Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

E-files, paper files, and in-between – organizing your genealogical research

In this post, I’m going to talk about 3 basic categories of filing: paper; a mix of paper and e-files; and e-files only. We genealogists are so good as ferreting out the secrets hidden in our documents, but what on earth can we do with the documents once we’ve found them?
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

10 reasons for paper-based filing

In this scenario, you use the internet to find documents, and once found they’re printed and filed.

  1. You have made a set of binders which are your goto research tools.
  2. You want to keep your research completely private and off the internet.
  3. You are not a fan of technology.
  4. You don’t see a need for using electronic files in your current research methodology.
  5. You like the act of writing on documents, and are comfortable using tabs, flags and post its to keep your documents pristine.
  6. Your research consists primarily of things:
    • hard cover books
    • family bibles
    • photo albums you want to preserve in their original format
    • original copies of documents
    • memorabilia and keepsakes
  7. Having hard copies of everything is reassuring and is a tangible product of your years of work.
  8. You are comfortable with your current budget for office supplies.
  9. You have the space to keep your files together in one place, or at least in no more than 3 places. For example, you keep the photos in a spare bedroom, the files on a bookshelf, and your working files on the dining room table.
  10. Your family is interested and wants to see your work. (Lucky, lucky you.)
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

10 reasons for keeping both paper and e-files

In this scenario, you jump back and forth between using paper and electronic documents, and are efficient at being able to cross reference between both platforms.

  1. You like using your printed documents as reference.
  2. You prefer reading your research in hard copy.
  3. Your research encompasses original copies of documents, and <250 electronic folders on your computer.
  4. Your paper-based research materials are becoming too cumbersome to take with you on research trips.
  5. You’re beginning to find good online sites.
  6. You can easily find the documents you’ve saved onto your hard drive.
  7. You don’t tend to use your computer’s search functions.
  8. You want to be careful about software costs.
  9. You want to keep backup copies of your work.
  10. You use the dual systems to help manage the costs of both office supplies and software. For example, I would print documents if they were 10 pages or less.
Keeping it simple

10 Reasons for using a document management system

In this scenario, you may still use paper for on site note taking, but the majority of your work involves an electonic platform of some type.

  1. You want to be able to search within your files, not just the file names.
  2. You have more than 250 electronic folders.
  3. You want to keep backup copies of your work.
  4. You are researching many family lines at once.
  5. You want to use your laptop and smartphone as research tools.
  6. You visit research sites where you are not allowed to bring anything other than a phone and a laptop. (Both the Chung Collection at UBC and the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan are strict about what a researcher may bring into the room, but the Archives will allow a pencil.)
  7. You have a collection of digital photos and images that you’d like to combine with your genealogical work.
  8. You want to capture internet pages, online chat group discussions, and Facebook group forums.
  9. You want to share your research with your family, and they don’t live nearby.
  10. Printing everything you have would cost a ton and is impractical.


No system is free. Paper-based systems require paper, toner, a printer, mounds of office supplies, and the room to store all of that stuff. Electronic systems require a computer and software, and the wherewithal to stay on top of factors such as backup systems.
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

Final thoughts

There’s no right or wrong system – the only question is does it support your genealogical research? Choose the organizational style that fits you, your research style, and your budget.

NEXT POST: I will discuss document management software and its uses in genealogical research.


Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

Your genealogy research process – it doesn’t have to be painful but it does have to work

Quick quiz: if you had to find a genealogical file / doc/ photo / fact right now, how long would it take you to find it?

If you read the title of this post and said what process? you’ve come to the right place.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the factors that will help you figure out your most comfortable process for filing and organizing all that stuff.

Genealogy. I’m dating myself here, but when I started my genealogical journey, the records were only available in hard copy. A research trip involved travel to another city, copious note taking, and lining up to use the photocopier at 25 cents a page. If I got three or four documents in an afternoon’s worth of research, it was a good day.

I had planned to spend my retirement years visiting genealogical societies and libraries.

Fast forward ~20 years to today. The only thing that’s the same is that I’ll still likely spend my retirement doing genealogy.

Everything else has changed.

