Sep 132011

A member of our newly formed US-REC study group invited a discussion about the types of systems that other members of the group use for organization. Here is a description of my Research Wiki

Until about two years ago, all attempts at organizing my research files made me feel like the bicycle rider in the above picture. Since that time however, I have been developing my own genealogy organizational system. It all began with a decision I made (together with my son) vis-a-vis our joint genealogy project for which he is the webmaster and technology expert; I, the field researcher and data manager. Our decision was to digitize all our records and keep them online so that both of us can have immediate access to them. This is important since I am in Missouri and he is in California.

Previous attempts at organizing my genealogy records did not seem to work well for me. As I have been reading and re-reading Val Greenwood’s chapter on organizing, I have begun to realize why. Most systems were developed with the assumption that it is papers and documents that needed to be organized — dependent upon file folders and notebooks and archival storage media, etc. Previously, I had up-loaded digital files to our website and stored them in folders. That was alright for a while; but it had its attendant problems – the chief problem being the necessity of indexing the files separately.

My discussions with my son about the attendant problems of trying to maintain an active and accurate index of the digital files, led to his suggesting that I consider using a Wiki format. He then installed MediaWiki on the website that held our TNG family tree. The MediaWiki was not set up for public access, but only for access by the two of us. I began to use MediaWiki as my Research Journal. That was a good move, but I didn’t begin to realize the major benefit to this Web 2.0 approach until I figured out how to use MediaWiki as an indexed storage system — not a storage system with a separate index, but a storage system that is its own index. Let me explain…

Recently a search for a marriage date for my gg-grandfather, Aaron B. Knepper, expanded into a feeding frenzy. (The feeding frenzy resulted in three blog posts, beginning with “Who Do I Think You Are, Aaron Knepper?”  ) I found a number of newspaper articles relating to him and his family. In addition to those newspaper articles, I found records for 8 census years, death certificate, Civil War registration & pension card, marriage registration, and more. As I found each record, I copied the image to my hard drive (in the “Knepper, Aaron B.” folder).

My hard drive currently has 255 separate folders for Individuals (alphabetized by SURNAME) and 18 folders for miscellaneous files related to individual SURNAMES. That may seem to be a small number when compared to the 4965 individuals in my RootsMagic database. It is, of course, an expandable list. As I uncover records (documents, certificates, citations, photos, etc) for others, I simply add new folders. I keep the files for women in folders bearing their birth name. Records that relate to families (marriage licenses and; certificates, census records, etc.) are easily copied and filed in the individual files of both the man and the woman.

When I began to move my records to MediaWiki, I set up separate pages (the Wiki equivalent of folders) for each SURNAME of the 8 grand-parental lines of my children. In each of these pages (folders), I have the capacity to establish sub-categories for other Surnames related to the primary one. (The Brenner page, for example, separates out Coles, Welks, Crumrines, Renkenbergers, and a miscellaneous link to other cognate individuals.
Each individual record has a template added (“see also, data stored in: …”) that serves as the cross-referencing index (hotlinks) to the Vital Statistics categories where the primary data are stored. Looking at Aaron B. Knepper’s log, I see that I have records for “Birth.” “Death,” “Marriage,” and “Military;” as well as census records for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920.

The additional entries are for two newspaper articles. As I look at this image, I note that the “Obituary” should have been filed on the Vital Statistics page for Aaron Knepper’s “Death” records. Not a problem, I can easily cut and paste it where it should be.

The Vital Statistics category is subdivided into the following categories: Birth Records; Baptism and Confirmation Records; Marriage Records; Census Records (sub-divided by Census Year); Death Records; Immigration and Naturalization Records; Land, Deeds, and other Legal Records; Military Records; Location Files; Extracted Signatures; and Media Files. These records are all filed alphabetically by “SURNAME, First, Middle .” Census records are also categorized by year.

Each record entry contains its appropriate citation plus any notes I wish to save. If there is an image associated with the record, there is a hotlink for that image. On a separate MediaWiki page, I have saved about 50 cut-and-paste citation templates – including one for each U.S. Federal Census. And, because it is a Wiki, I can add citation templates whenever needed.

Each page in my Research Wiki has a navigation table at the top of the page. This table has hyperlinks to each SURNAME page, to each Vital Statistic page, and to a page of Citation cut-and-paste templates, etc. From any page on the Wiki, I am just a few clicks to any particular record.

While I do not always record my purpose for searches, when I do I can use my Research Wiki for a full description of the search and its successes, along with an indication of what was not found. My search for passenger records for gg-grandfather Johannes (John) Brenner’s immigration in 1854 shows a description of the search, its results, and the decision-making.  Since it is actually more than a standard page of copy, I have not included it here.  However, if you can put it into words and paragraphs, you can store it in a Wiki.

In Conclusion:  
My Research Wiki has provided me with a very workable online way of recording and organizing my research. Would I recommend a Wiki as a vehicle for a research organizer? Yes, with a proviso… MediaWiki can be a more complex tool.  I had my technologically proficient son who was able to install and tweak MediaWiki for me at the beginning. Initially I had to learn MediaWiki markup language. That took a bit of practice. Subsequently I had my son install a rich text editor on the Wiki, though I continue to make most of my entries using markup language. There are some easier (free) Wiki resources available. I am aware of TiddlyWiki: areusable non-linear person web notebook. You can actually download TiddlyWiki, install it on your computer and use it offline. There are others, but I have not tried them.

  4 Responses to “Organizing My Research Using MediaWiki”

  1. I think a Wiki is far beyond the present level of my technical skills. But my electronic filing cabinet is getting close to what you have.

  2. I am intrigued by your use of Mediawiki. I definitely want to look at it closer. I really like the idea of opening it to other family members working on the same line. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. I love your idea of using a research wiki. I am thinking you could use a similar approach with Evernote or Onenote, both are very user-friendly, allow hot-links, pictures, entire webpages and can be shared with family members as it uses cloud technology. Great job and thanks for sharing your wiki!

  4. This is a great idea … and I've already thought of so many ways I'd like to use it! (Now I just have to figure out HOW).

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