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  • The Computer Genealogist: Power Tools — The Power is in You, Not the Tool, Using the Power of the Windows Clipboard in Genealogy

    Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG

    Published Date : February 6, 2004

    What is the Windows Clipboard? It is a space that belongs to the operating system of your computer, not to any particular program. That space can hold something.

    What kinds of somethings can you put on the Clipboard? It’s very flexible. It can hold an entire file, a single word, or many pages; it can hold an entire photograph or just a small piece of it; it can hold a large spreadsheet or just one formula.

    How do you access the Clipboard? You’ve probably been doing it all along without realizing it. There are three commands that access the Clipboard: Cut (to the Clipboard), Copy (to the Clipboard), and Paste (from the Clipboard). Many people think that these commands belong to the individual software program they are using; however, they belong to the operating system’s Clipboard.

    Generally, a program offers three ways to access these commands: from the Edit menu, from a toolbar, and from the keyboard. In the early days of Windows, usability studies showed that most users found it confusing that there was more than one way to do things and were afraid that different methods did different things. Even today, many users learn to access a command one way and are hesitant to explore options. The power lies in expanding your computer horizons.

    The fastest way to access the Clipboard is to use the keyboard shortcuts rather than the toolbar buttons. It doesn’t save a lot of time, but over a year it can add up — it’s time you can use to research ancestors instead.

    •  Ctrl-x (press and hold Ctrl, and then press x) Cuts away what is selected and literally moves it to the Clipboard. This shortcut is easy to remember if you think of “x” as looking like a pair of scissors. In a word processor or spreadsheet it is usually easy to see what is selected because it is highlighted on the screen. You may have to experiment with other programs to see how they define “selected” if it isn’t immediately obvious.

      Ctrl-c Copies whatever is selected to the Clipboard. It is just like Ctrl-x, except that it leaves the selected material intact and still selected.

      Ctrl-v Pastes whatever is on the Clipboard to where your cursor is. If you have something selected, it completely replaces the selected material. Whatever is on the Clipboard remains there until you replace it with something else using Cut or Copy.

    If you look at your keyboard, you’ll see that those three keys are lined up on the lower row. The key to the left of them is “Z.” Although this key isn’t technically connected to the Clipboard, it is most valuable when we are using the Clipboard. Ctrl-z is my favorite keyboard shortcut. It is the “Oops!” command. Windows calls it Undo.

    Some programs have multiple levels of Undo — a function of the program, which has cached everything you’ve done recently somewhere in its own space, independent of the Clipboard. The Clipboard continues to function as a one-item space, independent of Undo. You can press Ctrl-z multiple times to restore several things that you have Cut to the Clipboard, but the Clipboard patiently retains the last item you cut before you began selecting Undo.

    And last, but certainly not least, in the basic information you need to know about the Clipboard is an item on the Edit menu called Paste Special. If you select this item, the program you are using analyzes what is on the Clipboard and decides what things it could possibly do with it. For example, suppose you have highlighted several paragraphs in your word-processing file and then pressed Ctrl-x (cut) or Ctrl-c (copy). When you select Edit>Paste Special, a dialog box will appear asking if you want to paste everything — including styles, formatting, and hyperlinks — or if you just want to paste the words. The options in this dialog box vary depending on what is selected and the program you are using.

    Programs vary in the level at which you can use the Clipboard and what they will accept, so you will need to investigate. One reason that Paste Special is so valuable is that sometimes when you don’t get the results you want with a simple copy-and-paste, you may still be able to do so if you use Paste Special.

    The power of the Clipboard lies in the fact that it belongs to the operating system, not to any single file or program. Thus, you can use it to copy or move material within a single file or document, between two files or documents within the same program, and between files or documents in different programs — even different types of programs, as from an Internet browser to a database. Occasionally when you close a program, you may see a message that says something like “You placed a large amount of something on the Clipboard. Do you want it to be available to other applications after you quit?” Windows figures if you aren’t going to use it, it might as well empty the Clipboard. With new megasized computers, this deletion isn’t really necessary, but it increased efficiency on older machines.

    Until recent versions of Windows, the Clipboard could only hold a single something. The newest version lets you stack multiple somethings in it. This change is so confusing we won’t even discuss it. Treat the Clipboard as a single space. If that annoying little “Office Assistant” critter pops up to tell you that you have lots of somethings on your Clipboard, tell him to go away. If an extra toolbar suddenly pops up named Clipboard, you can either ignore it or close it down.

    The value of the Clipboard in genealogy

    Now that you are sufficiently bored by Clipboard-user school, let’s discuss power tools for genealogy. Most of these ideas are based on the simple premise “Never enter information twice.” There are many benefits to following this advice. It saves time. It saves physical stress from unnecessary, tedious hours at the keyboard. And most importantly for genealogists, it reduces the opportunities for copying errors.

