Is your research still in the paper age? Here are a few signs:
- Do you have folders set up on your hard drive for each surname you are researching?
- Do you make copies of your digital files and save them in multiple folders?
- Do you maintain an index of these folders and the files they contain?
- Do you have a naming convention standard for naming your files and folders?
Today’s technology offers a number of features that make organizing and maintaining your research notes, scanned documents and photos a lot easier to manage. Even if you are still using an older computer, its search capabilities are pretty awesome. Why not take advantage of these tools to make your organizational efforts easier and give you more time to focus on the fun stuff?
The toughest part is changing old habits. Here’s what convinced me.
iPhoto was the photo-management app that came with my first Mac computer. It was my first real experience with digital’s virtual world. In iPhoto, one photo file could be in any number of places at the same time. Once a photo file was imported into iPhoto, it could be included in multiple albums without having to make copies of the actual file. Yes, this was magic – but more in the sleight-of-hand category. In actuality, iPhoto was adding metadata in the form of keywords (also called tags) to the photo file so the app’s internal search function could keep track of everything. At the time, the term “metadata” was not part of my vocabulary, but it didn’t take me long to realize that iPhoto’s keywords feature was my new best friend.
My next digital milestone was also an iPhoto feature – “smart” albums. While I had to physically drag photos into a regular iPhoto album, the smart album was populated using a search of the metadata included in the photo files. Now, all I had to do was create smart albums for each of my families, their localities or any other topic I wanted. I added the appropriate keywords to the photos as I added them to iPhoto and now one family photo magically appears in my Barrett album, my Olson album and my Moultrie Creek album.
Recently Apple moved from iPhoto to a new app called Photos. All those keywords, smart albums and such moved with my photos to the new platform.
It didn’t take long before I was seeing keywords showing up everywhere. Blogs have them, Flickr has them, Evernote has them, my Day One journal has them. Keywords and other metadata can be embedded in word-processing documents, spreadsheets and many other user-created files. And now the latest version of Mac’s OS X operating system includes tags in their file management app, Finder. Wooohooo!
These tools have made organizing and managing my stuff a whole lot easier, but it’s taken longer to break some of my old analog habits. When I first started working with Evernote, for example, I was building notebooks for each of my surnames. At one point I felt like I had more notebooks than notes. Just scrolling through the list of notebooks to find the one I wanted to save to was taking forever. It wasn’t until I adapted my iPhoto experience to Evernote that I really saw its advantages. Now I have one notebook – Family Research – and a simple tag schema. Evernote’s amazing search capabilities take care of the rest. iPhoto’s smart albums are called saved searches in Evernote but they put everything I ask for on my desktop in the blink of an eye.
Taking advantage of these digital tools to simplify and improve my workflows took time. First, I needed to learn enough about the tools I’m using to take advantage of their features, then I needed to add the tags necessary to organize my existing files and notes. Next, I had to get into the tagging habit whenever I saved, scanned or added content on my computer. My existing research notes, documents and files are much more manageable now. I’ve developed workflows for capturing online content as well as the archival material still waiting to be digitized. My latest challenge is to organize my household records. I’m using Yep! [Mac – $24]. It manages documents in much the same way iPhoto did for photos. Most of our statements, receipts and other household records are scanned, tagged and saved before the papers are shredded.
I’ve still got boxes of family things yet to be digitized, but my digital workflows make the process much easier. When I need to find something, search can put it on my screen in seconds. Life is good.