Thursday, March 19, 2015

Advice for Beginning Genealogists

I've been asked questions, like the one below, by several society colleagues in the past month:

"I'm only a beginning genealogist, and I'm overwhelmed by how to start, what's best to do, in what order, etc."

This is an excellent question, and there are many possible answers to the question.  Here are some of my answers after more reflection about them:

1)  At the beginning, take a "Beginning Genealogy" course - either online at websites (e.g., RootsWeb Guide to Tracing Family Trees or Guide to Family History Research) or at a local genealogy society or adult education center.  Become familiar with the overall process, the terms, the standards, the paper forms, available repositories, and online resources.  See A Guide to Research for the research process and for more details.  Use the FamilySearch Research Wiki for information about record types, localities, and specific records.

2)  Organize your research - use folders or binders for papers, organized by surname, or locality; use digital file folders for digital records (scanned photos, scanned documents, downloaded documents, etc.), organized by surname and family; use a genealogy management program (an online tree, or download software) to keep track of all of the name, relationship, date, place, source, notes, media, etc. information;  maintain research logs and to-do lists to keep track of what you have done and want to do.

3)  Become familiar with different record groups - start with vital records, census and cemetery records, and gradually learn about church, military, migration, citizenship, court, land, tax, town, newspaper, directory, and other record types.  The sooner you understand why and how these record types were created, and how to access and obtain them, the faster you will become a competent genealogy researcher.

4)  There may be published books and/or periodical articles in local or distant repositories on your  ancestral surnames and localities.  Other researchers may have found information about your ancestral families.  Don't believe everything you read on the Internet in online family trees or on websites. Use this information as a guide, but don't completely trust it.  Try to verify the information by doing your own research in records.

5)  Understand that all of the records are NOT digitized or online in databases behind a subscription wall - perhaps only 10% (or less) is currently online, and not all of those are indexed.  The "other 90%" are in repositories (e.g., libraries, archives, courthouses, historical/genealogical societies, attics/basements, etc.) and may be organized into record groups, or not.  There are many records online that are FREE to access; others are behind a subscription wall.  You can access many subscription sites for free at local FamilySearch Centers or some local libraries.

6)  Join local, regional or national genealogical societies so that you can benefit from the knowledge and counsel of other researchers.  Most societies have monthly programs with knowledgeable speakers on varied research topics.  Some societies have a mentor program or a research advisor group where you can ask questions and receive advice.

7)  Continue your genealogical education through reading, online webinars, all-day seminars, multi-day conferences, weeklong institutes, or semester long certificate classes.  This is lifelong learning, it's more than two weeks of training and now "I are a genealogist."

8)  Share your research with your family members or other researchers in conversations, in an online family tree, on a website or blog, on social media, etc.  Other researchers may share your ancestral families, or know of resources available in a locality, or are expert in a specific record group.

9)  It is easy to be overwhelmed as you visit repositories, search online for records, try to stay organized, learn software capabilities, attend classes or programs, etc.  Depending on your daily schedule and priorities, plan each day with the short-term goal of learning something this hour, or this day, or this week, or this month, and apply yourself to doing it.  Have a long-term education plan to learn more about research processes, record types, localities, resources, etc.  Success in genealogy research is built on many small successes in individual families and localities.

10)  We all started at the beginning - with our families, and we gradually became more knowledgeable about how to research, where to find resources, how to use software, etc.  You will find that every success finding an ancestral family leads to two more ancestral families, and so on.
Steady progress can be made learning about your ancestral families, and moving your pedigree back in time.  Sometimes we get stuck and can't find more information about the next family back on the chart.

Frankly, I think that the classical way to "begin" as described above is the best way to grow a competent genealogist.  I know that websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch and others are enticing beginners with advertising that essentially says "enter your parents and grandparents names, and we'll show you your ancestry."

The truth is you have to work at it to go back in time, one generation at a time.  Perhaps you will get lucky and the Record Hints, Record Matches or Leaf Hints will highlight records of your ancestors, and their parents.   Perhaps some other researcher has a long chain of ancestral families in an online family tree.  This doesn't happen for every researcher.

What other advice do my readers have for my beginning society colleagues?

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Copyright (c) 2015, Randall J. Seaver


Diane Gould Hall said...

These are excellent answers Randy. I too get asked this question on a semi freuquent basis. It's difficult to explain to newcomers that this is a marathon and not a sprint. As you said, it's more than just clicking on a shaky leaf and finding your ancestors. So much more. Thank you for this insightful answer. I can't think of anything you missed.

Unknown said...

I used many of the methods you mentioned when I started. The essential jumping off point for me was not only talking to my family, but visiting the town where my ancestors lived for 150 years, which helped me get more information out of my dad than he originally remembered. I also read a lot of books from the library. Start small with goals is great advice. I run a genealogy club at the middle school where I teach and each week I start by saying "what's your goal today?" Otherwise they will search something to broad and accomplish nothing.

Dawn said...

Thank you for this post! I just stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago as I took on the project of curating my family's history from my father. As I'm starting to search online to try to verify some of the stories that have been passed down, I've been overwhelmed by the amount of information and how to best organize it. This post gave me some very helpful ideas! Now I just have to get up the courage to head to the local Genea-society and ask for some help. :-)

Dona said...

I'd suggest that taking notes in an organized way, in one place (laptop file for all your research notes and interview notes, or dedicated notebook that you take with you) would help immensely in keeping track of what you do. No little slips of paper, stashed randomly around your home and/or car, no relying on your memory for facts and notations of what people have told you. Write it ALL down, including the source of the information, date, etc., from the beginning. You will be grateful for this forever! I can't tell you how many times I've seen people writing notes on envelopes or postit notes.
And your suggestion #1, Randy, is spot on! Find that beginner's class somewhere!

Unknown said...

The one thing I would highlight that Randy mentioned whenever you give advice to aspiring genealogists - RECORD YOUR SOURCES
A bit of data you picked up in 1984 is almost useless when you look at it in 2015 without its source - I speak from experience

dritchhart said...

I give a hearty endorsement to basa1942's comment about sourcing. The temptation when one starts working on their family research is to be a name and data "gatherer" and we don't document the source of the various facts we accumulate. If someone had emphasized the importance of sourcing when I got started--it would have saved me lots of time and headaches!