Reflection Journal: Week 3: Timelines, Source Citations for DNA & Documentary Sources, & File Organization

During the winter-spring of 2022, I am enrolled in the genetic genealogy course, Research Like a Pro with DNA Study Group, from the team at Family Locket of Diana Elder, Nicole Dyer, and Robin Wirthlin. A weekly reflection journal is one course component. I’m sharing mine.

This week’s lesson consisted of work with timelines, citations, and organization.

Timelines: “I’m Not Where Time Is”

That line, “I’m not where time is,” from an oughta-be famous recent Saturday Night Live skit, describes the experience of many people commenting about the passage of time during the pandemic: time seeming to pass too quickly or too slowly, a loss of time, and a general disconnect from the more typical constant flow of time we experienced during “the before times,” that is, the time before the pandemic.

Similarly, genealogy work can sometimes also be temporally disorienting: we lose track of where our ancestors were in time, or worse, we collapse, condense, and compress the lives of ancestors into a vague, meaningless period we lazily call “the past,” as if the lives of our colonial patriot ancestors were smashed together with the lives of flapper, moonshiner, and bootlegger ancestors of the roaring 1920s.

A useful way to protect the story of those lives is to attach meaningful events in their lives to a timeline. I began that process this week as I research to confirm or refute that, while on medical leave during the Civil War, soldier William McMillan fathered James Eli “Bawly” Bower, born to Margaret Riley Bower.

Timeline in Airtable
Figure 1: Timeline in Airtable

Organization: Digital File Naming Conventions: The Cage Match!

Unpersuaded. That’s the word–if I had to choose just ONE word–that’s the word I’d use to describe my attitude toward digital file naming conventions. Other words in contention included: ambiguous (because I’ve been of more than one mind), inconsistent (because I’ve been of more than one mind and it shows), lazy (because I couldn’t be bothered to look-up how I named things last week), and confused (because I’ve gotten conflicting advice from experts). Drew Smith of Genealogy Guys advises naming convention of the form NAME-DATE-RECORDTYPE; Thomas MacEntee, of Genealogy Bargains and Genealogy Do-Over, suggests DATE-NAME-RECORDTYPE; and a figure here writes DATE-RECORDTYPE-NAME-PLACE. And those are just the disagreements on the major points; there is even more variability among their recommendations regarding name order (last name first, or first name first), using dashes and/or underscores between words in a file name, and whether hierarchical folders, sub-folders, and linked-folders should be used, and one of the experts proposes creating duplicates of files for different folders while another confidently suggests lumping all one’s digital files into one folder. So, while “confused” could strongly be argued for the best one-word to describe my attitude to file naming, the more honest answer is that I see some wisdom in each of their suggestions, and I have just been indecisive about picking a convention, scribbling it on a Post-It Note, and slapping that yellow reminder onto my monitor. So, here is some growth: I’m going with: When, Who, What, Where; so, my Saint Patrick’s Day genealogy resolution of that scheme will look like: YYYY-MM-DD – LASTNAME, FirstName – Record/Event Type – Place.

Post-It note depicting file naming convention on monitor
Figure 2: Post-It note depicting file naming convention on monitor.


Now, the $64,000 question: do I apply that retroactively and spend time renaming decades of files, or just use that going forward? And, scary thought: what happens when the sticky stuff on the back of the Post-It weakens and it falls to the floor?

Citations: “Can You Hear Find Me Now?”

Here’s an example record that pulls triple-duty: the image below gives me a chance to: 1) show an example of the file naming convention in action; 2) show an example of the citation for the image; and 3) finally explain how and when James Eli Bower received the nickname by which he was called his whole life: “Bawly.”

1870 United States Federal Census; Jefferson, Ashe, North Carolina; Page 19, lines 4 to 7
Figure 3: 1870 United States Federal Census; Jefferson, Ashe, North Carolina; Page 19, lines 4 to 7.

The image above depicts lines 4 through 7 on page 19 of the 1870 United States Federal Census for Jefferson Township, Ashe County, North Carolina. Line 6 has become sorta famous in my family. It is evidence (constituting confirmation, as far as most of my family is concerned, of a family legend) that James Eli Bower was known his whole life as “Bawly.” The family story is that he earned that name as a baby, a baby who cried–or bawled–all the time, hence the nickname “Bawly.” This census data, while it does not record that James Eli was a colicky baby, does document that by age seven in 1870, the name “Bawly” had so firmly affixed itself to him, that his family stated it as his name to the enumerator who stopped by that spring. Employing the convention decided upon above, I used this file name: “1870 – BOWER, James Eli Bawly – Census – NC.jpg.” The citation I created has a bit more detail, but not much: “, 1870 United States Federal Census; Jefferson Township, Ashe County, North Carolina; Page: 19.”

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