Process: 6 important factors

The resources: time or money

Process consideration #1 – Are you richer in time or money?

It’s one or the other. If you’ve got lots of time, you tend to have less money to blow; and if you’re making money, you tend to have limited amounts of free time. When I started with genealogy, I definitely had less money.


Process consideration #2 – Have you got the space? Hint: if your family makes dark comments about your stuff taking over the house, it’s a clue.
My ideal space (OK, it’s the Library at the National Archives). Credit: New Old Stock.

I really had no idea what I was getting into with genealogy.

Collecting bit and bobs seems so innocuous but over time has the capacity to eat all the free space on the dining room table, in the living room, on the bookshelves, and in every nook and cranny in the basement. Like any collection, genealogy needs a firm hand or it’ll get out of hand.


Process consideration #3 – how often do you move?

In the past two decades, I have gone from homeowner to traveller to student to renter to homeowner again. I have lived in 5 provinces. I stopped counting the moves at 12. Packing, storing, moving and unpacking are not an issue if you don’t move, but if you do?



Process consideration #4 – How much do you / would you like to leverage techology? 

The internet and associated apps and tech tools have revolutionized genealogy. It is wonderful to find and use the thousands of sites and sources online – most of them for free. There are billions of digitized documents now available. In the future there will be trillions. There is a rich vein of media available – in addition to documents, there are webinars, social media chat groups, one name sites, and podcasts. I have met genealogists who have written the code for their own custom databases.

That having been said, there is something profoundly comforting about having all your research at hand, tidily tucked away in binders, files and books. It’s tangible. I understand.

The Future

Process consideration #5 – How will you leave your genealogical legacy?

Who will get your work when you’re done?

I don’t have a good answer for this one, but I know one thing for certain: none of my immediate family are interested in taking over my files. It’s too daunting.

Here’s a story. My aunt and uncle spent their lives collecting photos of the Yip family clan. They had a ROOM filled with photo albums, all meticulously tagged and arranged. When they moved from their house to a condo, they asked me if I’d like to take over “some of the pictures.” That’s how they phrased it. I offered to take “all” of it, not realizing how much of it there was. My aunt just laughed.

I LOVE photos, I’m into genealogy in a big way, and I still can’t take on their collection. This story tells me that however I hand off my work, it had better be in a format that’s accessible and useful to the next person.


Process consideration #6 – does your filing system work?

This is the dealbreaker – is your process working for you?

I know a guy whose filing system is physical piles of paper on the floor. January starts a new pile, and – you guessed it – December is on the top. He’s been following this system for decades, so that’s a lot of piles of paper. Being asked to locate anything causes a great deal of stress, because he’s sure he has it but he’s not sure he can retrieve it.

Take heart. Filing can overwhelm the best of us. If you think you have it bad, here’s a shot from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. I look at this and I don’t see a process that’s serving anybody.
By US Department of Veteran Affairs ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Next week, I’ll break down paper versus electronic systems.


Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

You can’t carry it (all) with you – how I moved from paper to e-files and put a rocket booster under my genealogical research

Are you thinking about going paperless?

Is the whole idea overwhelming?


Take it from me, a former paper girl (as in, really, I used to be a commercial newspaper printer) and legal assistant (which explored the question what if the only limit you had on paper filing was space?) and I have a total love affair with paper products and office supplies. Put another way, I am a professional paper organizer and paper junkie, and I have managed a LOT of files.

How many? Like this:
The best filing money can buy – rolling cabinets. By Ajuntament de Palafrugell ([1]) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
And like this:
My travel journal collection. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

No more. I am moving away from the paper train. Sorry, Staples – I love you but enough’s enough.

The beginning

It seemed innocent enough.

All the genealogy-for-beginner guides said print these family charts, and do one up for each family group. It was a process I could follow, and I like processes, so I followed it to the letter. I  lost count of the office supply trips I made for binders, tabs, plastic document sheets, more binders, more tabs, flags, staples, etc.  At one point, I considered ~$3000 worth of museum-quality supplies before I got hold of myself.

I thought that if I bought all these supplies, I’d be organized.

