By Gena Philibert-Ortega
There's nothing like learning more about your ancestors. Once most people feel the rush of discovering more about their family history there's no stopping them. You can almost guarantee that their lives will be marked with late nights at the computer, meetings with long lost cousins, and haunting ancestral cemeteries. We've all felt that excitement, but we have also felt the dread of learning some hard lessons that we wish we would have known when we began out hunt. These lessons would have made our latter research much easier. The following five suggestions are based on what I most hear from seasoned genealogists about what they wish they had known when they first started. Even if you are not a newbie to genealogy, these tips might still be a good reminder. These five are definitely not all of the things a new genealogist should know but they are a good start.
1. Use a Genealogy Software Program
Using a genealogy software program will assist you in documenting the names of who your ancestors are and the facts that you have found. In addition, you can add images of documents and photographs. Before you get too far in the hunt for ancestors, choose a program and learn how to use it.
There are numerous genealogy software programs, as well as online family tree websites. A comparison of some of these programs can be found at the Wikipedia article Comparison of Genealogy Software. You can also ask members of your genealogy society what they recommend. A few genealogy software companies provide online webinars or video tutorials about how to use their product; this can also help you decide which is the best program for you. Some examples include RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, and Ancestral Quest. Please note that these three companies also have a free version of their software for you to download and try.
If you do not feel comfortable using the computer, then you will need to make sure you document your genealogy using forms. Forms to use include, Pedigree Charts, Family Group Sheets, and Research Logs. There are various websites you can download these from including the FamilySearch Wiki.
2. Start With the Known
It can be tempting to go straight to researching your 5th great-grandmother who emigrated from Germany, but with any research pursuit you need to start with what you know and then work back. Yes, it doesn't seem as exciting, but before you get too much in a hurry to trace those long dead ancestors, start with gathering information about you and your family, then your parents and grandparents into your genealogy software program or your pedigree charts and family group sheets. It's only when you write down everything you know that you can go and see what other people in your family know. You can then work from there.
While you are documenting what you know, make sure to ask questions of family members. Ask about the ancestors they knew, conduct oral interviews, and ask to scan any photographs or documents that they may have in their homes. You may think that other family members don't have the knowledge you are looking for, but you may be surprised at the heirlooms they have inherited and the old family stories they have been told.
3. Write Down Where You Found It
One of the thrills of genealogy is finding lots of great information on the Internet and then making copious paper copies, transcribed notes, or saved images. But typically what happens is in the excitement of the discovery, we forget to write down where that information came from. Citing your sources is crucial to your research. It helps you to know where you found the information and allows others to retrace your steps when you share your information.
While citing sources can seem like a laborious task, broken down it is simply the process of documenting exactly where you found a piece of information. There's no need to reinvent the wheel by coming up with your own system. You can use a genealogical source citation method like that described in Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills or you can use one of the other source citation styles like APA, Chicago, MLA or Turabian. The website Easybib provides templates that allows you enter the book, website, or document information and it creates the source citation. You then just copy and paste it into your research log, your genealogy database, or a word processing program.
It doesn't matter what way you decide to cite your sources, the most important thing is to pick a style and do it.
4. Someone Posted My Family Tree on the Internet
It can be exciting to find that other people have posted a family tree on the Internet that includes your ancestors. Often these family trees are uploaded by well-meaning people but they lack the sources that would help you evaluate whether the information is correct or not. While it can be tempting to jot down, print or copy this information, my simple advice is this, don't. If you want to refer to the information as you prove that those are your ancestors, that is fine. But to blindly accept that information as correct and true would be a huge mistake. Just as you shouldn't believe everything you read, you also shouldn't assume that everything you find on the Internet is correct.
5. Everything I need is on the Internet
With all of the wonderful transcriptions, databases, and digitized images available to genealogists online, it has become easy to believe that everything you need to research your family history is on the Internet. However, only a small fraction of what you need is on the Internet, the rest is found in original and derivative sources found in libraries, archives, museums, government offices, etc. One of the first places you should become familiar with is your local Family History Center. Here you can use online subscription websites, attend seminars and classes, and receive one-on-one assistance. While operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), you do not need to be a member of the Mormon Church to use the Center.