Tame the Family Data

Data_CanvaSo many papers, so little time.

Take a walk on the wild side! You know that you want to… Be the one to pull together a family history that would make the toughest person in your family break down into tears!  You are about to embark on one of the sweetest adventures of your life.

I can clearly remember the first time that I typed my family information into a computer and saw familiar names and dates pop up for them.  It literally felt like I had opened up a present and then found another one and then another one.  Some might say, “Michele, you need to get a life!”  I say right back at you, “Try it and then say that to me.”

So, where to begin?  Of course, you start with yourself.

Here is a small list to get you started:

  1. Grab a cheap binder that you can put some page protectors in for the paper documents that you will start to accumulate.
  2. Label that first page with “Gen 1” and your name.  (We will keep this first page empty for now.  As you start to add documents, put them in the following pages.)
  3. On your computer start a new folder or a new library, if you prefer, labeled Family History Research.
  4. Within that new folder or library, make your first folder and label it with your Surname (Maiden name if that applies.)
  5. OK… this might seem tedious but open that Surname folder and make another new folder with your Last Name(Maiden) [space] First name.
  6. As far as the binder, we will start to locate some important paper documents that will be finding their way into this caretaker of our family’s paper trail.  Go find your birth certificate and marriage record if married.  If you are married, then you might want to go ahead and add your spouse’s birth certificate at this point as well. Put these documents into that first section labeled Gen. 1.
  7. If you have a scanner, take a few minutes to scan these documents and upload them into your folder labeled with your name.
  8. Now would be a great time to add that timeline and stories into your section of the binder as well.  (Stick with me and even though you think you don’t have any stories that anyone would possibly want to read, I will gently guide you through the process — or journey as I like to think of it.)

Voila!  You have officially started your own family history project.

It might seem a little puny at this point, but doesn’t it feel good to be well on your way?  The really cool thing about birth certificates, other than the obvious fact that it notes your official name and birthdate, is that it also gives your parents’ names.  In the world of genealogy, this is golden.  It is the official tie back to the previous generation.  As you start to accumulate earlier and earlier birth and death records, you will start to appreciate these listings of parents’ information because there are times when it will be the only way to get back to a previous generation.

The next step will likely require you to do some type of sleuthing work on your own.  You will want to begin to fill in the outline of your parents’ information – the underpinnings of their lives.  Once we have that, then we can go back to those stories that you hopefully have started to accumulate as well and place those right along the official documents.

Calling All Heirloom Photos

Heirloom app comparison_canvaEverywhere I turn, it seems like someone is telling me about a new phone app that I “need” to have. While I have an iPhone, I am always pretty hesitant about filling it up with too many apps.  This one though, is one that I have been telling everyone about.  It is just too good to not have!

Drum roll, please! Ok, that is way overboard, but Heirloom is an app that has so many uses for me as a genealogist and digital scrapbooker, that I can’t help but try to pass it around.

Here’s the beauty of it: we all have cameras on our smartphones and tablets, right? Well, if I wanted to take a picture of a picture that was glued down in my childhood photo album, I would need to take the photo, edit it and then crop it. With Heirloom, I just have to take the picture. Yes, you heard me right. I just have to take the picture and it adds some contrast, boosts the colors and crops to the edges of the photo.

I recently took a picture with my iPhone, using Heirloom, of an old photo that I had been meaning to run through my scanner so that I could edit it and try to bring up some definition. I was planning on using Photoshop to edit it because it was in such bad shape.  This particular photo was taken back in 1967 and was terribly faded and yellowed. I have attached the collage of the two photos so that you could see the difference. The photo on the top is taken straight from my camera on my iPhone. The bottom of the collage is the photo taken with the same iPhone but using Heirloom.  You can’t really tell from the collage, but the straight camera shot did not crop the photo and you can see the fading.  The Heirloom photo is just heads above the quality of my original photo.

I do have access to Photoshop and Photoshop Elements and Lightroom — all the digital goodies that would turn this same faded photo into a pretty good photo, but let’s get real.  With this app, I have skipped three steps and I can now start using it immediately.

