Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “” In this blog post, Gena talks about the five worst mistakes she made when she first began researching her family tree—and offers advice to help other genealogists avoid those same errors.
How long have you been researching your family history? Do you look back at your genealogy research and wish you had done things differently? We all do. Just like parenting, genealogy research is a “learn as you go” proposition. Even when we receive unsolicited advice from more experienced family historians we may ignore that advice, not understanding the wisdom that comes from having researched over time.
Mistakes? Yeah, I’ve made a few. Here are five that I’ve made researching my family tree—and how you can avoid them.
1) Sources? What’s a Source?
Most genealogists will name “not citing their sources” as a family history research beginner’s regret. Sure, maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal now—after all, you aren’t publishing anything right? But a year from now when you want to look at a particular record again and you can’t remember where you saw it, believe me you’re going to wish you wrote down the source of that piece of genealogical information.
So how do you remedy that? Well if you want to do a thorough job, you can refer to the Elizabeth Shown Mills classic Evidence Explained. If you are using a genealogy software program, chances are that program includes citation templates that you can use to fill in the blanks. And for those who prefer to copy and paste, do so with the source citations many genealogy websites provide with each document view. Your end goal should be to have enough information about what the document is, and where to locate it, that you or others can find it when they need to.
2) I Don’t Need to Write That Down (Not Recording What You Find)
Really this genealogy research mistake is connected with the first. I remember when I started working on my personal family history research, most genealogists were buried under paper copies. We have come a long way since the days where you worried about how much room photocopies would take up in your suitcase after a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. And with the ability to subscribe to websites and print from home, that pile of papers just got bigger and bigger. Yes, it’s fun to find stuff and to have that physically on paper, but it’s equally important to record what you find. Whether you do that in a genealogy software program, spreadsheet or database you create, recording what you find will help you avoid repeating searches that you have already exhausted or, worse yet, “finding” information that you had already discovered six months ago.
Another benefit of recording the information—or even transcribing or abstracting that information—is that you get to know the document better. I find I learn so much more about a resource when I’m actively engaging with it by abstracting the information found in that document.
Sure, print or digitally save that census record, newspaper article, or vital record. But after you do that, then record the information so that you have it and can refer back to it when needed.
3) Not Learning How to Search
Sometimes we think that searching our ancestors is easy. Anyone can do it, right? You just enter a name, date, and place and you find what you need. Well yes, almost anyone can do it but crafting a good search and finding those elusive ancestors involves more than filling in the boxes on a search engine.
So how do you conduct a really good ancestry search? For GenealogyBank, which uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to search its content, you get better results by using keywords or a keyword phrase. Don’t limit your ancestor searches to just a name.
First, develop lists of keywords to use in your search. One list of keywords should be name variations for your ancestor including nicknames, initials, and misspellings. For example, if my ancestor is John Jacob Smith, I would want to search for him as John Smith, John J. Smith, J.J. Smith, and Mr. Smith.
Because this ancestor search is for a common surname, simply doing a name search is not enough; I would also want to use GenealogyBank’s advanced search engine to add other keywords to narrow my search to my target ancestor. Create a second list of keywords that includes the places your ancestor was from, their occupation, the name of their spouse, and other details like religion or membership organization.
Also, remember this advice: keep searching over time! Conducting a single search on a website that is constantly adding content, like GenealogyBank, isn’t enough. The newspaper article you need may not have been available back when you did your original search months ago, but perhaps it was added yesterday. Make sure you utilize the “Added Since” button found on the Advanced Search engine to search the latest content, especially if you have conducted a search recently.
(We often discuss genealogy search tips here on the GenealogyBank blog; see the end of this article for a list of relevant examples.)
4) Not Evaluating Evidence
There’s a rush of excitement in finding something new about an ancestor—but in that excitement we don’t always take a moment to really analyze the information we found. What’s involved in analyzing the evidence? A good part of the analyzing involves immersing yourself in reading the document and asking yourself what the document tells you, what it doesn’t tell you, and where you should go next. Don’t take the document at face value; take the time to read slowly and deeply to understand everything that is written down in the article, and use that information to ask additional questions to guide your research further.
5) Not Having a “Permanent” Email Address
Part of genealogy is networking: reaching out and connecting with other researchers and potential cousins. Making those connections can help you uncover details previously unknown to you. The problem is that in the rush to change an Internet provider we are unhappy with, we often forget all of the clues and questions we’ve left on various message boards and social media websites using that no-longer-current email address as our only contact information. There’s nothing worse than having the answer to someone’s genealogy problem—only to send them an email and having that email bounce because it’s no longer a valid address.
So before you make all those posts and ask all of those questions on genealogy subscription websites, message boards and social media sites, secure a permanent email address through a website like Gmail or Hotmail. This email address won’t change if you switch Internet providers, thus leaving you with a permanent online address for potential cousins to find you today and six years from now.
What genealogy mistakes have you made in your family history research? Fess up in the comments below and help other genealogy researchers not fall into the same traps.
Related Genealogy Search Articles:
- 8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry
- Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings
- 6 Tips for Name Research with Obituaries: Who Are the Survivors?
- Tracing Female Ancestors: The Mother of All Genealogy Research
- Genealogy Search Engine Types & Tips: OCR vs. Indexed Databases
- Genealogy Checklist: 13 Types of Records to Include in Your Research
- Meanings of Family Surnames: Exploring Origins of Last Names