Genealogy 101: Some Guidelines for Better Genealogy

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega shares some of the guidelines she follows in her family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Genealogy has rules? Like most pursuits, there are guidelines for how to interact with the larger community of family historians and your new-to-you cousins. Because so much of what we do is online, it’s important to be mindful about how we interact with others, especially those new cousins we don’t really know. Here are a few guidelines to consider as you start or continue your family history journey.

Illustration: a researcher using a computer
Illustration: a researcher using a computer

Be Careful about “Taking” Photos

You see a photo of your ancestor, their headstone, or ancestral home online. Perhaps it’s posted by a close family member or an unknown to you (yet) cousin. You want that photo, so you right-click on your mouse and save it to your computer. You need that image for your website/blog/family history book. After all, it’s your ancestor, right?

Wrong… anytime you want to use images on the Internet, it’s always best to ask permission first. You may think, “But wait! That photo was taken in 1890, the photographer is dead and it’s my 3rd great-grandmother!” Nonetheless, that photo is in the personal archive of another family member or repository and it’s best to contact them, ask permission, and provide a source citation for any future postings that you do, whether online or off.

Why? As family historians, we should always cite our sources and should never use images that are not ours without permission. Aside from upsetting or frustrating a family member who posted the photo, it can also result in some larger problems if you use a photo from a repository that requires payment for use. Even if you think it should be a public domain photo, look for publishing or use rights, or a copyright notice. Most websites will provide information about using images such as a Terms of Use page or a Creative Commons License, but if you can’t locate it, you should ask permission.

The added bonus? If the photo was posted by a family member, you now have the opportunity to connect with a new cousin who might have more to share with you.

Give Me Everything You Have on John Smith

When we start our family history research, it’s an exciting time. Meeting new-to-you cousins who share your family history passion is a bonus. That enthusiasm we feel may get in the way and lead us to wanting as much information as possible. But before you make such a request, wait.

Think first what you have to offer. Do you have a family story to share? A photo? Copies you’ve made from a local history? Family history research benefits from both parties being able to share what they have. A request for copies of “everything” someone has researched can be met with anything from annoyance to avoidance.

When making a request, remember that people have busy lives. Aside from your request, they may be raising children or taking care of an elderly parent, struggling financially, or suffering from health issues. The family history research they did might have been years ago and they only have paper copies. In some cases, you may come across someone whose email address changed or you just can’t seem to contact them after initial email exchanges. In other words, everyone has obstacles, and providing you with what you want or when you want it might not fit in with their priorities. So be kind in your request and aim to share, not just take from others.

Be Careful How You Ask

While we are on the topic of asking family for information, let’s talk about asking record repositories for help. Once you get past the first initial steps of family history research, you’ll probably venture out and ask for help, records, or lookups from genealogy societies, libraries, archives, and government offices. In some cases, you’ll be interacting with volunteers or overworked government employees whose main focus at work is not looking up old records or serving family historians.

Be kind in how you ask for information. Be specific, have a research question that gets to the point of what you need. Don’t ask for everything about the Smith family. Instead ask about possible records for the Martin J. Smith family who lived in the area in the late 1800s, the availability of city directories for the early 1900s, or a birth certificate for John G. Smith who was born on 1 October 1896. Don’t forget to do some of your homework beforehand so that you know what the repository does and doesn’t offer. If you’re prepared, you’ll have a better experience.

Cite That Source!

The one major regret I hear from family historians (that is probably only second to wishing you’d asked more question of the older generation when you had the time) is that we wish we cited our sources in our early research. Who hasn’t come across their early research to see a “citation” that proclaims 1880 Census or Marriage Certificate or John Smith Bible and nothing else? The problem is that later, when you are sharing your research, uploading it to an online tree, or publishing it to your blog or website, no one, including you, knows what those sources mean. Those brief “source citations” contain too little information to be useful.

If you had to cite your sources in high school or college research papers, you may be familiar with the various citation styles. Genealogy has its own version that take into account the sources family historians use. One of those styles is detailed in the book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

If you are using a genealogy software program, there’s a good chance it includes templates that make citing your sources much easier. There are also websites that can help format source citations, like EasyBib.

What Rules Do You Follow?

Any genealogy rules or guidelines I didn’t mention? Have you learned the hard way by breaking some of the above rules? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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