And it keeps getting better. (Get ready because my geeky side will be readily apparent real soon.) I don’t make it a habit to contact companies to make upgrade suggestions, but this app has touched my inner-photographer/family historian so I didn’t think twice about going ahead and hitting the SEND button in my email!

You see… as much as I love this app, there is one area that I felt would take it from a super heirloom photo uploading machine into a necessity for all family history folks — no matter what your focus. I felt that this app lacked the ability to add information that would follow the photo no matter where it landed — on a scrapbook page or in Ancestry.com or wherever. I suggested that they consider adding the ability to add metadata information to the photo.

Guess what?  Not only did I get a response by the next morning, but it was from the owner. He explained that my particular request was indeed a popular one and would be available in the next update of the app! What does this mean for you? Well, now you can take your newly-taken photo and add some details to it such as a date and names. You could also potentially add a story to go along with it.

If you have ever used a photo editing program before, you would have noticed that your photo had the information about the camera that took the photo, the date, and a lot of other information that may or may not have seemed useful.  Now you will be able to add the really important stuff to the background of the photo and it will follow the picture around.

How amazing is that?  Family historians have been known to do a happy dance when they find an elusive bit of information — this is pretty close to making me do that happy dance. Don’t worry though, I won’t be posting any videos of me doing that dance!

First Assignment: Start with Yourself

Complete HappinessI hope that you will join with me as I start to unfold the steps that you can take to pull together a family history that might knock the socks off the rest of your family!

As our days get busy with kids and life in general, we can put ourselves in the background.  Get your appointment book out and set a time to write down your own timeline.  Spreadsheets work great for this because you can insert lines to add new pieces of information.  No need to start hyper-ventilating yet.

Let’s start at the very beginning… You were born, so add that date at the top.  If you take a few moments, you can quickly figure out the years that you were in kindergarten and continue through college.  Go ahead and add those as well.  If you are married, then there is another date to add.  See, it isn’t so hard.  It just takes a few minutes to get started.  Then as you have a few minutes each day or even once a week, you can continue to insert more dates as they come to you. By the way, this helps for resumes as well! Let’s even go so far as to start a file folder on your computer or filing cabinet of choice that will quickly become a favorite for sure.

Once you have some dates, challenge yourself to think of some stories.  Write them down.  I’m going to take some stress out of this by saying that you don’t have to write these stories in any particular order.  A few years ago, my youngest daughter started asking me at bedtime to tell stories about when I was little.  Sometimes, it took me a little bit to come up with a story that I thought was worthy to tell.  But soon, I figured out that what she really wanted to hear was simply what life was like when I was little.  It helped to think about subjects like summer, special events, holidays, and toys.  You get the idea…  She loved the stories so much that she asked every night for those stories and what I found was that I actually did have some pretty darn adorable stories that I could relate to her.

You can tell where I am going with this, can’t you?  Yes, now these seemingly random batch of stories need to be put into writing.  How can we pass on our family histories if we don’t include ourselves?  Think of this as one of the most important things you can do for your family.  If you don’t have kids yet, that’s okay as well.  Think of it as the beginnings of your own biography so when you become rich and famous, you will have a head start!  Then plug these stories into the spreadsheet as well; label them with a quick title so that you can easily tell which story they belong with.

By the way, it’s been a couple of years and my youngest still asks for me to relate the story of when I was a little girl and went to my first public pool.  All the girls had to wear those funny caps with flowers on the sides to keep our hair kind of dry and out of the pool’s drainage system.  Mine worked really well and when it came time for a body-check by the lifeguards, everyone got out of the pool except for me.  Imagine this little girl in the pool having the time of her life swimming in clear water with people standing along side of the pool all waving at me!  I thought it was neat and waved greetings back!  Since I grew up swimming in lakes, I didn’t realize that they cleared everyone out.  My mom kept waving and saying something to me but with that cap on my head and over my ears, I couldn’t hear a thing.  Too funny as I remember it now and my daughter really starts to giggle when she hears me retell this most embarrassing story. If I remember right, I don’t think that we went back to that pool though! And yes, the picture attached to this entry is my photo from 1967.

