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Genealogical Research Tips

Genealogical Research Tips

Roderic A. Davis, 2nd
November, 2000
P.O. Box 118
Hyde Park, NY 12538
USA This file copyright ©2010 Roderic A. Davis ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


A. Introduction

I am often asked for advice on how to get started in genealogical research, or about other more specific aspects of "doing" genealogy. This page is my attempt to answer all those questions in one place.

Please consider these recommendations mere recounting of what has seemed to work for me. I am no expert, but I have formed opinions and ideas on various aspects of this business which I am only too happy to pass on. I hope that they work as well for you as they have for me.

You will notice a dearth of advice relating to doing primary research -- finding birth certificates and the like. There is a good reason for this deficiency: I have done very little of my own poking about in musty archives or brambly cemeteries, relying more on published sources, both on the web and in hardcopy. My rationale is this:

  1. Original documents are often fragile, and the less handling they endure, the better. It is impossible for every interested genealogist to personally view these documents!
  2. I am certain that all these documents will eventually be available on the web. This will allow proper conservation of the originals while simultaneously affording the widest availability for researchers. 

B. Getting Started: Tools

First, arrange for your ancestors to have come from England to America in the 17th or 18th century. OK, that was a joke. As it happens, those immigrant families are exceptionally well researched already, with plenty of books published about them over the past 200 years or so. You can count yourself fortunate indeed if your ancestors actually did come from 17th or 18th century England! Of course, you may not even know yet where your ancestors called home.

But seriously, where does one start? A good starting place is Cyndi Howell's outstanding web page, Cyndi's List, which has a whole segment devoted to Beginners. There is another useful collection of how-to articles on the FTM site. One particularly nice report is Beginning Genealogy, by Suzanne Guinn. The National Genealogical Society has some interesting perspectives on why one might want to pursue genealogical research, and some career opportunities for those skilled in its techniques: Getting Started.

In the discussion below I will concentrate on the infrastructure of your research office -- setting up your tools.

Your Objective

What is it that you hope to accomplish with your research?

Far from being a frivolous question, the answer will -- or should -- be the focus of your research. Give it some serious thought. Until you can write down your objective in one or two short sentences, I submit that your research experience will be less than satisfying.

Once you have crisply defined your objective, this will help you identify and deal with distractions -- things that come along that look interesting, but fall outside your objectives. There is no harm in pursuing them, as long as you recognize them for what they are: sidelines. Such things are certain to pop up. Count on it. 

Having a formal objective will help you prioritize your work.



Yes, I view this as essential equipment. I recommend that you invest in one of the better laptop models. This will allow you to bring it with you when traveling. It should have plenty of RAM (Random Access Memory) and a sufficiently large Hard Disk Drive (HDD). My Compaq 17XL360 has 128 MB and 10 GB, respectively.
Mac or PC?


Good ink-jet printers are cheap and reliable. Mine is a HP DeskJet 722C. One essential feature to look for is the ability to control the quality of printed pages. Printing at the lowest, or "draft", quality is just fine for most work, and can drastically reduce the amount of ink used and usually proceeds at a faster pace, too. See also, FinePrint, below.

Backup device

PC Magazine PERIPHERALS: PERSONAL BACKUP - a review of devices. See also Backup Regularly!, below.


This may prove useful in a number of ways:
  1. To scan the family photographs for online keeping, or perhaps to publish them on the web.
  2. To scan documents for exchange with other genealogists
  3. To use as a FAX or, in conjunction with your printer, as a copier

Digital Camera

I don't have one yet, but it's on my list. This item would be most useful for documenting such things as tombstones and such. You could also make photo images of source documents with less handling of the fragile originals -- where permitted, of course!


