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Our Very Non-Professional Beginner's Guide

to Genealogical Research

We had no idea what we would find, what we were up against or even what we were getting into when we began our research. Due to the limitations of online research material back in the mid-1990's and not knowing that we could visit a local Family Center of the Church of Latter Day Saints, we even stopped research completely for a couple of years. In the course of practice, however, we've stuck to several rules of thumbs developed mostly through many trials and many errors. We have such firm convictions about the things we've included here. We hope to share some of what we've learned through experience to perhaps help your searches go more smoothly and for your research to be more productive.

First, a couple of tips:

  • Try using the Control-F function to search an entire web page for a particular word or phrase.

  • When running a search on a full name with a general search engine like Google, make sure to include one search in which the surname appears first and one in which the surname is the last word in the phrase. For example: "Mary Smith" then "Smith, Mary"

  • If a website for which you've searched is now defunct, try entering the URL into The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. While this is no guarantee that the page you want to see will have been catalogued, billions of web pages have been cached by the archive since 1996.

Talk to Surviving Relatives NOW

There are several things you might want to do to better set yourself up for genealogical success. First, and most importantly, TALK to older family members. We cannot stress how valuable their memories are, and once they're gone, that much more is lost to the obscurities of history. WRITE everything down, record it on audio or video. Don't rely on your memory because if you think that you're going to remember one more date when you've got literally hundreds or thousands of others floating around in your little bean, you are sadly mistaken.

Determine Your Level of Commitment

Are you just curious about where you came from, or do you really, really, really want to know about your ancestors? Maybe you started off as just curious but have found, through your discoveries, that this might be a relatively fun kind of endeavor. To be honest, genealogy research has been much more than just fun to us. It is both one of the most rewarding and the most frustrating experiences of our lives. Yet all of the exhilaration, frustration, happiness, shock, pride, sadness and a host of other emotions have also taught us patience and complete faith. Genealogy may be the search for your ancestors, but ironically, in finding them you find yourself.

Secure Your Resources

Software. When you've decided how determined you're going to be about finding ancestors, research the various genealogy software available. We still use Family Tree Maker just because we've become accustomed to its functions after using it for years. However, we've found that it is certainly not the most versatile. Take a look at the following websites to determine which software would be best suited to your needs:

Online Subscriptions. Next, you must decide if you're going to take the plunge and fork over your money to Ancestry. Many genealogists have more than a few gripes about the LDS-owned site.  First, it's expensive.  If you're serious about research and know you'll be using the service regularly, a more economical, annual subscription may be for you.  If you sign up for the quarterly rate, you'll soon start feeling very gypped as it'll run you roughly twice as much a year than an annual subscription.  Secondly, their most complete package does not include immigration and naturalization records.  Especially if your family is based in the United States and unless you are full-blooded Native American, you'll soon find that delving through immigration records is a necessity at some point.  Keep in mind though: if you've initially signed up for a quarterly rate, you can only sign up for quarterly access to other databases.

Further, Ancestry does not offer email cancellations of subscriptions; you must call during regular business hours to do this, and they will not refund you a prorated amount if you're so many weeks or months into your subscription.  Lastly, they will hustle you over the phone incessantly to sign up for more services; this was my biggest problems with them.  Still, Ancestry touts the internet's largest database of various records and historical documentation with which to confirm the existence of your ancestors.  You'll have to make the decision to subscribe to Ancestry's services based on your resources... and level of tolerance.  

There are some alternatives to signing up with Ancestry.com.  The USGenWeb Project (hosted by the same Rootsweb that hosts this site) has always been a free, volunteer-driven website.  Some of the U.S. Federal Censuses, family history books, vital statistics and cemetery records, and a host of other resources have been transcribed by the project's volunteers.  If you'd like to check ship lists for free, take a look at Cyndi's List's Ships and Passenger Lists page.  You may also purchase these kinds of records on CD at Heritage Quest.  The LDS also offer access to submissions of family trees by church members at Family Search. Be aware that not all of these records are accurate, so always use this database with caution.

In Your Town. Although not as convenient as browsing from your comfy chair, you can visit your local library, archives or LDS Family Center; you're going to have to eventually spend some time in these places because the wealth of information housed there is not only grander than even what Ancestry offers online but it's also all free.  So, those kinds of research visits are going to be determined by your level of commitment to your projects.  Arm-chair searches for buried treasure might be a more reasonable beginning goal.

