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Twenty Ways to Avoid
Genealogical Grief

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 sound research.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 haven't answered.
  4. 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 promised.
  5. Make frequent backups of your computer disks. Store your backups and photocopies of your irreplaceable documents where you work or at someone else's home.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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 Sarah White.
  14. 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.

  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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 birth certificate.

    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.

  19. 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.
  20. 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 written permission.

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