5 Things You Can Do in Genealogy When You’re Short on Time

5 Things You Can Do in Genealogy When You're Short on Time

“What family history tasks could a busy person do if they have irregular 15-minute time chunks?” Devon Noel Lee of A Patient Genealogist recently asked me that great question. As much as all of us would love to spend uninterrupted days on end exploring our family history, reality is much closer to “I have 15 minutes before my next appointment. What can I do now?” Here are 5 things you can do to be productive.

1. Scan and Label Photographs

No, you’re not going to scan and label all of your photographs in this time. But those that you do in that 15 minutes are more than you had done before! (Check out my post on how to label as you scan.)

2. Transcribe a Document

Transcribing a document is a great way to get more out of your research. You’ll pick up clues that go unnoticed when you’re just scanning “for the good stuff.” Even if you don’t get all the way through it in 15 minutes or you get stuck on a few words, it’s often enough time for a good first pass through.

3. Record a Memory

We get so focused on the past that we sometimes forget that we are our family history. Our stories and memories count every bit as much as the one’s we’re trying to save of our ancestors. (Stuck trying to think of a topic? FamilySearch has a list of 58 questions to get you started.)

4. Do a Census Search

I bet there is someone in your family tree right now who you don’t have all of their census records. Go find some. (This works best if you have a current to-do list, so that you can keep track of what you’ve searched for and what you haven’t.)

5. Add to Your To-Do List

This seems counter-productive, but it actually helps in the long run. Having a good to-do list –whether you keep in on paper, in your genealogy software, a spreadsheet, or Evernote — helps keep our thoughts and our efforts organized. Brainstorm about a genealogy problem you have and the resources you want to explore. Once you have a list, you can use that as starting point when you have a spare 15 minutes to work in. (“Hmmm, I need to explore land records for great-great-grandpa.” Then you can spend your 15 minutes looking on FamilySearch to see if they are online or on microfilm, and preparing for when you have a longer stretch of time to actually use the records.) It’s all in the preparation.

If you want even more ideas, check out these 5 more things you can do.

What genealogy-related things do you do when you have only 15 minutes to work on it? Leave a comment below — I’d love to hear your suggestions!

5 Things You Can Do in Genealogy When You're Short on Time


Posted: January 19, 2016.

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  • In 15 minutes, I usually pick one person from my list of people I want to delve into and look specifically for that person- but I don’t just search willienillie. I go through each record category. It’s time consuming, but at least I can go through a complete category.

  • I have found an ancestor’s estate record I want to purchase. I made a quick 3-minute phone call to the courthouse in Illinois where the records are and they gave me the exact information they needed to search for the record. That phone call will hopefully expedite my request. I always call ahead of time to talk to county clerks’ office staff to obtain this information if I cannot go there in person. ALWAYS a time saver for me and I did it in less than 15 minutes!

  • Great ideas Amy. This reminds me why it’s so important to keep my to-do list up-to-date in my genealogy software program. And speaking of appointments, I usually have something genealogy-related to read while waiting, either a print or online book/magazine. For the latter, I add several items using the “read off-line” option on Kindle, Dropbox or Evernote.

  • all such great ideas from you and how those that have commented explain what they do. All very helpful. I have learned so much with reading your emails. Thanks for everything. So much enjoyment in this for me. I do have a question, however. How do you find out more about your family member’s real life? How do you record it after you figure it out. Everyone can find the documents the proof of a family members life but who was the person?

    • That’s a good question, Donna. Outside of letters and journals, it’s hard to get a sense of personality. We have to be careful to not read too much into the records that we find. On the other hand, there are times when we can get a sense at least of what was important to them. Looking at the inventories in their estates, reviewing pension files, looking at their tombstones — they can all give glimpses into “them.”

      • I have gotten a good feel for a person by searching for newspaper articles and by reading up on the place they are living, or the history they are living through. When you’re lucky enough to have an ancestor who lived in one of those places where there was a history of the city/county/region written around the end of the 19th century, you can learn SO MUCH.

      • Court/criminal records are great resources, too. I found that my paternal great grandmother once sued a land improvement company! I also found several other lawsuits/divorce records for other family members. One, in particular, pretty much confirmed my suspicions about one of the “black sheep” in the family (always the most interesting characters, I think)!

  • I am presently researching my son in law’s family. His father’s name was Peter Crow! I Google an ancestor now and again. Surprising what you come up with.

  • in your response you said looking at their tombstones. What can their tombstones tell us? I understand pensions and estates inventory. but tombstones? And where would I find estates inventory? that is a new thing for me to look at that I never gave a thought to?

    • Donna, you will find it very useful to get an overall sense of how estates of deceased persons were handled, in the areas they lived and died in. In England this can be complicated, as what entity handled estate matters varied and varies a lot by location and over time.

      In the USA, this variation also occurred as one’s relatives may have lived where French, Spanish or English jurisdictions prevailed, and the prevailing legislation changed through Colonial times to the present.

      As Judy Russell constantly reminds us in her blog, understanding the legal backdrop is essential for interpreting what estate-related records and references we may find.

      The goals of estate procedures were to account for assets, settle debts, pay taxes and distribute land and/or personal property, if any, to the legal heirs or to whoever was due something by a will’s provisions.

      Estate inventories, of persons who had property, were part of the process of documenting what the estate’s assets were. They may be found as simple lists, or there might be an appraisal or “appraisement” assigning monetary value to each item or type of item (say, a horse, a bedstead, a farming implement, cooper’s tools).

      Records of administering estates or executing wills are usually found among County Court records (in the US), but in early Colonial times this can vary and still does vary in New England. There may be separate series of records books for each phase, beginning perhaps with a petition by someone to administer an estate. A case-file of original papers may survive. You may already have found a relative’s Will record, where first the will was proved to be genuine, and then at the same time one or more Executors was appointed (females were Executrixes). That same record might note that the Executor(s) had complied with the law, probably meaning they had already posted a performance Bond . . . so the note as to compliance suggests there’s at least one more record to look for.

      Once you have established a systematic view of the flow of estate matters, it’s not so hard. You will be able to recognize what such things as “complied with the law” meant as above, and to detect when something unexpected or unusual is happening.

      The Familysearch Wiki can give you helpful information, and many fine bloggers have posted tips or their experiences with acquiring and evaluating estates-related material. You can do an internet search when there is a term or procedure you do not understand. There really is lots of help available 🙂

      • Hi Judy, so true. I was at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney, Australia, (the largest Cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, and STILL NOT FULL!); looking for and ancestors grave, and noticed it listed 3 of their young children as well. After doing a GPS search for one of the children mentioned on the headstone, I found his grave, no gravestone, and over grown with grass, NO WHERE NEAR his parents grave! So, what you see, is not necessarily what you get!

  • Look forward to each of your emails – I always learn something new. Loved the 58 questions connected to writing a life story. Very, very helpful. I always get bogged down and have to start all over again. Your questions follow a logical path and I will use it with gratitude. Keep up the wonderful work – your suggestions and ideas perk me up and get me enthused all over again. Many thanks – Pat

  • Pat Hisley, I agree with your last comment to Amy…she’s an inspirer! About personalities: I focus on what I believe a person’s major trait is in my stories at marjfam@blogspot.com. I invite you to read a few of my bios.

  • I catch up on genealogy emails to sort what I can discard or keep for later…one at a time. I sort some of the pile of copied records..have paperclips available so the piles are then ready for protective sheets and binders.