In Print. Finally, there are so many great tips to be found in genealogy magazines even if you fancy yourself a seasoned researcher.  We love Family Tree Magazine; it's always packed with very useful information.  Heritage Quest Magazine is also an excellent resource.  You'll receive a free subscription to Ancestry Magazine when you subscribe to one of their services.  For a full listing of periodicals and newsletters, see Cyndi again.

Look For Other Family Genealogists

Take a look through the internet for other genealogists who may be researching your surname(s). With the growing amount of people who are interested in genealogy these days, you just may find that someone else has done a lot of the legwork already. Just do a simple search on your surnames on a search engine such as Google.com or stop by Rootsweb and subscribe to an email list for the surnames in which you are interested.  And by all means, if you find long-lost relatives, write to them!  Stay connected!

Maintain An Accurate, Current Email Address

We cannot stress this enough!  If you're not sure about how long you're going to stay with a particular ISP (internet service provider), at least set up a FREE email account at Yahoo, Hotmail or a host of other free email services. Please also remember to check your mailbox from time to time. If too many pieces of mail pile up there, no one will be able to send email to you. Also, if you have to change your email address for whatever reason, you might think about posting it on several of the surname message boards and forums out there just so that there is some record of where others might find you. For these reasons, we highly recommend using Google's email service, Gmail. You can very easily configure Gmail to forward email you receive there to any other mailbox you maintain.

Be Responsible With Your Information

Especially if you are your family's lone genealogist, you have a responsibility to present accurate information. You've worked so hard on  your family trees. Why not verify the correctness of your data? The responsibility for accuracy becomes even greater when you decide to post your trees to the internet. We've run across online death information for one of our relatives who we know to still be alive. In the case of this particular family member, the misinformation made its way to an overzealous genealogy company that mass-produces genealogy CD's; this inaccuracy will now be perpetuated and duplicated as long as we all are not vigilant. Certainly, we make mistakes and experience gross oversights. But to lessen them, remember to...

Document, Document, Document

You may already know that when asked, "How do you know that?" an inappropriate answer in any situation would be "Because." The frustration derived from that kind of answer when doing genealogy tends to stick in your craw because it does show some small disregard for the importance of your work. Especially if you upload your family information onto the internet, the ability to document the existence of individuals beyond the point of mere speculation is ideal. But, if you either have not be able to secure verification or if you have your suspicions about an individual's relationship, include appropriate remarks. You just never know when someone will come by to confirm it for you.

Never Underestimate the Role of Serendipity and Patience

Genealogists can tend to be a very superstitious bunch. We have learned never to question the drive of unseen forces. Honestly. So, never underestimate the power of good luck in your searches. Leave your name around the internet enough, and chances are more likely that someone will contact you out-of-the-blue. Talk to the ceiling, and maybe the genealogy cherubs might hear you. If you feel compelled to speak about your genealogy research or experiences with an acquaintance, do it. Even if you're not very drawn to the mystical or superstitious, we say keep an open mind and take the information from wherever you can get it. We've come to expect information to come to us from nowhere; and it always does.

Don't Forget To Back Up

Oh, the agony of a hard drive crash. We've survived a few of them in the past few years. Unfortunately, a lot of our information did not. Thank goodness for hard copy and the wonders of website construction. Did you know that if you've published your genealogy to a website, you can download it back into your computer? While this would not be our first line of defense, it certainly doesn't hurt. We have also printed out much of the information we discover or receive and include it in a research binder ~ a very good idea. In this way, you can tote it around and show other family members what you've done. We have never been very diligent about regularly backing up our hard drive, but now that we have a much better CD/DVD-writer and a flash thumb drive, we have no excuses. Our genealogy and digital picture files are our most important, so we only back up those and on several different types of media. There are also some free storage websites online on which you can store up to several gigabytes of info.  Whichever your preferred method(s), just do it.

Always Appreciate

We loathe telling people how to behave because it truly feels like an arrogant approach. We have noticed, over the course of the last couple of decades however, that common courtesies are quickly going the way of the dinosaur. The internet has made it possible for people all over the world to connect, and this has most definitely assisted greatly in our genealogical searches. But, it has also made people lazy and rude because they forget that they are dealing with real people on the other side of their computer screens. Please, thank people who have helped you. It's such a small thing to ask in return for what someone has done for or given to you.