Airtable for Genealogy: Tracking Newspaper Notices

I first discovered the wonders of Airtable only a few months ago. The clean interface and intuitive design appealed to me instantly, but its power as a genealogy tool only became apparent later on. Although not strictly a database or spreadsheet software, Airtable combines the best of both worlds in a way that is aesthetically pleading and includes all the right functionalities. The ability to create custom views and collaborate with others are just two of the unique features provided by Airtable. Some may argue that it is not as powerful as Excel or Access (yet), but for genealogy the possibilities are endless!

I plan on writing a whole series about using Airtable for genealogy. To get started, I'm going to show you my workflow for collating and tracking newspaper notices. This is a collection of index entries from the indispensable Ryerson Index, the free index to death notices appearing in Australian newspapers, which I then use to either find the notices online or keep track of my microfilm scanning at the library. While Trove is a great resource for newspapers out of copyright (1954 and older), descendancy research is made so much easier by consulting newspapers either online, in print or microfilmed. Keeping track of which notices I want to look at and where they are held is a perfect job for Airtable.

Introduction to Airtable

Firstly, I should point out that Airtable is free and easy to use. If you're at all familiar with spreadsheet software like Excel or SQL databases like Access, using Airtable will be a breeze. But even if you're not so well versed in those technologies, Airtable makes the process easy thanks to their clean interface and colourful design. This blog post won't focus too much on basic instructions for using Airtable, and for that I would recommend their own guides or the video tutorials by Gareth Pronovost. I would also recommend this tutorial on getting started in Airtable and setting up a to-do list (from 2015, but the principles are the same).

Creating a Workspace

For the purposes of this post, I will show you how I initially set up my workspace and a base to track newspaper notices.

The first thing you will want to do is create a free account. There are subscription options which include extra features, but the free account gives you all of the necessary functionalities.

Since I use Airtable to track other things in my life, I chose to create a brand new workspace. A workspace is a container for your bases - it could contain one or more of them. You can also have multiple workspaces. For example, I have a genealogy workspace, a business workspace, a study workspace, etc. Each workspace has a number of bases which, in turn, contain one or more tables.

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Setting Up a Base

Once you have your workspace created and named appropriately, you can create your first base. There are three options (use a template, import a spreadsheet or start from scratch). For our purposes, the best option is to import a spreadsheet. We won't really be importing spreadsheet values, but the Ryerson Index effectively contains data in a tabular format suitable for importing into Airtable in this way.

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Importing Data from Ryerson Index

Now I'm going to open up Ryerson Index and grab some search results. When you first set up your base, it's best to paste in some sample data in order to create the correct fields. Here, I've searched for the name John Smith, highlighted the first three entries (including, importantly, the headings) and copied them to my clipboard.

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With the entries copied, I paste them into Airtable's 'Or, paste table data here' section and ensure that the 'First row is header' box is checked. Once I hit 'Import pasted data', Airtable will take the pasted data and create a table in my new base! It's at this point that I can pick a colour and an icon for the base. Feel free to be as creative as you like - for this example, I have picked the title 'Newspaper Notices', a blue colour and briefcase icon.

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Customising the Base

Opening up the base, we can see that the data has been pasted into the table and that each of the headings has been created. At this point, I do some rejigging of the columns and set up a couple of formulas to make life easier down the track (watch my video tutorial for detailed instructions on how to do this). At this point, we can delete the sample data and start adding real newspaper notices.

As the number of notices grows, Airtable has a couple of features that will make finding, sorting and tracking your progress much easier. You may like to customise how you sort, group and view your data, but I will show you the methods I use and find really helpful in my research.

Grouping, Sorting and Filtering Records

Most of the data I track is for newspaper notices I want to view on research trips to the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane. However, the index entries I grab from Ryerson aren't always for newspapers available at that library (I plan on doing trips to Sydney and Melbourne eventually!). Some notices are available online, in the tributes section of a newspaper website, for example. Either way, I want Airtable to sort my records in a way that allows me to look at only the notices for one repository, depending on where it is that I'm doing research at a particular time.

This is where Airtable's grouping functionality really shines. I can choose to group the records in my table based on any field, but usually I will group by year, newspaper or repository (or a combination of these). Drilling down into groups like this allows me to see, for example, how many notices I need to look at from a particular newspaper and which microfilm reels to get off the shelf.

Airtable also allows sorting, filtering and hiding of fields based on selected conditions. Most commonly, in addition to grouping as described above, I will use these features to filter only uncompleted records, sort by surname alphabetically and hide certain fields when not in active data entry mode. The combination of these functionalities keeps my table organised, efficient and highly functional.

A side note on views

A very powerful element of Airtable is the ability to create unique views. A view can be created based on pre-selected groups, sorts and filters, or you can view your records in a calendar, Kanban (like Trello) or form layout. Experimenting with advanced views is outside the scope of this blog post, but views allow for heavy customisation of your bases and the ability to display your data in any way you desire. I implement a couple of simple views in the video tutorial, so watch that if customised views is something that interests you.

Watch the Tutorial

Everything I've described in this blog post can be seen in the video tutorial above. I also explain in detail how I set up the columns in my table and do a live data entry demo, as well as create two unique views to maximise the usability of our data. In addition, I have made the finished base available in case you want to skip the technicalities and get straight to collecting notices! Simply choose 'Copy base' in the table below to create your own private copy.

Well done if you've made it this far! I hope that this tutorial has demonstrated the power of Airtable and its applications in genealogy. There are so many more ways of using it, and I hope to share more tips and tricks in the future. If you have any questions on using Airtable for genealogy, I would love to hear them!