I’ve told you one of my stories, now take a few minutes and write down one of your own! Come on… You can do it!  What is the first story to come to your mind?

Guilty Pleasure

typewriter1One word from someone that has been a wife and mom for over thirty years:  Do family history research for all the right reasons and know that it will give you pleasure back ten-fold.  I know that you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t already interested in your own family history, but putting a true value on it will give you the inspiration necessary to bring it all together into a priceless heirloom.

There are three parts to this equation.  If your parents are living, your journey into your family’s history will turn into something almost magical.  Aahhh… you laugh at me, but continue on with this and then come back and tell me different!  When this project is brought out at your next family gathering, it will spark conversations that will leave you with all sorts of new stories to be written down.  As for yourself, you might just discover that looking back at your own family tree, with all its ups and downs, will give you a new sense of belonging that might have gotten lost along the way. I love the sense of ownership for my home state and beloved country that I have gained from the journey into my own family’s history.  Then we have the next generation, our children, and knowing that the discoveries you make about their ancestors, will affect just how much attention they will pay when it comes to learning about history in school.  Actually tying one of their ancestors to a particular time in our country’s history makes a huge impact on them — especially in the elementary age group.  Do I have any particular studies to back this statement up?  None at all.  It is all from my own personal experience and watching my own four children grow up.

Add this excitement onto that same sense of belonging and you would think that it should be a requirement for everyone to delve into their own family history. There you go again…snickering at me.  Or was that a snort I heard?  If everyone leaned about their past, think how much better we might all feel about our own lives. How much more might we be tempted to get involved in not only our own state but in our country?  If we could see some of hardships that our families endured, how could we not be affected and think differently about our own lives?  Whoa… this is getting a little too deep, but hopefully, you see where I am going with this.

I have to tell you that as for myself, I have gotten so much more than just knowledge from working on both my own family history and my husband’s family.  The feedback that I have received is enough to almost make this girl blush!  Not too long ago, my mother-in-law’s brother passed away which was terribly sad for this very close family.  The good part was that my mother-in-law had the chance to spend some time with her brother and guess what he mentioned to her?  He loved the book that I had made for their family several years ago. Of course, after we got done talking, I had to immediately go and pull it from the bookcase to look through again and what I noticed was how inviting it was to look through.  Bare with me as I explain!  I am not trying to be boastful about my scrapbook prowess; really!  What I want to get across it that it wasn’t your normal family history book filled with pedigree charts, census record printouts, and death certificates.  It was done more like a picture book with snippets of really interesting information. While there is definitely a place for all the documents that come along with a well-done family history project, making that connection for the reader is really almost as important.

So many stories… I hope you don’t mind!  They all help to make a point that I want to get across in the midst of all my attempts to entice you to take this project on.  My youngest daughter is in her middle-school years.  In Indiana, elementary students study their state’s history in 4th grade. Early in the school year, I approached her teacher to suggest that I come in and talk about Indiana’s pioneer history.  As the genealogist for The Society of Indiana Pioneers, I have had the opportunity to read and hear a lot about this topic and I was anxious to share some interesting snippets that I hoped might catch their attention.  As usual, working with my daughter’s classmates was such a wonderful experience — they really are so much fun at this age!  To my surprise, I was asked to talk in front of the entire 4th grade (4 classes worth.)  What was a little (…OK… a lot intimidating) for me at the beginning, quickly turned into a blessing for myself.  The best part came at the end when I asked if anyone knew any of their own ancestors.  I was blown away as the hands shot up and it was a good thing we had a few minutes left because they were definitely excited to relate to me all about their own famous ancestors. You could tell that some of the children were really having to put on their thinking caps to try and remember who one of their ancestors were that would equal some of the well-known names being mentioned by their peers.  This was fascinating to watch from the front of the class.  You would have to ask my children if this rings true, but I am pretty sure the idea that they might have been related to Pocohontas gave them the incentive to listen and learn just a little bit more when this time period came around in social studies class! The most important part of this whole story is that each one of the students that had some knowledge of one or more of their ancestors has some tie to the history of our country.  That tie is what will make them not only be a great person when they grow up but will also make them a great part of our country and its future!

