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Genealogy Research Tips

Following are some of my personal tips for conducting genealogical research. I don't consider myself an expert, and I'm sure some people might disagree with some of my opinions. However, I do believe you will find the following tips to be helpful.

Some of you might find a few of the responses to be a little...ummm...sarcastic...I don't intend to be hateful or mean and such comments are not directed at anyone in particular. Unfortunately, I have grown more than a little cynical over the years due to some of the researchers and methods I have encountered.

1. Learn how to conduct your genealogical research.

Genealogy remains one of the fastest growing hobbies in North America and thousands of people pick up the hobby every year. Unlike other activities, though, it does not require any specific skills or training. Thus, people jump in headfirst without really understanding what they are doing, what they need, and how to find it. Whether you are just starting your research or have been doing it for years, a little training never hurts. There are some excellent books available as well as many excellent websites. Also, you can check with your local genealogical or historical society to see if they offer any training programmes or workshops.

2. Learn how to use the modern methods of research.

There is nothing more annoying than hearing someone say "I bought a new computer to do my research but the damn thing is useless and won't do what I want!" As the old saying goes - 'tis a poor mechanic who blames his tools. Chances are the computer will do what you want or need as soon as you learn how to use it properly. Get off your duff and read the manuals, buy third-party instructional books, take a night course at the local college, or even ask a 10-year old for help. You'll be amazed at what the computer (and the internet) can do for you once you make an effort to learn how to use it.

3. Don't abandon old-fashioned methods of research.

Computers are great but they are still limited in what they can do. Likewise, the internet is still limited in what it can offer. There are times when you have to pick up a book, use a microfilm reader, or pour over dusty old documents in the basement of your local archives. Personally, I'm still not comfortable taking a laptop into the throne room with me for a little research and quiet reflection - books and other paper documents are much more convenient (and can sometimes serve a dual purpose as well).

4. Plan your research.

This was very important back in the old days when a research trip might consist of a single day per year. You had to prepare your notes and plan your day in order to maximize your research efforts. Otherwise, you ran around like a chicken with its head cut off until your time was up and then spent the next year kicking yourself in the hind-quarters for having wasted that precious time. Just because you can fire up the old 'puter and log on to the net at your own convenience doesn't mean you should be any less prepared and organized.

5. Organize your research.

I won't go into great detail on this. Besides, there is no ideal way to organize your research notes and files - everyone must come up with a system or systems that works for them and suits their own purposes. Let me just say that if you can't find it, you can't use it...

6. Research your research.

Have you ever witnessed the look on someone's face when you told them the countless hours they spent extracting data from a particular source was wasted because of all the inaccuracies it contained? Or because they only extracted half of the available data, missing some very important details in the process? Have you ever had that look yourself? You'll try to deny it but I can see right through you...I've been there, done that, and got the t-shirt to prove it!! And so have you! That local history or self-published genealogy you found at the library, book store, or someone's website may not be worth the paper (virtual or otherwise) it was written on. Research your sources and resources. Who wrote or compiled them? How was it compiled? Is it complete? If not, why? What was the author's relationship or connection to the individuals or areas named within? Did they list their sources? How does it compare to other documents on the same subject? Was it written independently of those other local sources (i.e., was it researched separately or does it simply propagate the same data and, therefore, the same inaccuracies)? Take the time to become familiar with your resources and their authors. You'll be glad you made the extra effort.

You should also become familiar with the research institutions you frequent and the types and amount of information in their holdings. Many now have online catalogues, research guides, and other descriptive material. If they don't yet have a web presence, try asking your friends or posting questions to relevant mailing lists. And, you can always contact the institutions directly via email, snail mail, or telephone. There is nothing worse than making a special research trip only to discover they don't have the records you need. Or, to overlook certain records because you didn't know they were available.

7. Understand the information contained in your sources.

You have to know exactly what information a particular source contains and its impact on or importance to your research. For instance, Catholic marriage dispensations, where noted, provide important details about the relationship between the bride and groom and their families. Many researchers overlook this because they don't understand what the dispensations are and how they can be used in genealogical research. There is also the "can't see the forest for the trees" syndrome. Beginners in particular are susceptible to this - in the excitement of finding the basic B-M-D information one often overlooks secondary sources, such as the dispensations contained in the Catholic marriage records.

A corollary of this deals with language. Many of us end up examing documents and records written in what is, to us, a foreign language. It annoys me to no end to hear people say "I can't do any more research because I don't speak ______ (insert applicable foreign language here)!!" Well, as I said in No. 2 above - Get off your duff and learn it...take a course, read a book, or ask a friend. There are also several good translation utilities available online. Most church records, for example, require a vocabulary of 100 words or less in order to extract the names and B-M-D information.

