Category Archives: Digital Toolbox

Create Custom Maps With National Atlas

Note: NationalAtlas will become part of the National Map site effective September 30, 2014. It looks like it will lose a lot of features once the move is complete, so take advantage of those features while you still can.

Would you like to include maps in your family history projects, but can’t find anything that isn’t copyrighted? Take a look at the National Atlas. It’s a map-making platform sponsored by the federal government that lets you build your own maps.

Once you’ve zoomed in on an area you want to map, choose from the display elements available on the right to display water elements, roads, boundaries and other features.

National Atlas example

Build your own map at National Atlas

You can print your maps, email them or save them in the Map Maker so you can return to them whenever you want. Here’s another way you screen capture app will come in handy to capture just the area you need for your project.

Sample customized map

Use screen capture to grab just the area you want for your project.

If you don’t like the color scheme, you can always do a bit of photoshopping on your copy. I took this one and reduced the saturation until it was a grayscale image then added some of my own points. I then made it a semi-transparent overlay on a background of my choosing and the result is a custom map that works with the theme of my project.

Farm Map 3

Tip: Leave off county names when you build your map. The text is too small and placement is worse (see Chattooga and Floyd in the map above). You can put them in yourself – where you want them and in a font that gives them presence.

NationalAtlas gives us a lot of flexibility for creating custom maps to use in our family history projects and it doesn’t take much effort to jazz them up to work within your on storytelling projects.

iPad Cloud Management

If you’re like me, you have a number of different cloud storage accounts – anything from Dropbox to iCloud (Mac/iOS users) or OneDrive (Windows users) with an assortment of others in between. It’s hard to keep up with them all. Yes, they’re all visible in Finder on my Mac desktop, but the primary reason I have all these cloud accounts is to hold the things I want to access from my portable devices – none of which have a file management system that can “look at clouds from both sides now”. [I know, I just couldn't resist.]

Until now.

The free iOS Documents app from Readdle keeps all those clouds within easy reach. It handles all the major cloud storage systems like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, SkyDrive, SugarSync and more. You can connect to FTP servers and WebDAV servers too. Download something from the Web? Sure, no problem. Documents not only lets you connect, but you can manage files on these services too – upload, download, delete and rename files and even create folders.  Want to move a file from one cloud to another? You can do it in Documents by downloading it to the app then uploading it to the new service.

Selecting files to copy from a folder

Selecting files to download from a folder in Box to my Documents app on my iPad.

If that was all it did, Documents would be a pretty amazing tool, but it’s just the beginning. Documents is also an impressive media viewer. You can read PDF documents, ePub books, Office and iWork documents. You can view movies and listen to music. With Documents alone, you can search the text of PDF documents, highlight, strikethru or underline text and bookmark pages. If you also have the PDF Expert 5 app [iPad - $9.99] installed on your iPad, it becomes an add-on to Documents giving you even more markup functionality.

The Open In… feature lets you browse your files using Documents, but then open the selected file in another app. For example, I use Byword on my iPad to work on Scrivener projects when I’m away from my desktop. I can find the file I want to edit using Documents, then open it in Byword for editing. And, Documents is one of your Open In… options for email attachments – and the perfect place to send those attachments since it can read almost anything.

This free app is an impressive tool for both the iPad and iPhone. It will take a bit of effort to learn all its capabilities, but that will be time well-spent as it will reduce the time and frustration of trying to chase after those elusive cloud files.

Has Evernote Made Research Logs Obsolete?

No, but it’s sure changed how I keep track of my research.

ResearchLog - Evernote Web Clipper

Evernote Web Clipper on the Mac. Click for larger view.

Thanks to Evernote’s updated Web Clipper on my Mac, I am able to add notes and annotate screen captures before adding it to my Family Research notebook. Yes, I only have one notebook for all my family research. I let tags and Evernote’s amazing search features handle the rest. I add tags for surnames, type of record, locations, events and whatever else I think describes this record. The comments section is a great place to include the notes I would normally add to a research log – what I was searching for, what I found and what I didn’t. Did a record generate new questions? That gets added in comments too.

