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Mind Maps in Action: Mind Maps for Genealogy

In this 'Mind Maps in Action' article, we talk to author, Ron Arons, about his latest book: Mind Maps for Genealogy

Who are you, and what is your background?

For fifteen years I've been researching my family history and, in the process have become an accomplished speaker (I've given more than 250 presentations worldwide) as well as a three-time author. During the initial phase of my ancestral history research, I discovered that my great-grandfather served time in the famous New

York correctional facility known as Sing Sing Prison. The finding was humorous, but also shocked my system to its core. How could I have descended from a criminal? I wrote a manuscript about my ancestor as well as his father, a rabbi from Poland who found trouble himself in England. The publishing world told me that it "did not need another memoir." Thinking out of the box one day (without the aid of mind maps), I decided to write a book about all Jewish criminals who served time in Sing Sing. The research and the book writing took ten years, but I found a publisher that agreed to print my book. I followed up with a second book, WANTED! U.S. Criminal Records, a 388-page reference work that shows where a researcher can find historical criminal records across America. Before my career change, I worked for numerous high-tech firms (both hardware and software) in a marketing capacity. My educational background includes an engineering degree from Princeton University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. At both schools, I learned many techniques, methodologies, and tools to think and act analytically, but mind maps was not one of those tools

When and how did you first start using mind maps?

I first learned about mind maps from my webmaster. I was in the process of expanding the scope of my website and we used mind maps to determine the layout of the newer, expanded website. For years, I have been including mind maps at the beginning of my talks to show the audience where I am going to take them with the presentation.

What is the focus of the new book?

My new book, MIND MAPS FOR GENEALOGY is just what the title says it is. The focus of the book is targeted at the millions of people who enjoy the hobby of genealogy. Quite honestly, the book is targeted at intermediate and advanced-level researchers as well as professional genealogists to help them think more clearly, creatively, and effectively.

In the genealogy world, there's something called the Genealogical Proof Standard, a framework to help assure that research is done at a high/professional level. The basic steps of the GPS are:

  • Reasonably exhaustive research
  • Citation of sources
  • Correlation of data
  • Explaining away discrepancies in the data
  • A written summary of the research with proof arguments

I firmly believe that mind maps can help with steps 1, 3, 4, and 5.

So the book has several components:

  • An overview of mind map concepts and a comparison with other tools that typically would be used for genealogical research
  • A description of the Genealogical Proof Standard and other methodologies commonly used in the genealogical world
  • Step-by-step instructions on how to use both FreeMind and XMind, two of the more popular free mind mapping tools which run on both PCs and Macs
  • A buyers guide which briefly discusses other mind mapping tools and services
  • Additional mind maps created from with data from other genealogists' examples.

What sparked this idea for you?

In the past I had used spreadsheets to create timelines with structured data that I found in documents about my ancestors. Structured data means that all of the data fell into a few common categories: date of document, document type, name of individual, address, birth year, occupation. These spreadsheets were very helpful, but mind maps allowed me to play for effectively with more unstructured data, either documents regarding multiple people, or different documents about the same individual that had different data types.

During this past December and January, I started to use mind maps in earnest. Specifically, I used them to solve a couple of genealogical problems that had haunted me for years:

  • Over the years I had collected documentation about various people with the same name as my great-grandfather, Isaac Spier, who also found trouble. Did this information add to my ancestor's story? If not, how many other men with this unusual name did these documents represent? Two? Five? Ten? I used various mind maps to explore the lives of many individuals in great detail until I felt comfortable answering these questions. The amazing thing is that the mind maps proved to me that there were five unique individuals, all born in the same twelve-year timeframe, all lived where my great-grandfather lived (England, New York) or claimed to live (Pennsylvania), and all five found trouble. In fact, four of the five had extra-marital affairs. Statistically this phenomenon is an outlier by any standard. Yet, mind maps helped me to prove all of it true.

  • My great-grandfather served time in Sing Sing Prison for, of all things, bigamy. [Note: my great-grandmother was his first wife, I am pretty sure.] People have asked me through the years, did he have any children by his second wife? The answer, I'm pretty sure is no, i.e. zero. You might be aware that it is usually reasonably difficult to prove a negative, but mind maps can to the rescue one more time. I definitely saw the problem in a new light and was able to think about other ways to tackle it.

What is the link between mind mapping and genealogy, how do maps work/help in the process?

It has been my experience that mind maps can help during various stages of the research process:

  • Brainstorming and planning future research.
  • Keeping a log of research conducted to date.
  • More effective correlation of data (this is the most powerful application of mind maps for genealogical research).
  • Creating a beautiful summary of the research and, very often, telling a wonderful story that stems from the correlated data.

What’s next for you?

As an author, writing the book is just the first step. Now I have to go and market the book as hard as possible and I'm doing that by exhibiting at conferences, giving presentations to other groups, and providing copies to opinion leaders. Also, I'm toying with the writing similar books for other markets. Clearly, my experience with this book sets me up well to do this.

Where can people get more details/the book?

I self-published this book and, currently, the book is available in the store on my website:

A huge thank you to Ron for sharing his story with us! If you'd like to share your 'Mind Maps in Action' story with us, get in touch via Twitter, or by commenting below.

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Barney is Community Manager at Biggerplate and shares user stories, mind mapping tips, and other news and updates from our global member community!
London, UK Website