Goodness… I am almost out of breath as I finish this posting. You might be thinking that I should have tired fingers from the length of this post, right?  Anyway… back to guilty pleasures.  There is nothing guilty about this because it is a win-win for everyone involved.  Take it on and then report back to me and let me know if I have lead you astray!

Have to Have Docs

Where do I begin? Do I need all these documents?

Let’s just say that each document that you can locate, will add very important pieces to your family history puzzle.

Is it necessary to get all the birth and death records in order to begin my journey?

Oh, no… not at all. You can do a whole lot of things without having the official documents but they can really give some important insights into your family member’s past and help to keep you on the right path. Not necessary, but invaluable.

Think of them as collecting little jewels along your journey into your family’s history!

For most people, the first three or four generations will all have official birth and death records that can be obtained. There comes a point where there will be no county or state birth/death records available for some states or counties. Then we have to get creative on how we verify important birth and death information. These vital records give us a peek into a happy time and sorrowful time within families. Birth records are the #1 document to have for each person since they are filled in by the people directly involved. The mother is giving her name and the father’s name as well as the child’s name that she has had the intimate pleasure to give birth.

While not issued on happy occasions like birth certificates, death certificates can be a wealth of information. Of course the deceased person’s name, date and time of death, and place/cause of death can be a primary source. It is important to remember that when you get to the birth date and name of parents and where they came from, this information becomes a secondary source.  Getting a bit technical here, but it’s good to know because some people take the names written down for parents or the birthdate as a fact.

What we have to remember is that the person that is giving the information is in a state of shock to some extent over the death of the your shared relative. They also might not be all that familiar with the deceased person’s family – especially if there wasn’t much talk about one’s parents! I say this because it is important to use these particular pieces of information as tentative until you can verify how factual they are. I know, that might seem confusing, but it helps to know up front instead of finding out later. It’s all a part of the expedition we are embarking on:  if all the puzzle pieces fit together immediately, then it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying, right?

Here’s some tips to get you started:

  1. Ask parents and grandparents for copies of their birth certificates. At the same time, you might as well ask for copies of marriage records and death certificates.

[This can be pretty overwhelming to just show up & start asking for copies of our family members so do them a favor and try to give them several days notice.]


  1. If they don’t have a copier or scanner, you can take pics with your own camera/smartphone, personal scanner (flip-pal) or simply take everything over to an office supply store or shipping storefront and pay to use their self-serve copiers.

[Just make sure that you are very careful with birth certificates – especially of living people – since identity theft is something we want to protect our loved-ones from!]


  1. If you are at the point that no one in your family has the actual records you are hoping to obtain, then you will want to put some money out initially to get copies from official state/county offices. I always suggest that you search for the county health department where your relative was born.


  1. You can walk in to a health department or choose to make a request through the mail which takes longer. If you don’t live close or can’t get there during their office hours, then a mail-in request is a helpful alternative.


  1. In Indiana, county health departments began recording births around 1882. Every state is different so a quick online search will clarify what is available for your relatives. Even the dates that state health departments began to record vital records can be different from the county level.  For example, in Indiana, the state started recording births in October, 1907 and deaths in January, 1900. It pays to do a little research for each particular state!


[Just another note to remember: You might not find some records if the family didn’t report the birth or death. I had a relative that died in the early 1900’s in northern Indiana and I found an obituary but not a death certificate at any level.  When this happens, make sure to keep a record of your attempt to obtain the vital record so that you have proof!]


  1. If requesting via mail, you will need to print out a request form from either the county health department or the State health department directly from their website. Pay attention to their exact requirements so that your request doesn’t get delayed or returned unfilled. You will need a copy of your own driver’s license and a cashier’s check or money order instead of personal checks or cash. ($5 – $15) And last but not least, always include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) so that your documents gets mailed out sooner than later and with greater ease.

[It doesn’t hurt to contact the health department directly just to verify their requirements that are posted on their website.  Some offices are better than others at keeping their information up-to-date.]