I also download any original records I can. I’ll then drag those files and drop them onto the Evernote icon on my Dock. That operation copies them into the default notebook in my Evernote account. I’ll then take advantage of Evernote’s batch processing to quickly add tags and move them to my Family Research notebook.

Batch process makes moving and tagging easy. Click for larger view.

Batch process makes moving and tagging easy. Click for larger view.

Before I leave a search results screen behind, I’ll take a few seconds to capture it and use the annotation tools to point out what was useful and what wasn’t. In this example, I’ve captured the search parameters along with a page of results. I have pointed out which items in this screen were useful and which weren’t and I could easily add any notes that might be useful later.

Annotate search results tells me at a glance how useful this search was. Click for larger view.

Annotate search results tells me at a glance how useful this search was. Click for larger view.

Evernote automatically date stamps notes as they are created. The web clipper captures the web address of each item you capture. If I’m researching in a library, I’ll turn on location services and it will include that information in each note I create too. I’m getting in the habit of including questions, noting coincidences and other tidbits at the top of web clipped notes as I create them. I also maintain a note for each family group where I add questions, task lists and other useful information. There’s no formal procedure or format involved – just a place to capture questions/ideas when they happen.

A quick search pulls in everything I have about that topic/person. Click for larger view.

A quick search pulls in everything I have about that topic/person. Click for larger view.

How do I get away with this messy arrangement? Because it’s Evernote! When I want to see what I’ve got on a particular person or family, I head for the search box. In a split second, everything I have on the person, family, location, event or record I’m searching is right in front of me.

I’d much rather spend my research time researching and thanks to Evernote I can. The process of capturing, tagging and annotating an item gives me an opportunity to assess the value of each record. With Evernote, everything’s in one place so if a new record creates a need for a quick review of earlier research, that can happen in an instant. I’m really liking this!

More Evernote Goodness – Google Books

I’ve been loving the latest update to Evernote’s browser plugin for the Safari browser, but this morning it did something that totally amazed me.

I was browsing Google Books for information on Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a rather colorful figure during Florida’s British period. In one historical book there was a large footnote with information I wanted to capture and, of course, copy/paste was getting me nowhere. Here’s a look at the Google Books screen.

Book view in Google Books

Book view in Google Books

Then I decided to see what Evernote’s web clipper would do.

Results of Evernote's web clipper using the Simplified Article option.

Results of Evernote’s web clipper using the Simplified Article option.

Amazing! All I needed was to choose my notebook and enter some tags.

There are limits, however. This only seems to work when you’ve searched for something within the book and that page is presented. I’ve tried to browse to a page and capture it, but all I get is the book’s title. It won’t capture the page or even take a screenshot (Evernote screenshot, not a separate screen capture app). Still, even with these limitations, it can be a very handy tool!

Evernote Tip: Organize with Saved Searches

In 2013, the number of shared notebooks in my Evernote profile increased significantly – both those I share and those from others who share with me. Add that to the rather large number of existing notebooks I keep just for myself. Things were getting out of control and it was time to reorganize and consolidate notes to keep things more manageable.

Then I remembered Evernote’s Saved Search feature. Instead of having individual notebooks for each surname or research topic, I now have one “Family Research” notebook and let tags and saved searches manage the rest for me. Here’s how it works . . .

Evernote’s search feature will search both the notes’ content and its metadata. Take advantage of the tags feature [I love tags!] to add any keywords relevant to this item – surnames, location, document type, etc. Doing these things as you create a note means you will have even more flexibility with your searches.

Now, in the Evernote desktop app, place your cursor in the search box and enter the keywords you want to create your search. The search panel seen here appears as soon as you click into the search box. It offers suggestions and tags to help create your search.

Create a search query as usual.

Create a search query as usual.

Once you’ve crafted the search query you want to save, choose the Edit > Find > Save Search command to save it.

