29 March 2008

iGoogle and Organizing Your Genealogical Research

Today I would like to embark on part three of my series on utilizing Google tools to enhance your online genealogical research. Previous posts focused on using the power (and storage capacity) of Gmail to create a custom, searchable mailing list archive; today I want to do a little bit more of a general look into how using iGoogle (or a customized Google homepage) can help keep you organized when your research goes digital. As always, I'm not paid by Google for this, I just dig their stuff and find it helps me in my online research.

It is easy to setup an iGoogle page, and a page can be setup without having a Gmail account. The link to setup the iGoogle page is found in the upper-right corner of the main Google.com page, as shown here:

Once setup, the page can be customized in a myriad of ways, some purely for aesthetics but some, more to our interest, for function and efficiency.

Here's a look at one of the tabs on my iGoogle page:

As you can see, across the top of the picture, I have a number of "tabs" on my Google homepage, one of which is the Genealogy tab, which is open and shown in the picture. Since I use my iGoogle page for more than just genealogy, this setup suits me just fine.

On this page are some examples of the tools which can be added to the iGoogle page through the "Add stuff" link in the top-right of the page.

1. Organizing tools. A to-do list tool, from the website Todoist.com. I could write a whole series on the robustness of this little modular application, but since time and space don't permit, suffice to say it is a fabulous to-do list application, which I use to track "to-do" items for my website as well as for my family research.

For me, the computer is the absolute center of my genealogical research. It's where I do research on records and repositories, where I review and order materials and books, where I write my letters requesting records and photocopies, and where I scan, notate, document, and enter information into Family Tree Maker. Because the computer is the epicenter of my work, I find it most intuitive to have a to-do list that lives somewhere on the computer, (or online) and is only a click-away when I want to figure out what items of research I need to prioritize or perform next.

I find paper lists tend to get jotted on, folded up, stuck in folders, plopped into books, spilled on, chewed on by my son... any number of calamities can befall them. My online list resides safely on my iGoogle page, in a central and accessible place, and, when I need to, I can print out a copy and take it with me or use it as a research outline. Notes are made, points are written, tasks are accomplished, and I close out my research sessions by updating my lists to reflect what has been done and what needs to be done next. I can then recycle my piece of paper, close my browser window, and not worry about what's going to happen to my to-do list when it gets windy out and I forget to close the window!

2. Functional Tools. These tools sit at the ready to perform common tasks that arise in the course of online research. The Google Map tool allows me to search quickly for towns, landmarks, etc., all without opening another page and getting bogged down in the more complicated functionality of Google Maps proper. This tool is great when I run across an unfamiliar location in a document or record, and want to get a sense of where it is located.

Other tools, like the calculator, are self-explanatory in their use. The benefit of having these commonly used tools in one place is one of expediency and efficiency. When I don't have to close my browser window and search around for the windows Calculator program, or get out of my chair to fish around in my check drawer for my real-life calculator, I save time... time which I can devote to more research.

3. Browsing Organization. This module is a direct link to my Google Notebook, which I will be covering later in this series.

For now, the short version: Google Notebook serves as a sort of digital scrapbook of items of interest one finds online. You can "clip" information or text of interest by highlighting it and saving it to your notebook. This is great for little nuggets of information I want to revisit, and wish to save for further research and evaluation. The module on my iGoogle page defaults to the main notebook, which contains my unfiled items. Since I see these items on my homepage almost every day, I never forget to revisit sites of interest, and I am never left wondering what site to visit or what to do with my internet research time.

4. Research Interfaces. This particular interface is a direct link to the Google Books search (another feature which I will be covering in depth later on). Much like the Google Maps module I noted above, I can perform a search from directly within my iGoogle homepage. Unfortunately, the Google Books Search takes you to a new page to see your results. However, I find that the benefit of having this module on my iGoogle page is as much as a reminder as it is an interface... seeing the module reminds me to check out what information is available in Google Books.

The four types of tools I have noted above really just scratch the surface of what is available, but they are some of the most useful tools I have found thus far.

As far as the organization of the iGoogle page, it really could be setup to suit any sort of need. If your iGoogle page were completely devoted to genealogy, you could envision a tab for each region of research, with tools and "most popular" links for each tab. The possibilities are really astounding, and as more tools and modules are added every day, there's always something worth looking into.

In the next installment of this series, we'll talk more in-depth about Google Books.

'Till then, I remain,

28 March 2008

Civil War-Era Newspaper Transcriptions

Well, time flies with an infant on board (as I have), and the series on utilizing Google Tools will resume soon, but in the meantime, I present a gem of a website from Vicki Betts, with numerous transcriptions from Civil War era newspapers.

The site's transcriptions focus less on battles and more on the face of the war seen by those who remained at home. Efforts to clothe, feed, and equip troops, life under blockades and wartime economy, and attitudes and actions of women on the homefronts are all explored through articles and advertisements from various newspapers.

For more, visit Vicki Betts' page.

