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Essential Skills for Successful Genealogists

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

PC 1649

New Settlers, Their First House, Western Canada

Postcards from the Past, PC 1649

I read an interesting blog posting this week which outlines some of the skills that a successful genealogist will need to develop. Some of these are quite straightforward, things we probably learned in kindergarten, such as, be polite, be a good listener, be patient. Others might not be so obvious, or may be so obvious as to be overlooked. Here is the list, adapted from Bob Brooke at the Genealogy Today blog.

Have a plan: I speak from experience here; you need to have a plan. While certain advertisements and television programs suggest that you really don’t need to know what you are looking for, you really do and having a plan of attack will save you much grief in the long run. It also pays to plan how you will organize the information you collect long before you have too much information to organize. You don’t want this to happen:

Messy desk

Question authority (well, sort of.) In my wild and misspent youth, I had this as a bumper sticker. I’ve adapted it a little for genealogy. What it means is that everyone makes mistakes, even the people who record our data. It helps to know why the document was produced and who provided the information. You know that the person listed on a death certificate did not provide the information to the officials, so who did? Generally, it is best to verify every fact with at least one other document (two documents if the information comes from your family membersJ)

Listen: Learn to listen, not just to family members, who, even if they are not always the most accurate, often have great stories that may provide clues to investigate, but also listen to other genealogists. I have learned far more from the coaches in our Family History Coaching program, from other members of the genealogical society and from customers in the library that I will ever learn from classes. This is why I can highly recommend our Family History Coaching program. We are getting more and more genealogists who are coming to the program simply to work on their research while there are others working on the same thing so that there can be collaboration and information exchange. Many hands make light work (to quote my Nana)

Learn how to ask questions: This skill will arise from your planning skills. Knowing what you are looking for makes it easier to articulate a question. And, yes, you can ask questions. Librarians, archivists, genealogy societies, local history associations, message boards, all invite questions from genealogists. But, it is far easier to answer the question “do you have a transcription for the cemetery in which I think my ancestor is buried and could you look him up?” than “what do you have on Joe Blow?” or “send me everything you have on Joe Blow.”

Learn about the records: It can save you a lot of pain if you learn about the records for the area in which you are researching. Find out what is available, where they are held, how to you access them etc. Don’t waste your time looking for a birth certificate in a place or a time in which births weren’t registered. This also leads to another pointer: learn as much as you can about the place where your ancestors lived. Knowing the history, social customs, religious beliefs etc can lead you to any number of records that may exist. It can also give you insight in to the way your ancestors lived and, perhaps, how they thought. This can also provide clues.

Be patient: Genealogy is not something that can be done in the week before your family reunion. Finding records takes time, getting the records takes time, verifying the records takes time. Pursue this as a long term research project and you will get years and years of enjoyment from it.

Cite your sources: Learn how to take notes and how to properly cite a source. In the long run this will save you endless hours of frustration when you need to go back to find the source again (and believe me, you will) I have known people who have come in with a photocopy of a page of a book asking if we recognize it. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. If you are planning on publishing, you can consult a manual on how to cite sources in genealogy such as Evidence: Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills). If you are planning on keeping records for the family, the citation may not need to be as detailed, but you should give a basic citation that will allow you or anyone following in your footsteps, to find the record again. .This is usually the title, the author, if there is one, the volume number, the page number, the date it was published. For microfilm you can record the reel number and the name of the repository (each archive and library uses a different numbering structure). Actually, it probably wouldn’t hurt to read Evidence even if you’re not publishing.

Keep an open mind: This applies in many different instances. Keep your mind open to other resources, follow any leads, no matter how thin they may seem and please, please, keep in mind that just because you spell your name one way, doesn’t mean your ancestors didn’t spell it differently or that is wasn’t butchered by a census taker, a transcriber, a government official or anyone else.


So that was my lecture. I’m sure there are lots of other pointers, but in my long career as a genealogy-helper, these are the ones I wish I had followed (especially the organization one – that isn’t my desk in the photo above, but mine is just as bad)

So Happy Hunting and remember, the librarian is your friend.

Librarian

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