Genealogy Database Program

You will need a Genealogical Database program to help you organize your data and to produce reports. There are a number of them on the market:
  1. Family Tree Maker (FTM): This is my main vehicle. It certainly has its warts and foibles, but most of these you can get accustomed to avoiding. I use version 4.4, which I think is the last good version they produced. They are now on version 8, having added a lot of useless -- and mostly unwanted -- junk to the program. FTM has an active group of user forums for discussion of problems.
  2. Personal Ancestral File (PAF): A free program from the Mormons. I have it, but have used it very little. 
  3. See Cyndi's List for more.
  4. See Bill Mumford's Genealogical Software Report Card for a features comparison of several common brands of genealogical software.
  5. Another list, Louis Kessler's Genealogical Program Links.
Some essential features:
  • Ability to enter data for individuals: names, dates, notes, events, etc.
  • Ability to enter multiple relationships, such as multiple spouses, adoptions, divorces, out-of-wedlock births, etc.
  • Ability to read and create GEDcom input files. These are the chief means of transporting blocks of data, universally accepted and produced by all worthwhile genealogy programs. 
  • Ability to produce reports for printing. Ability to customize the reports is useful. Chief report formats: Ancestor trees, Descent trees, Outline Descendant Trees, Register or NGS format, Ahnentafels, Family Group Sheets -- the more kinds, the better.
  • Ability to document the sources of your data, with multiple sources permitted. Citations should be permitted individually for each piece of data, e.g. individually for birth and death dates. Sources should (optionally) appear in reports.
  • Ability to accommodate partial dates (e.g. birth date 3 Oct, year unknown), and dates in Old/New style form. (Test: can the program handle the date 29 Feb 1700/01? This is a valid leap day date often mishandled by programs.)
  • A rather complete list of features of various programs is here.


FinePrint is an essential utility for any office that prints anything. Some of its features:
  • Gives duplex (print on both sides) capability to all printers
  • Can print multiple reduced-size page images on each sheet, saving ink and paper
  • Can adjust page images to fit any paper that your printer can handle
  • Water marks, e.g. DRAFT [timestamp] on each page
  • Booklets
I figure that it has saved me at least US$100 per year -- well worth the US$39 registration fee. There is a free trial version with the only restriction being the number of pages it will print. Per invocation, that is!


It is important that you install several browsers, for the simple reason that no single browser seems capable at present of successfully displaying all web pages. If you stick with one browser, you are limiting your research to the pages that it can display. Believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than believing that the answer to a critical question lies on a webpage that you cannot view!

These are the browsers that I use:

  • Opera is little known outside its small circle of devoted fans. Although recent releases have been somewhat unstable, I still use it as my primary browser. I like its bookmark manager and its "one-click" method for overriding objectionable page markup, such as images, poor contrast between text and background, too-small text, etc. Opera has recently offered a free version, supported by advertisements. The registered version still costs US$39.
  • MSIE, once reviled, I now appreciate its clean page renderings and other features. Some think it a lumbering behemoth, but I find it quite nimble, albeit rather large.
  • NS Communicator, the most backward of the three, is also the most popular. Go figure! I do use its email client, Messenger, exclusively, though.


Gary Cramblitt's Columbine Bookmark Merge is my preferred bookmark manager, as it "understands" the bookmark file formats of all three of my browsers (and Mosaic, too), allowing me to port bookmark files from one browser to another.


WebWasher is an ad-blocker with other useful functions. It can protect you from the dreaded pop-up ads!

Virus protection

I use Symantec Norton AntiVirus 2001. In the three months after installation, this product saved me from 17 virus-laden emails!

Obviously, I can't stress enough the importance of virus protection.


Filing Systems, Organizers

Electronic Filing Cabinet for Genealogists

One File or Many?


C. Methodology

Now that you have set up your infrastructure, I'm sure that you are anxious to get down to work! Donna Przecha's article, "This Year I am Going To... New Year's Resolutions for the Genealogist at Heart" has some useful ideas for getting started. As noted in this article, you probably have already started collecting data, if you consider the collective knowledge about your family that is already "known" by yourself and other family members. A good starting point would be to begin interviewing them.

In this section I will expound on some general principles that have helped me.

Work from the known to the unknown

For example, if your family has a legend that you are descended from Hector Boiardi, a/k/a Chef Boyardee, don't start by looking at his offspring. Begin with what you know: your parents, their parents, and so on.

Stay focused

As you work, you will be constantly distracted by temptations to pursue sidelines. While trying to uncover your 3x great grandfather's second wife's birth name, you will encounter that name you were looking for last year . If you leave off the task at hand to pursue the serendipitous discovery, you will never get anything done.

