The January meeting at the computer genealogy society I belong to always
has a big turnout. I am sure that "do genealogy" is high on
the list of many people's New Year's resolutions. However, like many resolutions,
this one seems to get put aside by about March. I have talked to people
who have been doing genealogy for years and they still haven't gotten
around to some of the basics.
Genealogy can't be "done" all at once downloading hundreds
of names from a database and considering them to be "instant family"
is simply no solution. No, genealogy is a lifetime hobby and, for the
most part, it doesn't matter if it waits a few months or even years. Those
dead ancestors aren't going anywhere!
You do have to keep chipping away at it, though, and you can set some
realistic goals. Depending on where you are in your research, there are
some things that should not be put off. If you are just beginning, it
is a toss-up as to which of the fist two is the most critical:
Resolution #1: Organize what you have.
It is difficult to know where to start until you know what you have.
Get out that box of "family papers" or "grandma's trunk"
and go through what is there. Make some charts and jot down names, dates,
etc. While you have it all straight in your mind it would be a good time
to put the information into a genealogy computer program so you do not
have to reinvent the wheel next time you want to work on family history.
Be sure to note the source of each fact.
Resolution #2: Interview your older relatives.
If you organize the material you have first, you will be able to ask more
pertinent questions of your older relatives. It is imperative that you talk
to the older family members NOW. They will not be around forever and they
can supply information that will not be found in any records. While some
enjoy writing letters, others prefer just to talk about the past. It is
worth a special trip, taking along a small recorder, to preserve this information.
Don't press them for exact dates. They won't know and you can find these
later. Get approximate time periods and relationships who was oldest,
who was youngest, etc. Ask them names and places and let them tell stories.
While I was in college I sat my father down and had him explain the relationships
of his large extended family. I don't know how he could possibly remember
so many names, but I put them down in a graph form and put them away.
Within four years he was gone. My charts were packed away someplace for
15 years before I took them out and began to seriously work on genealogy.
Thank heavens I took the time to write down all the wonderful material
my father had tucked away in his brain.
Once you have these two "musts" taken care of, you can begin
to add information at a reasonable pace.
Resolution #3: Computerize.
Your life will be so much easier if you computerize your data from the
beginning. People will dither around for years because they don't know
what program to buy. There are so many good, inexpensive programs available
now that you don't have to worry that this is a purchase of a lifetime.
Buy one and start using it. If you don't like it, you can easily move
your data to another program without reentering it. (Be sure that any
program you buy has GEDCOM or the ability to transfer data to other programs.)
A program will produce all sorts of helpful forms without your having
to fill in endless charts by hand and will help you organize your research.
Resolution #4: Visit a Family History Center or genealogy library.
If you have not been to a Family History Center, find out where your
nearest one is located and visit it. Some are tiny with little more than
a couple of computers and a few microfilm readers. However, all have the
FamilySearch on the computer which includes four helpful resources:
- The IGI (International Genealogical Index)
- The Ancestral File (data submitted by other researchers)
- The Social Security Death Index (over 50 million individuals who received
death benefits from the U.S. Social Security Administration)
- The Family History Library catalog (shows all the microfilmed material
that can be borrowed, and other data)
If you are just starting out, you may find it inspirational to see all
the information that is available. Every library with a genealogy collection
is different. Family history and local history books usually do not exist
in great numbers so every library will have a different collection, often
depending on what has been donated. Of course, a library usually emphasizes
its own local area so a visit to a genealogy library where your ancestors
lived might reveal some interesting and unique material.
Resolution #5: Write out the "stories."
Some people are very good about entering data into their program, but
they don't take the time to add the interesting stories they know. These
are the things that make genealogy come alive and interest other people
in the family history. For a while, quit reading census returns and adding
new names and just sit in front of your computer writing down stories.
Resolution #6: Add your sources.
When you first entered your data into a program you were probably so
excited and eager to print great reports that you just put in the basic
information and didn't bother with the sources. Take the time to go through
your notebooks and files and add the source of the information into the
Resolution #7: Review your research.
