Sno-Isle Genealogical Society

The Sounder
Volume 23, Issue 1
First Quarter, 2009

Serving Snohomish and Island County Genealogists
for over Twenty Years

Sounder Banner Graphic by David Raney

Margaret Robe Summitt

               Fairly often we genealogists find ourselves in front of a stack of documents, or in front of two or three rolls of microfilm, with only limited time in which to search those stacks to find our particular needle. We have to make educated guesses as to which stack, or part thereof, will yield the best results in the shortest time. We want to be the exception to a certain law of searching that says we will find what we want five minutes before the library closes. A genealogist who knows how to skim can often save time and maybe even have time to make some copies.

               Skimming is NOT speed-reading. Poor Evelyn WOOD has to remember the words that make her eyes glaze over. You don’t. Nevertheless, you, like Evelyn, have to make yourself a mental framework.

               First, analyze the document. Find an index or table of contents, or any division of the document into sections.   How is it organized?

               When consulting newspapers, for instance, the first step is to determine the number of pages per issue. Was the paper published daily (including Sundays) or weekly? If you are looking for an obituary, find any page of obituaries, and look at the amount of space devoted to them. Determine what page is likely to have them, and then turn quickly to that page in every issue. Reading through a couple of obituaries will reveal whether they provide the details you desire. I recall finding an obituary saying merely: “Grandfather WALKER died at his home near Springfield last Sunday. He was over eighty years of age. He was interred in the Masonic cemetery.” Believe me, I wish the writer had told us more about Grandfather WALKER; however, since his place of burial was something I did not know, I’m glad I found the obit.

               When consulting the Everett Herald from the early 1900s for the Sounder, I cannot follow this strategy, since this paper does not have its obits together on one page. I am finding obits buried in several different places. If a prominent person has died, or if a person has died in a sensational manner, that item is likely found on the front page; the middle pages contain some items headed “Obituary,” along with brief mentions of deaths and funerals buried in the news items from smaller towns than Everett. Occasionally a family may print a “Card of Thanks” for attentions rendered by friends and neighbors (these are in small type, just before the classifieds page); these may contain names of friends and family that did not appear in the news items.

               Hence this strategy of looking on particular pages for the items you want is only a general strategy. You must modify it according to the rationale that you find within the document.

               When consulting court documents, or land records, try the same general strategy. Figure out how much space each case takes up, and determine where one case ends and another begins. When reading court cases, be sure to look for all the follow-up entries. Handwritten documents will really slow you down. When consulting these I use numbers as landmarks, particularly dates, and then look for capital letters to find surnames.

               The second step is to raise your mental antennae in search of surnames and place names. Occasionally a surname, or a place name, may ring a bell. Stop and read them. A pen and paper will help you make a list of what rang the bell. Make this list quickly; don’t get bogged down writing the item word for word. Include notes on where in the film the information was found.

               Recently I was looking for family information in a German-language newspaper published in Wisconsin. German is not a language I have much studied; often I had to read an item two or three times, merely to figure out that it was NOT what I was seeking. This paper was typeset in that Gothic alphabet font in which some of the German letters (such as s and f) can fool you. My eyes naturally picked out words I recognized, names of counties such as Outagamie, Winnebago, and Manitowoc. Once I had gotten accustomed to finding the obituaries on a certain page, I skimmed them for familiar words like these.

               I had also done my homework, by studying my people who lived in the area. I was not looking for any specific item in the Appleton Volksfreund newspaper; I knew, however, the surnames of several families who lived there at the time the paper was published, and was hoping any one of them would ring a bell. Knowing the surnames well enough to recite them in my sleep also helped. The first bell to ring came, naturally enough, through a phrase in English: the “Eagle Manufacturing Company.” I paused to consider why the bell was ringing. Oh, yes: this company made farming equipment. It was founded by my SAIBERLICH family. I looked more closely at the text and found it contained that surname. Knowing a gem was buried here, I set about deciphering the text and translating it in my head. The article proved to be an obituary, of “Frau Heinrich SAIBERLICH” (her first name, and her maiden name, not given—but those I knew already). The gem came in that the obituary gave her birth date, and her birth place: Ollendorf, Sachsen-Weimar, Deutschland. It confirmed what I knew from the ship’s passenger list and thereby reinforced the chain linking the generations.