Many binders later, I realized the only times I really touched the binders was to file more stuff in them, not do any research. And that wasn’t right, because it seemed like a big chunk of my limited spare time was going to filing, not researching. It was also turning something fun into a chore.

Also, I didn’t like the results. All those census charts were so tiny and unreadable. I could have printed them on big paper – hi again Staples – but the costs were prohibitive. I had a tight budget for genealogy, and things were getting out of hand.

The middle

As well, I was missing SO. MUCH. STUFF. My binders didn’t have URLs, or colour photos (cost, again), and figuring out how to print unprintable web pages was annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t retrace my research steps.

I started, then stopped printing PDFs, realizing I just wanted the PDFs as resources… so…  I started a folder on my computer to keep all the electronic things. Now I had 2 completely separate filing systems, divided by medium. What was worse is that after all this time and money, my filing systems were not helping the genealogical research questions. Every time I wanted to follow an idea, I’d go from journal to binder to folder to website, and it wasn’t efficient or helpful.

There comes a point in every process-lover’s life when she realizes her current processes have hit their limits. I was at my limits. I didn’t know where to find anything I’d stored – email? Journal? Computer? Photos? Binders?

As well, I was wasting valuable research time. I think I hit the wall with my process when I carved out precious family visiting time to go to the Vancouver Public Library’s Chinese Canadiana section and I couldn’t find a document I thought I’d brought with me on my laptop.

I realized that on site research minutes are very precious, and I wasn’t prepared. It was humbling.

The decision

I moved to a cloud-based electronic document management system. It has changed my life. I still have the binders I made – they’re good for storing original documents – but otherwise I rarely touch them.

I have a personal genealogical research library of 2400 files which I can access from any device. I usually use my laptop, but in a pinch I can use my phone. I capture anything useful for future reference on the go. But it’s far more than storage – it’s a research tool.

And it’s not just for genealogy… but I’m getting ahead of myself. See you next week!

Next week: Process – it doesn’t have to be painful, but it does have to work. 


Genealogy Basics · Scanning family photos

Review: Epson FastFoto 640 High Speed Photo Scanner

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the new Epson photo scanner – billed as being the fastest photo scanner on the market today. That’s a big promise, but does it deliver?

Why consider a high speed photo scanner?

As soon as I saw the ad for the Epson FF-640, I knew it was the scanner for me. I’d spent 2.5 years carefully scanning 3000 slides, negatives and fragile old photos. I have 8000+ more to scan, but they are all prints from ~1970-2000. A high speed scanner that is built to scan photos from 3×5″ to 8×10″ is the machine of my dreams.
The machine of my scanning dreams. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

How much was it?

It was pricey – I got it for $700 on a holiday sale at Staples. It’s regularly ~$900, plus taxes. Shipping was free.

That’s a lot of money for a scanner. What else does it do?

It’s a hard copy scanner, for documents and photos. The ads say it will scan documents at 45 ppm.

So what are your first impressions?

This is my new favourite toy. On my first day of scanning, I tallied 1023 images. That’s the equivalent of 10 scanning sessions with my flatbed scanner. Put another way, I achieved in one afternoon (4.5 hours) the output of 10 months.

There are a couple of caveats, of course. My previous sessions included working with slides, negatives, and delicate, old photos. Some needed special handling and cleaning. All of those originals were scanned at higher resolutions, which slows a scanner down.

But still. A thousand images in one afternoon. Hallelujah!

OK, I’m interested. What’s in the box?
Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

From top, clockwise: scanner and document tray; scanner power cord; USB cord; quick start instructions and warranty; carrier sheet. Not shown: two microfibre cleaning cloths.

Anything else included?

Software, but what is offered will depend on your hardware and OS setup. Epson doesn’t support all platform equally. It broke down like this:

MacBook Air running OS 10.13
  • Document Capture
  • Epson Scan 2
  • Epson Scan 2 Utility
  • Epson Software Updater
  • Event Manager
PC running Windows 7
  • FastFoto
  • Document Capture
  • Epson Scan 2
  • Epson Scan 2 Utility
  • Epson Software Updater
  • Event Manager

I’ve been using the Epson Scan 2 software.

Was it easy to set up?