Most genealogists take notes and make copies and file all this paper
in notebooks or files. They record the significant information into their
program as they go. You might want to take the time to go back through
all these notes. We often copy information that doesn't tie directly into
the family at the time. If you go back, you may find the answers to new
questions. You may have copied the census page for your great-grandfather
and, at the time, been unaware that the family two households away was
his father's family. Rereading old information in a new light may open
Resolution #8: Clean up your database.
If you have been adding information over a long period of time, you probably
have changed your style over the years. By now perhaps you have a firm
opinion about which notation style you prefer: Chicago, Cook, IL; Chicago,
Cook Co, IL; Chicago, Cook Co., IL; or Chicago, Cook County, IL. Why not
go through your database and make sure all such notations have a consistent
style. Run some alphabetical lists and look for misspelled places or typos
like "CAlifornia." You should also run diagnostic checks available
with the program to be sure you don't have people who lived to 150 or
mothers giving birth at age 85 or three years after they died! If your
program has the ability, you should look at unlinked names and possible
Resolution #9: Print out your data.
It may seem that by computerizing your material you have saved it for
all posterity using a medium that is much more durable than paper. Nothing
could be further from the truth. If you step in front of a truck tomorrow
and join your ancestors, what will happen to your data? If you have a
family member who is equally interested in genealogy and equally computer
literate, you are in good shape. However, usually other people are only
mildly interested and no one understands that program that you spend so
much time working with. If a computer sits idle for a long period of time,
the hard drive will simply die and the information on it will be lost.
Even if you archive your data on disks, the chances are that program will
no longer exist in the same form in five years. By ten years your data
will not be compatible with the newest version. If you save the program
along with the data, no one will know how to run it and will not be inclined
to sit down and try to learn it even if the program is compatible
with current computers.
I have a newspaper announcement of the marriage of one couple 198 years
ago. I don't know of everyone who has had possession of this newspaper
in the meantime, but I can still pick it up today and read the information.
I doubt that any electronic material will be usable 198 years from now.
Get a hard copy of your data so that some descendant years from now can
pick it up and read it. Certainly continue to computerize and make backups,
but plain, old-fashioned paper is your best link to the future.
Resolution #10: Take the time to order documents.
You may know that Great Uncle Charley was in the Civil War and that the
pension records have lots of fascinating information, but you just haven't
had the time to order them. Or you know your grandmother's social security
application might give you her mother's maiden name, but it takes forever
to get a copy. Government records do take forever, but take five minutes
to send off the letter requesting the information or the form. Then forget
about it and you will be pleasantly surprised when the information arrives.
Resolution #11: Concentrate on one area.
Experts often recommend that beginners limit their search to one line.
When I started there was so little available that I worked on all lines
at one time. Nowadays, with so much available, it is probably a good idea
to stay with one line. Even if you have done a lot of work, you might
want to concentrate your efforts on a problem area. To research in depth
you really have to immerse yourself in an area and time period. You need
to learn as much as possible about the town or county, the people who
lived there and what was going on in history at that time.
Simply knowing the physical location of the various villages or geographical
locations, which were adjacent, what name changes occurred, and which
families were intermarried can be very helpful. If the handwriting was
different because of the age of the documents or you are working in a
foreign language area, it takes some time to become familiar with the
writing. If you do focus on one area, after a while you will be very familiar
with all of these factors. If you put it aside for a couple of years or
never really study it in depth, it will be much more difficult to really
dig into the records. You might want to devote this year to a particularly
difficult problem ancestor that you have been avoiding.
Resolution #12: Don't try to do everything.
Don't attempt to do all of the above at once. Pick one manageable project
and stick with it. I have known a few people who have "completed
their genealogy." They printed their book and put genealogy aside
as "done." For most of us, it will never be completed. It is
an ongoing project for every ancestor you discover, that means
there are two more that need to be found. Since it will never be completed,
don't put off printing out, at least for your own benefit, some sort of
report. If you want to submit your names to a master database such as
the World Family Tree or Ancestral File, send what you have now. Don't
put it off thinking you will have more or better information later on.