    As genealogists we discuss the issue of the number of generations removed information may be from its original source. For example, birth records may have been copied in a later century and then published as transcripts. That’s three generations — two opportunities for error. Or is it? Let’s look at that last step. If what really happened was that someone hand-copied the records, someone else typed them, and another person entered them into the computer, that’s a total of five generations — and four opportunities for error, or double the danger.

    How many times have you had to retype something that was in your computer in a different place? That added a generation to the data. By learning to use the Clipboard, you may be able to avoid even more generations in the future — plus the accompanying danger of error. Fortunately, the current generation of lineage-linked databases are now Windows programs, not simply running on a Windows platform, so you should be able to use the Clipboard for some tasks in them also.

    I use the Clipboard a lot. In general, I type full transcripts of documents into a word-processing file. A narrative (an article or family history) would be pretty boring if it repeatedly included the full document, but retyping just the important details introduces the risk of error (especially with my typing). I use Copy and Paste to get all of the desired information from the transcript file to the narrative file unchanged. Then I use Cut and Paste to rearrange it in a narrative format, adding transitional text as needed.

    Surely many of you will agree that one of the most boring tasks in genealogy is typing citations. Ugh! You can turn this into a power tool. When beginning a research problem in a new area, create a “Resources” file for the state. Within the file, make a separate page for each county or town being researched. Check reference books and library catalogs for resources that need to be checked. Enter each item in proper citation format, adding helpful information such as library call numbers. See the example on the next page.

    So what does this advice have to do with the Clipboard? I certainly didn’t type all of that citation information. I’m lazy. On many electronic library catalogs, it is possible to select and copy small strings of text. Clean-up and formatting are needed, but it sure beats typing and assures that the author and title are correct. If any of the electronic entries are hyperlinked (underlined so you can click them to jump to another page), it is a good idea to use the Paste Special tool to paste them as unformatted text.

    Now use the Clipboard again to create a “To-Do” list, that can be printed or used electronically. Simply create a new file, select all the text for the town or county from the Resources file, Copy it to the Clipboard, switch to the empty file, and Paste the text from the Clipboard. Now you have a To-Do file that saves valuable research time at the library. You don’t need to determine from the card catalog what you want to look at (although you may need to check call numbers if you can’t do that at home), nor do you need to spend time laboriously copying citation data (just verify that the publication information for the copy you are using matches that in your file).

    Amazingly, we’re not done with the Clipboard even yet. Back at home, include your research discoveries in the narrative. It’s so easy to add the citation. Just create a footnote, open either the Resources or To-Do file, select just the citation text for the book being cited, Copy it to the Clipboard, return to the narrative, Paste it from the Clipboard, add a page number, and the citation is complete.

    This simple power tool lets you create a master resource file for each state that is a living, reusable file. As you find more resources or expand your research activities geographically or chronologically, the file will grow. You’ll be able to create future To-Do lists quickly and efficiently. You can maximize your productive time at the library. And best of all — you’ll never have to type the basic citation information for that source again!

    Let’s look at one more example. You have your great-grandfather’s obituary, carefully clipped from the newspaper and age-darkened. Your second cousin is going to publish the family history. You can’t send her a photocopy or scanned image; it would be unreadable. Transcribe the obituary into a word-processing file so you’ll have a copy for the future. Your cousin has a totally different program and doesn’t understand about file types, but you can highlight the text in the word processor, Copy it to the Clipboard, and Paste it into an email message to her. When she receives it, she can Copy the text from the message, Paste it into her family history file, and do any needed clean-up. There’s no chance of Great-grandpa’s death being converted from 1889 to 1898.

    As you become Clipboard-savvy, you’ll start to notice items on the Internet or on CD-ROMs that you might like to copy. Be aware that how much you copy and how you use it are both issues that may violate someone’s copyright (money need not be a factor). In general, I copy only relatively small pieces of text to be certain that I can abstract them accurately or in order to print them in readable format. The latter is especially true of some poorly designed Internet pages that require you to print thirty pages of text when you just want to study two paragraphs — or that print the right-hand portion of every line off the paper. I highlight the paragraphs of interest, copy them to a blank word-processing file, print it, and close the file without saving. For copyright reasons, it is almost never appropriate to use the Clipboard to copy photographs and images from the Internet.

    Tips for Mac OS

    These shortcuts also work on the Mac operating systems. Simply substitute the “apple” key (labeled with the Apple logo and a four-loop symbol) for “Ctrl.” The apple key performs the same functions on the Mac as the control/command key on a PC.

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