Keep good notes

This is how you remember where that name was found so that you can return to it when you finish with 3x great grandfather's wife: Keep a clue-file. This is where you record your serendipitous discoveries so you can return to them when you finish the current activity. Don't try to remember it. You can't. Write it down!

Backup Regularly!

You absolutely must make a good backup plan -- and stick to it! I cannot emphasize this enough. It has been said that all home computer owners can be categorized into one of two groups:
  1. Those who have already experienced a hard drive failure
  2. Those who will
As one who has been through two HDD crashes, I speak from experience! In the first instance my WinBook bit the dust after only 8 months use! I was fortunate in that I had just made my first test backup and was able to recover most of my genealogical data, but I lost everything else, including all of my email. 

The outcome of my second crash is still in doubt as I write this in November 2000. Ironically, I was in the process of upgrading the WinBook to replace my failed backup device -- under the direction by telephone of WinBook Technical Support -- when the installation crashed in the middle, leaving the Registry in a hosed condition. Technical Support was unable to recover, and my WinBook is an expensive boat anchor. 

Actually, I have been able to get to DOS on my WinBook, and I am in the process of recovering data via floppy disk. I have ordered a utility (PowerCopy) that comes with a special cable that should allow me to recover all of my data.

A good backup strategy will protect your data from loss. Loss could occur from a number of fronts, including: virus attacks, hardware failure, and natural disaster.


About Dates

Double Dates

No, not a teenage social phenomenon!

You will see, or have seen, dates in the form 11 Jan 1740/41. What's up with that? This form, called a double date, is not meant to express any uncertainty in the year, but rather to accommodate the fact of a calendar change -- from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar -- that occurred at various times in different locales. The Catholic countries made the change first, at the direction of Pope Gregory XIII (hence the name) in 1582. The rest of the Christian world resisted the change, some keeping to the Julian calendar well into the 20th century! Britain and its possessions, including the American colonies, changed calendars in 1752.

The new calendar much more accurately tracks the period of the Earth's orbit around the sun by inserting an extra day (leap day) at the end of the month of February on the following schedule:

  • In every year evenly divisible by 4, except
  • Years also evenly divisible by 100, except
  • Years also evenly divisible by 1000.
Simultaneously with the calendar change, these two changes were made:
  1. Days were dropped to bring the calendar back into synchrony with the sun. E.g. in the British change in 1752, the day following 2 Sep. 1752 OS (Old Style, or Julian) was decreed to be 14 Sep. 1752 NS (New Style, or Gregorian).
  2. The beginning of the year, New Year's Day, was moved from March 25 to January 1. In the old reckoning 24 Mar 1700 had been followed by 25 Mar 1701.

The double date form is intended to account only for the second of the above changes, that of the move of New Year's Day. This change meant that dates between Jan 1 and Mar 24 were reckoned into different years in the two calendar systems. To avoid confusion as to which was meant, the double date notation was adopted.

The notation aaaa/bb expresses the OS year ("aaaa") and the last two digits of the NS year ("bb"), which is always the next year after the OS year. A date of 1699/00 would mean 1699 OS and 1700 NS. The double date notation is properly applied only to dates between Jan 1 and Mar  24, and only for years before 1752 in English-speaking countries -- the year in which they made the change.

20 Oct 1700/01
Meaningless, because 20  Oct is outside the Jan-Mar range.
11 Feb 1731
Ambiguous; is this an OS date or NS? This is actually George Washington's birth date expressed in OS. NS equivalent: 22 Feb 1732 NS.
22 Feb 1731/32
George Washington's DOB in double date notation. Note that this expresses the year difference only; the difference in date from 11  Feb to 22  Feb is not made apparent and is thus ambiguous.

So, in summary: You cannot ignore the double date notation.

  • You will find primary (and secondary) sources that used them
  • Without some clue, some of your dates will be ambiguous and your readers -- You do expect to have readers, yes? -- will be unable to determine what you meant. Acceptable clues include:
    • double date notation,
    • OS and NS notation,
    • a blanket statement prominently displayed that explains your date notations precisely, e.g. that all dates are NS (a common strategy).