It was easier to set up on a PC than a Mac. That’s a first. The Mac installation wasn’t difficult, but it was clunkier and seems to be missing the FastFoto software.
Firmware update for Mac

This is a shot of the screen I got to look at for ages while Epson searched for a firmware update. Epson will advise you not to do anything else while it performs this manoeuvre, which gives you plenty of time to admire the GUI.


When I repeated the process on my PC, I found the setup much more fluid and automatic. The only hitch was when the software checked for updates, and the Windows firewall blocked the Epson Event Manager from fully installing. This is a known issue for Epson, but not for me, because I will not be using the scanner over a network.

How fast is fast?

Fast. After doing a few series of test scans, I started loading photos into the automatic feed tray (the ADF). Batches of 30 photos scanning at 300 dpi will be scanned in 22-25 seconds.

I have photos with important information on the back. Will the Epson scan both sides?

Yes. It’s an important consideration for the would-be archivist – how to keep the information on the backs of the photos? With my flatbed scanner, I’d have to scan, open the scanner & flip the photo, scan again, and then make sure to tag the scans so that they’d be consecutively ordered. That’s a lot of work when you’re facing thousands of scans, so many people opt to skip scanning the backs, or try to capture all the information when naming the scan, e.g., 2012-12-25 – Christmas at Kingsland Restaurant with Fred and Wilma Wong, John and Janet Koreman, the Tang family, Vancouver, BC P00425.

The Epson will scan a whole stack of photos 2-sided, and the scans will be consecutively ordered.

I have a collection of scans with unique ID numbers already. Will the Epson FF-640 let me continue with my number system?

Yes. I was worried about this issue. After 3200 scans, I didn’t want to have to start a new system at “P00001”. The Epson Scan 2 software will allow you to set the start number, in my case P03221, and will remember to count consecutively for all future scans.

I’ve heard the scans from the Epson FF-640 will be soft. Do you find them soft?

I was worried that I was sacrificing scanning quality for speed, but the Unsharp Mask setting in the Advanced tab of the Epson Scan 2 program does a good job of keeping photo scans sharp. In my mind, it’s perfect for the photo collector who doesn’t need advanced photo handling software.

I continue to use my flatbed Canon Canoscan 8400F for other originals:

  • Polaroids (too thick for the Epson’s feed design)
  • Photos mounted on thick cards or boards (won’t fit in the scanner)
  • Pictures still in their frames (see above)
  • Negatives and slides (the Epson does not have film-handling capability)
  • Small and fragile photos

I have advanced photo handling software. Can the Epson scan photos “as is”?

Yes. Except for Unsharp Mask, I use the scanner with the automatic photo adjustments turned off. I use Adobe Lightroom for more detailed work. The Epson will also scan photos in TIFF, PNG, and PDF, in addition to JPG.

I don’t have any fancy photo software. Can I have good quality photo scans in one pass, even if the originals are faded and scratched?

Yes. The Epson has automatic colour correction, red eye reduction, and fine line erasure.

My photos were all stuck in those “magnetic” (read: glue) photo albums and are now sticky. Can the Epson still scan them?

Sort of.

The rolling and scanning mechanism is the most fragile part of the machine. Any glue or tape stuck on the glass scanning plates would really compromise the scans and potentially damage the scanner. Epson suggests you clean each photo thoroughly before scanning. If the glue or tape isn’t coming off, you can use the carrier sheet to protect the scanner. Be sure to clean the carrier sheet from time to time too.

Any complaints so far?

Clean Freak
Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Either the machine needs constant cleaning, or I have a really dirty pile of photos. I am sure it’s the latter. In my first 1000 images, I had to stop 4x to stop and clean the scanner. In future, I will think twice about sorting photos on the floor.

The Epson works by automatically picking up each photo in a stack, rolling it through a scanner sandwich, and out the other side. Any dirt, dust, lint, hair, glue, tape remnants, or label fluff will get stuck in the rollers and scanning plates, and show up as lines in the scans. Once you see these lines appearing, you’ll need to stop, shut down the software, unplug the scanner, pop it open, and clean it carefully with the microfibre cloth.

Epson provides cleaning 2 cloths in the box, but I can see myself needing more. A lot more.