Getting up to speed with Family Trees

What is the fuss about family trees other than they are concise places to help us see our family at a glance? Well, that one statement might be reason enough, but starting a family tree online also gives us a place to keep everything we are finding and be able to access it whenever we want.

There are great software packages available if you want to keep everything very private and self-contained on a single computer. But, if you want to really step up your searching capabilities, then putting your information into an online family tree is the way to go.

My two favorites, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, have been around for a long time. Both are FREE and encourage you to add your  family trees. As with any for-profit company, you will be courted by Ancestry to sign up for their subscription packages but don’t fret, it isn’t mandatory. FamilySearch, on the other hand,  is a completely free site that you can also use to search but can be a bit tricky to work in. I have had a subscription with Ancestry.com for years due to my profession, but with all the work that FamilySearch has done with their online information, it is quickly gaining speed.

While I am not affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints, I have become very appreciative of their mission to document and tie together every family.  Maybe I’m stretching what their mission is just a bit, but it is quite incredible to see what all they have accomplished. If you have never heard of the Mormans and their strong attachment to family history, then you might want to do a quick online search to check it out. They have been working for years and years putting federal,state and county records onto microfilm and storing all this wonderful history in their mountain vault in Utah as well as accumulating a massive amount of books in their library. For quite some time, they have been on another mission to digitize and index all of that wonderful goodness not just for the United States, but for all over the world. Truly a worthy mission in my mind!

Ancestry.com, on the other hand, has an extremely easy-to-use format. Yes, you did read my words correctly above, Ancestry.com family trees are FREE to enter online and you can upload pics, scanned documents and your own information.  If you want to use their searching capabilities, you have to have a subscription. The good news is that most libraries carry their own subscriptions to the Ancestry Library Edition so you can gain access to their online databases while working on your family tree at your local library.

Quick side story! I had a distant cousin contact me several years ago telling me that she had some pictures of my grandmother.  She uploaded them to her family tree on Ancestry.com and I was able to see my grandmother as a young woman. Plus the young gentleman sitting next to her was my grandfather that had passed away when I was about three years old. I’m not sure if my own mother had ever saw pictures of her mother when she was younger. I wished that I had been able to share these pics with my mother who died back in 2000 but it was certainly a treasure to have! Just the ability to make contact with distant family, is another huge reason to get your family tree online.

Now back to setting up these all-important family trees. I have my own family tree set up on both sites. Probably overkill on my part, but I like to see what is available. Entering information on both trees is as easy as starting with your own name and birthdate and because they are all password protected, your information will not be shared. Just keep in mind that anyone in your family that has passed away and has their death date entered, will become public and viewable. Well… (and you know there is always an exception to the rule, right?) on Ancestry.com, you can keep your information completely private. The basic data will show up in a search of public trees but no one can see what else you might have entered for anyone within that tree such as photos, stories or information you have collected. We’ll have to discuss the pro’s and con’s of keeping a tree private later.  I’m in the camp that thinks that everything that is entered should be viewable because some other relative might have information that would help me.

If you are really just starting out, you will quickly learn that the family history community can be extremely helpful and willing to go to great lengths to help a fellow researcher. I think they call this “paying it forward!” What are your thoughts?

So much more to say about setting up and working with family trees, but just getting started is a big step.  I think that going much further into the process would be like welcoming you to the first day of college and then unleashing all four years of learning onto you in the first day. Family history research is a journey. Enjoy it.

We All Have A Dream

We all have the dream that we will take beautiful pictures of our family, take great care and place them in elaborate books that our family will pour over for years and years to come.  We envision that some day we will sit down and capture all the family stories that our parents have been telling us over and over since we were little.  Who could forget those stories, right?

Then  — Bam! – one day we look around and one by one our treasured family leaders seem to be shrinking and now recalling those stories gets harder and harder.  You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?  It’s kind of like that old telephone game where you would whisper a sentence into the person’s ear at the beginning of the line and then they would pass it on to the last person.  Only when the last person says the sentence, it was ridiculously different than the original line.

Life gets busy and suddenly we find ourselves with stories left untold and photos that no one remembers who they are and to which family they belong.  My mother realized that she would not live forever and took it upon herself to put names to her treasured family heritage photos.  I want to be that person that inspires you to break down your family history journey into small steps and get those wonderful stories, large and small, written in a beautiful format.