About Names


D. Sources

Where should you seek data? If you have done any poking around the web at all, you already know that there is no shortage of websites devoted to genealogy! It is easy to suffer from "data overload". As if that were not enough, there are a number of other source media besides the web. 

People have been publishing genealogy related material for a very long time so there are several different kinds of published data that you might encounter. Here are some terms that you might run across:

Ahnentafel (Ger. ancestor table)
A genealogical report format wherein one person's ancestors are tabulated in successive antecedent generations.
The Sosa-Stradonitz numbering system for such reports. 
Biography, Auto~
An account or exposition of the descendants from an ancestor or, conversely, the enumerating of one's ancestors, with careful attention to the relationships.
In a published genealogy, in any of the various media, someone has done all the work and laid everything out, usually in an orderly fashion. There is no standard format, and every author seems to have designed his own. 
An offer, usually by a volunteer, to perform a lookup service in a particular resource owned by, e.g. a particular book, or conveniently located near, such as a courthouse, the one making the offer. These kind folks are like gold; Treat them nicely. Don't forget to say "Thank you" -- even if she couldn't find what you were looking for! You should offer to reimburse all out-of pocket expenses, too!
Numbering system
One important aspect of a genealogy report is the manner in which individuals are identified, usually by number. Far from a trivial subject, the numbering method can greatly enhance or impair the utility of a report. The definitive essay is Richard A. Pence's Numbering Systems in Genealogy, which describes and discusses the relative merits of most known systems.
Primary source - see Sources
Record report format
The descent report format adopted by the National Genealogical Society (NGS) for its Quarterly publication, The Record, a/k/a Modified Register format
Register report format
The descendant report format adopted by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society for their publication, The Register
Register, The
The house publication of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
A published genealogy or other work which has been reissued. There are publishing houses that specialize in reprints of genealogical subjects, such as Higginson Book Company.
Secondary source - see Sources
These articles provides a good overview of source quality:

Sources are often categorized by their degree of removal from the event(s) documented. Sources closer to the event are considered superior to those of further removal.

primary source
Birth certificate, marriage licence, etc.
secondary source
A work for which the author has consulted chiefly primary sources in its creation.
tertiary source
A work for which the author has consulted chiefly secondary sources in its creation.
Tertiary source - see Sources
In the sections that follow, I will only list a selection of available sources, leaving to you the pleasure of discovering your own favorites!


 (Cyndi's List)



Online Books

Free access
Subscription required
Note that the contents of these sites are not indexed by the web search engines for the simple reason that the engines haven't paid the fees required for access, so they cannot index the sites. Therefore these sites usually provide their own, private search facility.
  • Brøderbund's (GLC) - a collection of over 2800 books. They have recently stopped adding new books, it seems. Titles include Savage's Dictionary, Jacobus' History and Genealogy of the Families of Old Fairfield. Books are for the most part copyright-expired and in the public domain -- meaning "old". Search function. Has a history of access problems. Expensive, but worth it.
  • has a smaller collection of books and records, some of which are free, but the best ones require a "premium" membership. As they add new databases (or books), they initially have free access for a week.


Many publishing houses offer both hardcopy books and books on CD-ROM. Given a choice, I will always opt for the real book. I have yet to see an electronic book viewer, CD or otherwise, that is as useful and convenient as a nicely bound and printed book. Nevertheless, here are some CD publishers:
  • Perhaps best known is Brøderbund's World Family Tree (WFT) collection. These are not books, per se, but family trees contributed by users of their genealogical program, Family Tree Maker (FTM), which is required for viewing the trees. As such, they are not reviewed, meaning that any given tree could be a total fiction. Each CD contains several thousand trees, each of which may contain any number of individuals, from just a few to tens of thousands. The collection now numbers in the fifties, I think. You can buy the CDs or subscribe to the entire collection for online use by the month or by the year. Their online search engine includes these and a number of other sources in its domain. 