Mistakenly scanning photos as documents

From time to time, the Epson will scan a photo as a B&W document. I’m not sure why this happens, but it seems to be dependent on the photo image, because rescanning the photo will produce the same result. Luckily, I’ve been checking the scans after each batch, because I’d hate to have to find the mis-scan after having scanned a few hundred photos.


If you’re facing a monumental photo scanning project, this may be the machine for you, too. If you have any other questions I didn’t cover in this review, please pop me a comment below. Thanks for reading!

What’s up next week?

BC has had some eye raising laws on the books in the not-so-distant past. I’ll talk about one of them, and how it’s impacting people today.

Genealogy Basics

The child of my cousin is my…what?

Have you ever sat down with your first cousins and their children and spent the night trying to work out the relationships? Me too! Here’s a simple graphic showing first cousins, second cousins, and the dreaded “once removed.”

You need to know that “remove” means a generational divide. You should also remember that relationships are counted up/down your family line first, before moving over. In this case, you are Family A. 

A simple cousinship map showing 1st and 2nd cousins, plus 1 remove

This is easier if you start with the youngest generation and work upwards.

Second cousins

The children of your first cousins and your children are second cousins to each other. They are second cousins because they have the same great-grandparents. If you’re following along on the chart, you are Parent 3, your first cousin is Parent 4, and the child of your first cousin is Child 2.

Your first cousin’s children and your children are second cousins to one another. Photo credit: Pixabay.

First cousins

One generation up is you. You and your first cousins have the same grandparents in common. Another way to look at it is: you and your first cousin each have a parent who are siblings to one another. On the chart, you are Parent 3 and your first cousin is Parent 4.

First cousin, once removed

The child of your first cousin is not your second cousin, but rather the same relationship that you have with your first cousin, plus one generational divide, so your first cousin, once removed. That’s not very intuitive, right? Feels downright wrong in fact, to be calling someone way younger your first cousin, once removed, especially when you’ve been calling your actual first cousin something much less formal, like Hey cuz. 

On the chart, you are Parent 3, your first cousin is Parent 4, and the child of your first cousin is Child 2.

Imagine calling the little ones “cousin.” Feels wrong, doesn’t it? Credit: Shutterstock.

Test yourself

So, if you think you’ve got it down, who would be your second cousin, once removed? Comment below!

Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics · storytelling

How I went from a blogger to a guest lecturer

How do you know this stuff? Did you learn it at school?

There are so many answers to this question, but in the beginning, I learned my stories from my family.

The family stories

If you’re lucky, someone in your family is the family historian and the teller of tales. Our grandmother held that place in our family, and she liked to invite us for Sunday dinner. Each time, we’d ask her to tell stories – perhaps the one about the pigeons kept on the deck; or the one about the baseball cards and the chewing gum; or the one about the two day housewarming party; but mostly, stories about food. Eventually, I started writing these stories down. I don’t have them all, but I have a few. The trick to collecting family stories is to write them down exactly as they’re told. It doesn’t matter if this time isn’t the same as last time. They’re all true – perhaps not factually true, but emotionally true.

Family stories helped make sense of the world, and I was a curious child.

The family photos

I am fascinated by photography. A picture is not only a visual record of time and place, but also environment, society, people, and events. I have a storehouse of tens of thousands of pictures, a good chunk of which are family photos. Most are without identification, so I have spent hundreds of hours with them, using scanners, facial recognition software, logic, and a journal to record questions and answers.

Some are a mystery I’m still trying to solve.

The family tree

It may have been the photos that started it all – the questions of who what when why and how. Every family has people they don’t talk about. I began getting interested in family trees. On the one hand, my father’s family had access to a comprehensive family tree which detailed 800+ family members. On the other hand, my mother’s family tree was undrawn and largely unknown. I started drawing family trees by hand, then using MS-Visio,, and now I still draw and redraw the family line hierarchy when I’m trying to visualize generations through time.

My background

The idea behind raised more questions than it answered. While it was a handy way of building trees and identifying cousins, it was less useful in supplying documents. I collect facts like Smaug hoards gems. The history of my family – and to a wider extent, the history of the Chinese in Canada – is not so easily found.