I’m Michele Kerr, and I would like to be your guide as we take a journey into our pasts and leave a legacy for those who follow.

I believe that we can all find strength and comfort in knowing where we come from and taking a look at the interesting twists and turns that we all have taken that brought us to where we are right now.  What “stuff” are you made of?

Beginning It’s a Life Story is something that I have felt drawn to for many years, but have just not taken the time to pull it all together until now. I’ve come to a point in my career that I have had to take stock of what I have done and where I want to go in the future.

The twists and turns in my own life have led me to this place, which I love, but the difference this time was that my next chapter hasn’t just been plopped down in front of me.  You see, I have pretty much always had my own business since my 2nd child was born, some twenty-two years ago.  At the time, it was a no-brainer what I would do to supplement my income while raising our children.  It was very easy to transition my full-time position at the time into a business that I ran out of my home and I have never looked back.  My path has changed over time from desktop publishing to Creative Memories consultant to bookkeeper/treasurer for my parents’ company to family history researcher to genealogist for The Society of Indiana Pioneers and lineage society research specialist.

The idea of this site has been a long-time coming.  Over the years, I have had so many times when fellow researchers and clients have looked me in the eye and asked why I thought that their children were not even a bit interested in looking at their research work. The sadness in their eyes reflected the pain in their hearts that all their work to pass on their family history might be lost, or in the worse-case scenarios, be thrown out in the trash.

This is where I think that I can be helpful and where my background with all its twists and turns has prepared me.  I am pulling my computer background, my creative side, and my love for family history and stories together so that we can draw those who follow to actively search out our Life Stories and be excited to share them to family members  for generations to come.

Why should anyone be interested in what I have to say?  That is always the question and something that I think everyone struggles with. I am a lover of history, passionate about family history in particular, and combining all the work that I have done in the field as well as my computer background, I find myself at a point where I feel like I have a lot to offer those kindred souls that find their way to my site.

Where did the name, It’s a Life Story, come from?  Oh, that’s easy!  I love to think that each of us is made up of love stories – hundreds if not thousands of them!  Our parents were once newly-weds, just starting out , very much in love and looking forward to the future together as one.

My own journey into my family history began some thirteen years ago when our son needed to have a family tree in fourth grade.  (In Indiana our children study the state’s history in 4th grade.) It turned out that this little project changed my life forever.  Pretty dramatic statement but it’s true. You see, my mother had passed away a year before this family tree project was assigned.  When I started to look around the bits and pieces that she had put together over the years, it gave me a great deal of comfort.

It’s hard to put into words how much it meant to me to find those hand-drawn family trees with her handwriting. Somehow I could sense that many had come before me and many would come long after I am gone; it gave me a feeling of a strong foundation.

What is the goal of this site?  My youngest daughter, bless her heart, loved to get tucked in at night.  In the past few years, they no longer are the long, extended tuck-ins like when she was a young child, but it still is those last few minutes of a usually hectic day when we get that final connection of the day.

It might have only been a year or so ago that she started to ask me to tell her stories of when I was a little girl. I guess that she had gotten tired of our story time with books and made-up stories!  Anyway, I can remember thinking, “Me? I don’t have any story-worthy tales that would be interesting for anyone to hear let alone her!” Turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong if I had tried.  She loved hearing about all the little things that I could muster up from my memory.  She still asks for some of her favorite stores to be repeated, especially the one in particular where I was quite embarrassed.  I won’t go into it; you can read about it here if you’d like.  I think that somehow my stories give her a sense that I, too, was a small girl just finding my way and sometimes even making mistakes.

These stories, even my own love story, is something I want my own kids to know about.  They have only known me for a little while.  I want them to look at our own family love stories and want to pass them on to their own families.

Are you with me?  Ready to explore how you can begin your own family research?  Or do you have boxes of research and baffled about how you can pull it together into the treasured book that deserves your family’s attention?  Let’s get started.

Sign up and let’s start at the beginning and take one step at a time together.

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