  • Historical Records of Tisbury, MA - a fine collection of historical records related to the town of Tisbury, Dukes County, Massachusetts and the island of Martha's Vineyard. 
  • Colonial Library - the text of works authored by people in the [Tisbury] database and other early Colonial documents. This gem is buried on the Tisbury site. You would never find it except with a search engine!


Search engines

It is best to cultivate familiarity with several search engines, because no single one covers all of the web! has probably the most complete list of extant search engines.
Specialty: Genealogy

Web Rings

A web ring is an association of related websites who band together and provide a mechanism to navigate the entire collection of member sites. You will find rings devoted to virtually any topic you can imagine, including non-specific genealogy rings, specific surname rings, and rings organized geographically. You will usually see the very stylized navigation ports at or near the bottom of a page, looking somewhat like this:
This ______ Web Ring
is owned by ______
Prev | Next 5 | Random | Next | Skip Next
List of Sites in Ring

I have discovered some sites on web rings that I probably would not have found in any other way. A website can belong to any number of different web rings.



Mail Lists



Errors and Fraud

Yes, fraud!

E. Memberships

There are a plethora of societies eager to take your money and sign you up as a member. Some of these are well known historical and/or genealogical societies, usually open to anyone, while others are restricted to members who are able to prove certain ancestries. You can easily find yourself paying many hundreds of dollars in annual dues! Before joining -- or applying for membership in -- any such organization, you should carefully weigh the benefits, if any, against the cost.

Benefits to look for:

  • Access to a private library
  • Research assistance
  • Subscription to a respected house periodical
  • Discounts on their or other publications
Some societies that you should consider joining:
  1. A national organization, such as the National Genealogical Society, NGS.
  2. A regional society, of the region where your research is concentrated, such as the New England Historic Genealogical Society, NEHGS
  3. State or county genealogical or historical societies for the areas of your research, but only if they have a robust memberships. Some county GS are barely active.
  4. If your ancestors had a strong presence in certain towns, you should consider seeking out and joining the associated genealogical or historical society for those towns. These may be your best sources!

F. Publishing

Now that you have accumulated some data, what will you do with it? Do you plan to keep it to yourself? I hope not! Here are some guidelines about what to publish: Standards For Sharing Information With Others, recommended by the National Genealogical Society (NGS).


Personal webpages

Host servers
Where can you find space for your website?
GEDcom to HTML translators
There are quite a number of these. In addition to producing the HTML files for your website, many of them can also create an index file for use with Stark's GENDEX.
  • GED2HTML - Gene Stark's
Roll your own
These allow people with personal websites to submit index information to a central location where researches can look up names and find pointers to the website pages where the sought names appear. The central location doesn't contain the data, just the indices to the data, which actually resides on submitters' websites.
  • Gene Stark's GENDEX: a free index database, the accumulation of submitted indices produced by, e.g., Stark's GED2HTML program. 15 million names claimed.


There are a number of organizations that will accept and store your data, usually in GEDCOM form, and publish it for you on their website. Most provide this service for free, the resulting database providing a lure for potential customers of their products. As long as they don't charge for access to data you freely provided, I see no harm at all in this practice. The host controls access and presentation format.

Features to look for:

  • A good search engine for the accumulated data.
  • A pleasing and useful presentation format for the data
  • Access performance
  • Can users download copies of your data in convenient form, e.g. GEDcom? Some databases let you specify if you wish this to be allowed or not.
Some examples: (all free)
A new service which is growing rapidly. Salient characteristics:
  • Simple to use
  • Global search
  • Names also indexed in GENDEX
  • Unique matching feature shows which individuals in other GenCircles users' files may be a match to yours.
(I have started uploading my data here to give it more visibility.)
Ancestry World Tree
by, claims 79 million names.
Dave Wilks' free GEDcom server
claims only about 250,000 names, but I like the presentation format, and the access is quite speedy. The indexing is by GENDEX, which rolls your data into all the rest available in that index, for a total of more than 15 million names claimed.
FTM Home Pages
at RootsWeb. Claims 46 million names, and the display formats are quite nice, including pedigrees and descents.


Several options come to mind:
  • Books
  • Pamphlets
  • CD-ROMs
Click here for a list of providers.

G. Summary of external links


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