8. Expand your research beyond the people.

You have a database of 50,000 individuals including all relevant B-M-D information. Bully for you! But do you actually know anything at all about any of those people? What were they like? What did they do? Why did they do it? If you can't answer those questions you are not, in my opinion, a genealogist -- you are just a collector of names. If you really want to learn about your ancestors and who they were as individuals you have to expand your research to include local history, religion, politics, economics, sociology and so on. By understanding the various factors that influenced their lives you will have a better understanding of them. It will also assist your research efforts as it will point you in new directions, towards new resources that you might otherwise have overlooked or ignored.

9. Whenever possible use multiple sources of information.

No one source is complete. No one source is 100% accurate. Locate other sources and then compare, contrast, and cross-reference. The more sources involved, the greater the likelihood you can piece together an accurate family history.

10. Do not categorize or prejudge your sources.

Oh...I can just hear the raising of hackles and gnashing of teeth amongst the more formal genealogists. Of course you have to categorize your sources - primary, secondary, family, official, and so on. And, naturally, you are permitted to prejudge because, after all, primary sources are more reliable than secondary, etc, etc, ad nauseum.

Nauseum is indeed the definitive term. I've looked at church records where I'm sure the good Father did his record-keeping at night, without the benefit of candle or kerosene light, and probably after personally testing a case or two of the latest shipment of sacramental wine. The local civil servant, meanwhile, was both lazy and illiterate and maintained his post solely through political connections and the timely, well-placed, gifts of potent spirits. Dear Aunt Edna though, God rest her soul, kept a well-tuned mind in a feeble body and, right up to her death at 102, was able to relate an interesting and extremely accurate picture of the family history for several generations.

Don't get me wrong...the classification systems have been developed for a reason. I believe we all should have an understanding of what they are and how they are applied. However, the key is to examine each source on its merits and not according to any strict classification systems. Do your homework. Research your research. Carefully study the sources and the data they contain, and compare, cross-reference, and contrast them to your other sources. You may discover, as in the tongue-in-cheek example above, that Great Aunt Edna's information does indeed stand head-and-shoulders above all the "official" and "primary" sources. Just because something is generally considered less reliable or less accurate does not mean that is the case in every situation. Likewise, the "best" sources sometimes are not.

11. Never stop looking.

Your research is never done, no matter how complete you feel it may be. Just because you've hit that proverbial brickwall doesn't mean you'll never find another scrap of information on that particular individual or family. Keep your eyes and ears open and you'll be surprised what may come your way. I've abandoned lines only to have new information turn up months or years later, often in the least likely of places.

12. When the going gets tough...

...the smart ones take a break. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in a particular line of research that we miss or overlook things in spite of ourselves. Instead of beating your head against a problem, walk away for a little while before coming back refreshed and ready for a second look. The solution may have been there all along but our frustrations prevented us from seeing it.

13. Don't be afraid to ask for help...

There is no such thing as a stupid question. If you don't know - ask. If you're not sure - ask. If you need help - ask. Most genealogists are always willing to provide a little friendly advice, constructive criticism, or research assistance. In the short term it will get you over a few bumps in the road. In the long term, it will provide you with the additional knowledge and experience needed to both continue and improve your research.

In asking, though, be careful that you don't ask for too much. Some people are willing to spend an hour teaching you how to do something, but not an afternoon actually doing it for you. Likewise, many will offer a transcript or two, the odd photograph, or a few names and dates. However, they may not proffer up their entire file, no matter how desperately you would like to see it.

14. ...But do the work yourself.

There is a difference between asking someone for advice and asking someone to do the work on your behalf. Most genealogists will readily offer advice. Many will also provide look-ups or offer files and other information. However, you should not rely solely on their charitable efforts. For starters, after a while, many will catch on to what you are doing and simply stop assisting you. Second, doing the research yourself, even if you have received data from someone else, will confirm what they have sent and ensure your references are linked directly to the source and not to another researcher's files. Third, you will get practical experience in general research as well as in the use of specific documents. I understand that not all sources are available in all locations but many can be ordered via inter-library loan or through your local Family History Center.

15. However, collaboration is good.

Two heads are always better than one. Another person brings more than a second set of eyes - they bring their own strengths, experience, knowledge, opinions and ideas. They may have access to more records, or different records, than you. They offer a second set of eyes to review data and look for errors, omissions and discrepancies. You can divide up tasks and ensure that each individual works in the areas where they are the strongest and most knowledgable. A good and equitable collaboration produces benefits for all involved.

16. Nothing in life is free.

I absolutely cringe every time I hear someone speak of "free genealogy." There is no such thing. Research costs money. Data costs money. There may be direct costs or indirect costs, but there are costs nonetheless. Before you demand something for nothing, take a minute to think what was involved for the other person to obtain it in the first place. You may be saving your dime on their dollar. 'Nuff said...