Many of us keep research logs . . . when at the library or on the road, writing down our sources, call numbers and findings. It might be awhile before we get back there again, and we want to know what we found and where. But how many of us record our searches when researching on the Internet? So much is available at our fingertips and we can move from source to source with ease. Unless we are doing it professionally and have accountability, we might not stop to write down our sources and findings -- maybe we only have a certain amount of time or maybe it's just too much to think about. But no matter how inconvenient or time-consuming, some method of tracking our Internet research can actually save time, effort and frustration.
- Even very young minds can forget: "Now, I know I saw that, but where?" After blazing through resource after resource, hop-skipping-and-jumping from site to site, it can be very hard to remember what you found and where. Then it becomes a matter or retracing our steps in an effort to get back where we were.
- Resources come and go. Then, what if we go back to a source we've seen before only to find it no longer exists on the web? We have all seen the effects of "over-reaching" governments restricting access to records. In addition, companies go out of business and websites can disappear overnight.
- Overall, documenting our sources, online or off is part of the research.
Whether it's our memory or something else outside of our control, it can be here today, gone tomorrow. So the trick is doing what we can that's within our control. Record our searches; document what was found; make sure we have what we need the first time around -- there might not be a second chance.
Tips for Tracking Internet Searches
1. Focus. Sticking to a single research objective at a time provides focus, allowing you to tackle each data point one at a time, on a single individual or family. Even just having a pedigree chart or family group record at your fingertips when researching, can help keep the focus. Such focus can actually aid memory as the source becomes relevant to the problem. Even so, you still want record what you found and where -- save it, keep it, back it up, and add the information to your database. The more it becomes a practice, the easier the practice becomes.
2. Record Searches. The best advice, of course, is to keep a research log (or record of some sort) on your computer or on paper -- whatever works best for you. Then, if you must jump around, at least by recording where you go and what you found, you have a record -- some way to back track. You need to know the website, what part of the website and the title of the source, as well as the data found -- it's also good to make note of your impressions. By keeping a file open on your computer, you can copy and paste what you need.
3. Record URLs. Recording urls -- those Internet addresses that take us place to place, is important, keeping in mind that urls change, so you do need to copy down the name of the record, as well. Urls can be quite lengthy, so they are hard to put in a handwritten log, which makes a good case for keeping it on your computer. By keeping a text file open on your computer as you research, you can copy and paste pretty much all the information you need, including the url, source title, etc. Most commercial websites provide actual source citations right on the page.
4. Copy Data. This is an extremely important point. When you find valuable information online, you want not only to record where you found it, but you may want to copy it, as well. Some, but not all, genealogy websites allow you to "save" documents to your computer, which is great and gives you the actual document to reference in the future -- just be sure to note exactly where, on what website, that document was found. On websites without a save feature or on private websites, you can simply copy and paste the information -- not that you want to violate anyone's material or make it your own, only that you want to make sure you have a copy for future reference; again, document the source. On private websites, in particular, people may change their minds about what they are willing to share and overnight take pull the information -- it happens. Just as it happens that companies go out of business and websites fold, seemingly overnight. And when a website disappears, all the more reason to have captured the data.
5. Use Place-Saving Features. Take advantage of various place-saving features. Ancestry.com, for example, in addition to letting you "save" a document, has its Shoebox feature, which allows you to "bookmark" a source on the site, then go back to it whenever you wish. This works well when you find something off-focus or when you come across a document that you are uncertain about -- you may not want to copy it until the relationship is proven, but you can access it easily.
You can also bookmark as you go. Internet browsers typically allow you bookmark a website/page and store your bookmarks in an organized way of your own choosing -- maybe creating a Genealogy folder. While this does not solve for websites or data that disappears from the web, it can be a short-term solution for marking a favorite website or something of interest that you'd like to go back to later. And if you save the bookmark with a relevant title/name, it may be easier to find in a bookmark search.
Most Internet browsers also have a History function that lets you go back in time and find sites you have visited in the past. You can also set preferences to control how long you want to keep a running history. This is sort of a last-ditch effort to find something without having to completely retrace your steps, but the longer back in time it goes, the less likely you are to remember all you need to know to find it, and sometimes you have to bring up a lot of sites before you hit the right one. Still, it's something to know.
Above all, be consistent. Make it a practice, find a system that works for you and stick to it every time you sit down at the computer -- your efforts will be rewarded. The ability to go back into your notes, to locate a piece of information and be able to identify its source is very empowering and lends credibility to your research.