               Skimming printed documents, in my opinion, is much easier than skimming microfilms or documents online. Printed documents should allow one to flip rapidly—but gently—through the pages. Consultation of pages at random can reveal quickly whether there is a lode of information to be mined, or perhaps only a small yet valuable gem or two. In the former case, make a huge note to come back when you have time to copy the whole thing.

               Online or microform skimming can raise some physical issues. Since I was a small child, I have had vestibular problems; that is, problems with my inner ear. I used to get carsick regularly, until I got glasses at the age of eleven. Nonetheless, I must still preserve my equilibrium, especially when reading microfilms. It was this subject, raised during a casual conversation the night we met, that first clued me in that my husband Chris might be a good match for me. Chris knew what I was talking about, and he sympathized!

               Some people told me I should put a piece of colored paper on the platform of the microfilm reader. This did not really help me. The only rule that helped is this: Do not try to read the film while it is in motion! While I am cranking the film, however slowly, I always look away from the screen until I bring my hand to a complete stop. Then I can jerk the image around until I find a date or a page number.

               I do not like jerking images around, and not only because of the inner ear problem. A very faint image may require high magnification. High magnification means I lose the ability to orient myself quickly within the document. I jerk the image one way, then another, until I find a page number. I can put up with this jerking, however. What really tries my patience is a computer that downloads every horizontal line of pixels with agonizing slowness, just so I can move up (or down) half a page.

               Even when the images are moving smoothly, the mind can play tricks. Skimming activates the right side of the brain, in a way comparable to driving for hours on the highway. Spatial relationships become very important (the eyes always go to the left-hand column, for example). Snatches of tunes will emerge from the depths of memory. Words, however, become sing-song, or meaningless rhymes, and they remind you of things you had long forgotten. It is very annoying to see a word on a newspaper page, and have it trigger a random memory, and have the word stick in the mind, with no way to banish the stupid thing, while, like parts of a machine, the eyes and the hand continue the motions of skimming. It can keep a skimmer from remembering her motivation to skim. To prevent this, I deliberately put something into my right brain that it will like. I introduce a tune that suggests genealogy in some way. I might play (in my mind) a tune like “Searchin’,” with its rhythmic chorus of “gonna find her!” to keep my right brain happy and to keep my task on track.

               Finally, if you have the time to spare, take frequent breaks, as you would on a long car trip. One hour at a time was all I could manage with the Appleton Volksfreund before I had to yield to a raging headache. I would have stopped sooner, but the library allowed its patrons only an hour at a time per film.

               At the end of the day, you will be able to locate exactly where you put a certain item when you sat down to skim, only you won’t be able to remember that the word for it is ‘purse.’ You will have a list of interesting items, detailed enough that you could find them again if need be; and, if your genealogy angel has smiled on you, you may have a bundle of photocopies in your arms. Give your eyes, hand and brain a break. Go back and read the list several hours later. The left side of the brain will take over again and do its work of analysis. You will have successfully skimmed.

    BACK to the March 2009 TABLE OF CONTENTS

This FREE web site and its content pages are ©2002-2009 by the Sno-Isle Genealogical Society, except where otherwise noted. This site and its content pages may NOT be copied, altered, converted or uploaded to ANY electronic system or BBS. They may NOT be linked to from any "pay-for-view" site, nor can they be linked in such a manner as to APPEAR to be part of another site. This includes frames and capturing as well as inclusion in any commercial software or print collection. If you are aware of any violations of these copyright restrictions, please email the details to the WEB MANAGER - SIGS at .