Your saved searches appear at the bottom of Evernote's search pane that appears whenever you click in the search box.

Your saved searches appear at the bottom of Evernote’s search panel.

Notice the Edit button to the far right of the selected saved search. Click it to adjust the search parameters.

Edit pane for updating a saved search.

Edit panel for updating a saved search.

This is also where you can delete a search you no longer want.

You can add saved searches to the Shortcuts section in the desktop app’s sidebar for easier access. Just drag it from the drop-down search panel to a position under Shortcuts. As you see in this example, the Henry Notes item in my shortcuts has a magnifying glass icon identifying it as a saved search.

The Henry Notes search has been added to my Shortcuts list.

The Henry Notes search has been added to my Shortcuts list.

Few items in my Shortcuts list stay there permanently. Things come and go as my priorities change. If I delete a saved search from Shortcuts it is still available to me from the search panel. I seldom have more than one saved search for a particular surname either. It’s often easier to edit the existing search, adding and removing parameters until I have the notes collection I want for the moment.

After decades of using organizational methods based on paper systems, it takes some effort to move to a digital system. Fortunately the developers at Evernote continue to provide some amazing tools which make the process of collecting and organizing our research so much easier. Now to adjust my mindset to take advantage of them.

Finder’s New Tabs Feature

With the new Mavericks operating system, Mac users now have the ability to view multiple folders in Finder through the use of Tabs. This works much the same way as tabs in your web browser and it sure makes moving files from one place to another a whole lot easier. Let’s take a look.


This animated GIF shows how to open a folder in a new tab and use it to move files from one folder to another. In this example, I opened the Dropbox folder in a new tab then, in that tab, opened the subordinate eLibrary folder that would become my destination folder for the file(s) I want to move. I then went back to the tab displaying the Downloads folder, selected the file I wanted and dragged it to the eLibrary tab. It’s that simple! I could have selected several files and dragged them all in one operation.

To open a folder in a new tab, you can right-click on the folder (either in the sidebar or in the main panel) and choose the Open In New Tab command. The keyboard shortcut is Command + T. Once you have tabs displayed, you’ll notice a plus sign (+) to the right of the tab bar. Click it to open additional tabs. Drag a tab to reposition it in the tab bar.

Each tab operates independently of the others and can have its own display settings – like one showing files in list format and another showing Cover Flow.

The toughest part about using Finder’s tabs is remembering the feature exists. It won’t be long, however, before tabs in Finder will become second nature like it is with your browser.


Evernote’s New Web Clipper for Safari

Very cool! The clip a screenshot option will make it easier to capture images within frames – like the original images displayed in archive sites like Ancestry and Fold3.

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Documents – the Swiss Army Knife app for the iPad

One of the most useful apps on my iPad is Documents [iOS - free] from Readdle. It can be used to read documents (PDF, Office, text, etc.) as well as books (PDF and epub) but it can also be used to listen to music, watch videos and browse photographs. And, it has some annotation capabilities – bookmark, highlight, underline and strike thru. But what makes it really interesting is its file management functionality. You can get files from email attachments, just about any cloud storage platform, and even download them from the Web using the built-in browser. Create folders and your own file system right on your device.

Combine Documents with another Readdle app – PDF Expert [iOS - $9.99] – and you can fill in PDF forms, highlight, make notes and draw on PDF documents from any number of sources and the forward them to just about anywhere. I was able to “fill in” a PDF form that wasn’t designed to be fillable by writing the information on the document using a stylus. PDF Expert will flatten the annotation layers into a standard PDF file that can be read by Adobe Acrobat. In just a couple of minutes the form was completed and emailed back, saving me from printing then snail-mailing a paper form. Do that a couple of times and you’ve paid for the app.

Documents provides tools that bridge the gaps between your desktop and your mobile devices and will quickly become one of the most useful apps on your iPad.

Pixelmator 3.0 for Mac

Pixelmator continues to amaze – and it still costs only $29.99.