I drafted timelines in Excel. I date ordered every fact I uncovered about my family: births, moves, graduations, deaths, marriages, enlistment, demobilization. I drew relationship trees to establish the birth order of coy aunts and uncles who said, “I forget how old I am.” I drew maps of neighbourhoods, mentally walking down the street to the neighbours’ houses. I collected resources: bookmarking web pages, building Excel sheets with links, downloading PDFs, scanning documents, and photographing sites.

It all felt like a big, ungainly mess until I built this website as a personal storehouse of data. What began as a passion project has led to a radio interview, a day with JJ Lee, and an invitation to be a guest lecturer at a university.

The legal framework

Every historian needs a way to see the whole picture. I see the world from a social / psychological/ familial/ economic/ political/ legal point of view. Eventually, I began seeing a framework from the facts, like seeing a body from studying bone fragments.

Here, in one graphic, are the laws affecting voting and immigration for the Chinese in Canada. I’ll expand on this graphic in my next post here.

Voting and Immigration laws, Canada
The federal laws re voting and immigration for the Chinese. © 2017. Past Presence. All rights reserved.


The classroom

It’s so ironic. I would love to go back to school to study history.

In September, I did, but with a twist: I was the guest lecturer, sharing my story along with a few facts, to a class of students in Asian studies.

Linda Yip addresses AAST Sep 27
The class of Asian-American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington – September 27, 2017

The future

How do you know this stuff? 

graphic re informed history

I’ve alway been a curious child. In the beginning, family stories helped make sense of the world. Now, original records and a powerful array of online resources fill out my understanding, provide a framework, and raise new questions. It’s a layer cake of stories and details that’s endlessly fascinating. How about you? What’s your family mystery? Want to find out more? PM me and I’ll help you get started.

Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

Top 10 tips for beginner genealogists

So, you want to start a family tree? Here are my top 10 tips, gleaned from many years of trial and error:

  1. Go ahead and sign up for (or the .com equivalent). If you’re serious about this, try the one month subscription as a trial. I have a copy of Ancestry Canada, and for the rest, I go to the library. (Hot tip: it might be free at your library, too.)
  2. You might find it easier to begin at the end, by which I mean searching for registrations of deaths. Depending on the year, you may be able to find these online via provincial vital statistics, and they are a wealth of factual detail: date of birth, place of birth, and the names of the parents, to name some of the major facts available.
  3. You’ll quickly learn that genealogy is the search for everything. This is a joy and a curse. You can really get lost in the details. For example, beyond your grandmother’s maiden name, where did she go to school? Who was her maid of honour? Was she married more than once? Did she serve in the war? Does she have siblings or children she didn’t tell you about? How tall was she? What colour was her hair? Did she travel to the USA, or to Europe, and was it by car or by boat? Who were her neighbours and friends? This is just the beginning.
  4. You’ll also soon realize that even if you find the records, they may not be all that accurate. Census takers may have had terrible penmanship, or couldn’t spell the family names, or the person answering the census might have been lying about any number of issues.
  5. Take your time carefully reviewing every record you find. Read everything: the content, the borders, and the notations added in ink after the fact. This will not be as easy as it sounds. See the featured image sample.
  6. Related to the above, download a copy of everything you find. (Yes, you can attach it in Ancestry, but what if you cancel your subscription later?)
  7. Avoid connecting your family tree to other family trees you’ll find under Ancestry hints. Use the hints, just don’t accept someone else’s work without a serious amount of fact checking first. Not everyone is as diligent as you, and you really want to avoid having to eliminate whole family lines later. (Yes, this happens.)
  8. Read a few How Tos once you’ve gotten familiar with what you’re doing. It’ll make a lot more sense, and be relevant to the questions you’re having.
  9. Take notes. If you’re not sure what’s going to be relevant or important, you can try using pre-made blank forms like this one.
  10. After you’ve been researching a family line for a while, go back over your records and read everything again. You will have learned a great deal more by this time, and so you may see something you missed on the first review. This will save major frustration later, when you have spent time and money acquiring records that you later realize you already own.
Sample census from 1861