in front of me, I only had 30 minutes to use it before I had to leave.

So I whipped out my new camera and started taking photos of the pages. It did a fantastic job. It was the first thing I was able to do without a struggle all day.

The book was massive. I didn't have the time or the desire to photograph the whole thing. So I checked the index and copied the other sections of the book most relevant to me. It was a good decision.

Overall, I'm glad I put myself into this situation. All of it gave me experience, and served to make me savvier than I'd been before. Knowing what I would do differently now is exactly what is going to make next time so much better.



Until then, I need to go recover...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Genetic Genealogy for Beginners, Part 2





For part 1, click here!


This round, we'll be talking about:
  • How to read chromosome browsers
  • What matches looks like
  • False matches (IBD vs. IBS)
  • Matching criteria from different testing companies

Next time...
Introduction to GEDmatch.com!