Genealogy research trip: tech tools

This past weekend I went to the Indiana Genealogical Society conference at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Although the conference proper was on Saturday, a friend and I went up on Friday morning so we would have time to do some research in their wonderful Genealogy Center. This was my second trip to the Genealogy Center and now that I knew what to expect, I tried to plan ahead before we left… “tried” being the operative word. I had some great finds as well as many negative successes, but most importantly I found a technological rhythm that worked for my research process and I thought I would share that here.

Tech items I brought with me:

  • Laptop: 14″ Lenovo IdeaPad
  • Tablet: Google Nexus 7
  • Smartphone: Droid RAZR

Apps and software I used:

  • Evernote (free) – available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS
  • CamScanner (free) – available for Android and iOS
  • Dropbox (free) – available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS
  • Ancestry.com App (free) – available for Android and iOS
  • Family Tree Maker ($$) – available for Windows and Mac

My Process:

1. I started off searching the catalog from the Genealogy Center’s front page on the browser on my laptop to find whatever books I wanted to look at first for a particular county or family. This is something I should have done before I actually got to the library but I wasted too much time playing the Doctor Who edition of 2048 last week and didn’t get that much prep done.

2. Once I had a load of books on my cart I evaluated each one by first filling out some metadata in a template I made in Evernote. I would copy the note from my _TEMPLATES folder to the folder for whatever surname or place the book was about and then I would fill in the blanks so I could make an accurate citation later on. The fields in my template are:

  • Repository
  • Call Number
  • Title
  • Author
  • Year
  • Publisher & Place
  • Subject
  • Date Accessed
  • Notes
  • Useful?

(I got this templating idea from Cyndi Ingle’s great workshop at the Indiana Historical Society last month on using Evernote for genealogical research, fyi.)

3. If it turned out that the book was useful, or at least potentially useful, I would take photos of the cover page and whatever relevant pages and index entries I needed using the CamScanner app. This free app allows you to use your phone or tablet’s camera to take pictures of documents and then create PDFs of these images as well as run OCR software on the images so that you can do full text searches within the images. I had to do this using my smartphone because my tablet doesn’t have a rear-facing camera, so the process wasn’t always very easy and sometimes the OCR software didn’t work properly. When I had the images looking more or less the way I wanted them to, I would rename the file so that it was the same or similar to the book I took it from (the default is something like “new note” which obviously isn’t very helpful) and then upload it to Dropbox as a PDF using the Share function in CamScanner. Here’s an example of what one looks like:

Download the PDF file Lafayette County,MS Will Abstracts, 1836-1898.

Here’s a link to the PDF if the above embed doesn’t work: Lafayette County Will Abstracts.1

As you can see, the free version of the app puts a camscanner watermark at the bottom of every image/scan you create. I think that goes away if you get the premium version; however, the premium version is a subscription-based fee rather than a 1-time-only fee, so it’s not something I’ve bought.

4. Rinse and repeat for every item I looked at.

5. Now that I’m back at home, I’m attaching the PDFs to the respective notes in Evernote so that I can actually flip through them as I’m looking at the citation and associated notes. I will probably be upgrading to a premium Evernote account soon so that I make sure I have enough space for all of these image attachments, but considering how often I use Evernote I think it’s a worthwhile expense.

Pros

Most of this workflow worked very well for me. I have my Evernote and Dropbox accounts synced across all of the devices I had with me, so if I needed to double check a note while I was in the stacks, I could look at my phone and see what I had just typed up on my laptop.

Things I would do differently

I would like to be able to scale down to just one or two devices the next time I make a big research trip. I wound up juggling several devices because I couldn’t do everything I wanted to on just one. I brought my laptop because I type faster (and much more legibly) than I write so I wanted something with a keyboard. I think if I got a tablet with a rear-facing camera and had an external keyboard to go with it, that would probably be the best way to go.

One of the other reasons I brought my laptop is because I also wanted to have access to all of my research in my genealogy software because you can’t access your personal Ancestry account when you’re connected to the ACPL wireless network. The Ancestry mobile app is useful for viewing trees but it doesn’t list any sources so it wouldn’t be a decent replacement for something like Family Tree Maker for me. However, if I actually made my research plans ahead of time like I should, then it hopefully wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

I also want to look into alternatives to CamScanner. Sometimes I would click on the icon to run the OCR and it would say “no text found” even though the text in the image was perfectly clear. Other times it would say it had scanned and was now searchable but when I try to search for things in it using other pdf viewing software like Adobe Acrobat, it isn’t able to find any of my search terms. My friend was using TinyScan on her iPad, which is also available for Android, and she seemed happy with it so I may try that at home and see if I like the results any better.


  1. Bratton, Joan Goar. Lafayette County, Mississippi will abstracts, 1836-1898. Oxford, MS: Skipwith Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc., 1980. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *