Twenty Ways to Avoid Here are some
suggestions to help beginners prevent misfortune when learning how to do
genealogical research. Many of these tips are "old hat" to experienced
genealogists, but it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of the basics of
- Always note the source of information that you record or photocopy, and
date it too. If the material is from a book, write the name, author,
publisher, year of publication, ISBN or ISSN (if it has one), and also the
library where you found it (or else photocopy the title page). Occasionally
you'll find that you need to refer to a book again, or go back to great aunt
Matilda to clarify something she told you.
- Talk to all your older-generation relatives (before they're all gone and
you're the older generation!) Even a distant relative can be a goldmine of
information about your ancestors.
- Make photocopies or keep backups of all letters and e-mail messages you
send. This will save you from wondering which of your correspondents'
questions you've already answered, and which of your questions they have or
- Don't procrastinate in responding to letters or messages you receive. If
you don't have time to write a detailed reply, send your correspondent a quick
message or postcard to acknowledge receipt and tell her/him approximately when
you'll send them a more complete reply. Then be sure to write back as you've
- Make frequent backups of your computer disks. Store your backups and
photocopies of your irreplaceable documents where you work or at someone
- When searching for relatives in records, don't pass over entries that are
almost (but not quite
[variant]) what you're looking for. For example, if you're
searching for the marriage of John Brown and Mary Jones in 1850, make a note
of the marriage of John Brown and Nancy Smith in 1847: this could be a
previous marriage in which the wife died shortly after.
- When writing to libraries or to genealogical or historical societies in
your areas of interest, ask them for the names and addresses of out-of-print
booksellers in the area. Write to the booksellers and ask if they have any old
local histories or family histories pertaining to the area.
- Remember that just because information is on computer or in print, it
ain't necessarily fact! Information in recent family histories is often based
on that from older published works. If the older books are incorrect, the
wrong information simply gets repeated and further disseminated.
- The earlier the time period in which you're researching, the less
consistent our ancestors were about the spelling of their surnames. Also, some
of them were illiterate and couldn't tell a record keeper how their names
should be spelled.
- Family traditions of close connections to famous people are usually false,
but there may be a more obscure relationship involved. For example, perhaps
the famous person spent a night at your ancestor's inn instead of (as the
legend goes) marrying into the family.
- Try not to let your research get behind. Establish a filing system for
your papers (using file folders or 3-ring binders) and file each page of
notes, document, photocopy, etc. as you acquire it. There are few things more
disheartening than contemplating a foot-high stack of un-filed papers,
wondering if the birth certificate you desperately need to refer to is buried
somewhere in it.
- Double-check all dates to make sure they are reasonable, for example, a
woman born in 1790 could not have become a mother in 1800.
- Be on the lookout for nicknames. A request for a birth certificate for
Sadie White may be rejected by a record office if the name in their files is
- Beware of mail-order promotions offering what might purport to be a
personalized genealogy of your surname with a title like The Amazing Story
of the BLANK Family, BLANKs Since the Civil War or Burke's
Peerage World Book of BLANKs. These books are not properly researched and
documented genealogies; instead they are often little more than lists of names
from phone directories or other readily-available sources. Notify the Better
Business Bureau, postal authorities and consumer advocate agencies if you
receive one of these.
If you're looking for occurrences of a particular surname, national and
international phone listings are widely available on CD-ROM and can be viewed
in many public libraries or purchased.
- Don't assume modern meanings for terms used to describe relationships. For
example, in the 17th century a step-child was often called a "son-in-law" or
"daughter-in-law," and a "cousin" could refer to almost any relative except a
sibling or child.
- Remember that indexes to books rarely include the names of all persons
mentioned in the book and, in addition, occasionally contain errors. If it
appears that a book is likely to have valuable information, spend some time
skimming its contents rather than returning it to the library shelf after a
quick glance at the index.
- Be precise when making notes and especially when sharing information with
others. Write dates using an unambiguous format: Americans interpret 5/6/1881
as 6 May 1881, but in many other countries it would be read as 5 June 1881.
Always capitalize or underline surnames, some of which can be mistaken for
given names, e.g., HENRY, HOWARD. Note place names in full, including parish
or township, county, state or province, and country.
- You'll often encounter conflicting information, for example, you might
discover that your paternal grandmother's birth date on her gravestone is
different than her birth date as told to you by your father. Note the source
for each piece of information, but don't feel you have to decide immediately
which date is the correct one. In fact, both of them may be wrong! Further
research may reveal a more credible birth date, for example, the one on her
Take time occasionally to review and verify the conclusions you've reached
concerning each of your ancestors' lives: this will prevent you from wasting
time following blind alleys.
- Boundaries and place names change constantly over the years. Always verify
them in historical atlases or genealogical texts pertaining to the area. For
example, the boundaries of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania have changed four
times since it was first colonized.
- Whenever you can, advertise the surnames you're researching by posting
them electronically (for example, on the ROOTS-L Surname List) and
submitting them to genealogical directories and surname lists published by
genealogical societies that you belong to. This will put you in touch with
others who are researching the same surnames--possibly for a much longer
time--and save you from reinventing the wheel. After all, the most rewarding
genealogical research is the kind that no-one else has already done!
This article first appeared in The British Columbia Genealogist, vol. 17 #1,
Mar/88. It was reprinted with some changes by the Florida Genealogical Society
in their Journal, vol. 24 #2, Oct/88, and in the Canadian Federation of
Genealogical and Family History Societies Newsletter, vol. 6 #2, Oct/93.
Only non-profit organizations may further redistribute or reprint this file
without explicit permission. If you redistribute this file online, please don't
make your own copy. Instead, make a link to the copy at the above location. If
you reprint this article, please credit the British Columbia Genealogical
Society and send them a copy of your publication containing it. Their address
is: BCGS, PO Box 88054, Lansdowne Mall, Richmond BC Canada V6X 3T6.
Reproduction by commercial (for-profit) organizations prohibited without
Getting Started in Genealogy and Family History