06 March 2008

Your Custom, Searchable Mailing List Archive, Part Two

Last week we created a customized, searchable mailing list archive using Gmail's filtering and labelling tools. By signing up for all mailing lists covering topics of interest to our genealogical research, this gmail account becomes a helpful archive of discussions and information. This week, we will explore using and searching this archive. As always, I'm not paid by Google for these entries, I just believe in their tools enough to want to share them with others!

There are a few different ways one can explore the information being archived:

Browsing by Label

The easiest way to jump into your archive is to browse by label. Last week, we assigned labels to incoming messages in order to categorize them in a specific way. As my archive has been organized according to the mailing list from which each message is generated, I can go directly to a particular mailing list and read my messages.

When you log into your Gmail account, you will see a sidebar with all the labels you created in your account. Labels that are bold have new messages, and the number of new messages is show in parenthesis next to the label. To read all messages assigned by the filters to a particular label, simply click on the label. Here, I am browsing to read all mail that has come in from my mailing list covering the surname Boisvert:

When I click on the label, I am brought to a screen with all those messages! Note that the "Search Mail" field at the top of the page has automatically generated a term for the label to which I have browsed, in this case "boisvert":

From here I could simply click through the messages and read them in order, just browsing to stay on top of the incoming messages. Or, if I am looking for a particular piece of information, I can begin putting the searchability of my archive to use.

Searching within a Label

Let's say I am interested, at this moment, in researching a woman named "Marie" with connections to the Boisvert family, and I want to see if anyone on this particular Boisvert mailing-list is talking about this woman. I can enter my search term, "marie" in the "Search mail" field, leaving in tact the pre-generated label term, which will limit my search to only messages with this particular label. Once done, I would click on the "Search mail" button.

My search, in this case, yields 13 results:

Of course, on a more active list, or with a more popular search term, this search could have yielded many more. Just as I can in a typical Google search field, I can narrow my results by using more advanced search modifiers, such as parenthesis, or plus and minus signs.

In this case, I can limit my search by using parenthesis to narrow my search to a more specific individual, "Marie Elzire":

The search is successful, and yields one search result:

As you can see, targeted searching of a single mailing list can be extremely effective and extremely efficient when you are looking for a specific piece of information. Unlike browsing a mailing-list, which may be done for social or general knowledge, utilizing the search feature can help winnow the amount of mail that you have to read in order to identify e-mails or postings specific to your interests.

Searching the entire archive

I can also take advantage of the cross-mailing list searching capabilities I have created in this archive, and search across all mailing lists for terms of interest.

For instance, a search on the surname "Jones" yields, unsurprisingly, hundreds of results in my archive:

Again, just as in a standard Google search, I can winnow my results to match what sort of information I am looking for. Since I am searching for information on a Jones family that resided in a town called "Jerseyville", I can search with those terms and see what I find:

As you can see, I now have a manageable result set that contains both of my search terms. Especially useful is the fact that not one, but many lists have been searched for this combination of terms, and my results come from more than one mailing list.

TIP: If you perform a label-specific search, then wish to search the entire archive, make sure you delete the label-limiting search term pre-generated by Gmail (such as the "label:boisvert" in example no. 1 above). It is possible to forget that you are limited to searching within one label, and be left wondering why certain searches aren't giving you any results. When in doubt, check your "Search mail" box to be sure what you are searching!

Excluding mailing lists from full-archive searches

In some cases, you may find yourself searching for terms that are commonly found across a number of mailing lists, but you know, for a fact, that the information in a certain mailing list will not be germane to your search. In such cases, you can exclude entire mailing lists from your search in order to make your searches more efficient.

In this example, I am looking for information on an individual by the name of William Jones. I perform a standard search, across the entire archive, and receive about 120 results, from a number of mailing lists, including a Jones mailing list, a Northern California mailing list, and a Cornish genealogy mailing list:

However, since I believe that the information found in the Cornish genealogy mailing list won't be of use to me at the moment, I can exclude that mailing list from my search, using the minus or "not" sign, and using the label term, such as the one Gmail pre-loads when browsing to a particular label. Therefore, my search now reads: "william jones" -label:CORNISH-GEN, and, upon searching, the results from the Cornish genealogy mailing list have been omitted, and my search result set has gone down accordingly:

You can omit multiple mailing lists in this way, in order to refine your search.

Searching more than one mailing list at a time

In the same way, you can also limit your searches to more than one mailing list.

In this example, I am continuing to search for William Jones, but want to search both the Jones surname mailing list, and the Northern California mailing list for my search term. My search term thus becomes: "william jones" label:Jones OR label:NOCAL. As you can see below, the search is successful, and I now have a result set of results from only the two mailing lists that I specified:

TIP: The "OR" modifier in this search is necessary, because the default modifier when none is specified is "AND". This search performed without the "OR" would yield nothing, since none of my messages carry more than one label. If your archive is complex enough to have messages carrying more than one label, then you could omit the OR modifier as you see fit.

In summary, I hope this entry has shown you ways in which your custom mailing list archive can be put to its best use. There are a ton more advanced searches that can be performed, which you can find here.

Next week we will leave our Gmail mailing list archive behind, and talk about iGoogle and how a personalized Google homepage can help you organize your research and maximize your efficiency.

Till then, I remain,