Beyond Ancestry Sites: Tips for the Beginner Genealogy Researcher
Anyone that has been on a site like Ancestry will know the excitement of seeing that little green leaf pop up next to a family member’s name. It’s like magic. A new document (military draft card, census record, marriage certificate, etc.) has been found and been attributed to your family member. Another piece of the puzzle is put in place.
The serious genealogy researchers know that while that site is exciting, it is only provides a small piece of your family history. Whether your ancestors were farmers or royalty, they led rich, interesting lives that span beyond the census records that these ancestry websites contain. Diving deeper into your family’s history will not only provide you with the basic details of their lives, but give you an understanding of who they were and how they lived.
Many of our clients are stellar researchers and have discovered so much information about their ancestors. For those that are new to genealogy or want to take this beyond a casual hobby, we have a few tips to help you get started.
1. Understand Your Goal
For us, everything comes back to a simple question: “What do you want to know?” Some people want to belong to the DAR and need their family tree to join the society. Others want to know where they came from and see how far back they can take their tree. There are people who want to discover cousins and living relatives that they haven’t met yet. Your goal will impact how you research and where you spend your time looking.
2. Stay Organized
Find the organizational style that works for you. Are you a digital person or pen and paper? If you’re a digital person, you will want to find the programs that work for you. You may be happy with Ancestry or FamilySearch, but it may be helpful to use the tools in Google Drive or Office365 to document your findings and store information. Pen and paper fans may want to create a binder with tabs to organize printed materials and notes.
Regardless of your organizational style, you should keep a research log documenting the websites, books, and records you’ve read. Materials can disappear, and we can’t remember every little detail of what we’re clicking through. Research logs will keep you efficient and stop you from duplicating fruitless searches.
3. Do the Easy Searches First
Start by writing down what you know. Write down your story, and your family’s story including your parents, siblings, children, and anyone else you can remember. Then, talk to your other family members to see what they can add to your list. Most of these family members will remember the colorful stories of relatives that cannot be found in libraries or museums.
You can also look through family Bibles, letters, photographs, and any other documents that your family has (and will let you look through). If you’ve exhausted that option, you can perform online searches through Google, Ancestry, Family Search, Digital Maryland, and other databases. Make sure you inspect those items carefully. A record may be attributed to a relative, but it may not be correct. Using the wrong records can take you down the wrong path and confuse your research.
4. Go Beyond the Internet
Do not rely on the internet alone. It is a wonderful tool, but it is not the be-all and end-all to research. Maryland has a tremendous amount of local history available, and you should explore it. Libraries like The Enoch Pratt Free Library, Harford County Public Library, and more have many resources and staff that can help you with your search. The state, counties, and industry specific museums like the B&O Railroad Museum or the Maryland Museum of Military History have documents, archives, photographs, and more.
If you trace your family out of state, you can take a visit to a local library or museum to learn more about that area and potentially find information about a family member. While not researching a person, a client of ours went to the New York Public Library to look at unknown photographs of a horse. He was tracing the lineage of a horse and found undiscovered photos of the horse in question. The archivists at NYPL digitized the images and sent them to him for his records. You can do that just as easily for your family.
5. Understand Variables
When you look at handwritten records, you’ll see that they are often hard to read and can be incorrect. We’ve had clients that have said, “This was their name, but we aren’t 100% sure how to spell it. This record spells it like this, and others spell it a different way.”
There are always variables when it comes to forms and handwritten records. People used their full name for one form and a nickname for another. What you understand a profession to be called today is not what it was called in another time. If you can’t find someone under one name, location, profession, etc., then use a synonym to see if you can discover them under something else.
6. Cite Your Sources
That phrase may bring up some awful memories of English and Literature classes, but citing your sources is important. Webpages can disappear. Documents can be destroyed. You should write down the:
- Date Discovered
- Title of Document
- Type of Document (web, book, record, etc)
- Any other specific information relating to the document in question
You don’t need to put it in any specific format, unless you want to. No one is grading your work, but it is important to know where you found something in case you need to go back to it.
Genealogy can be so much fun to research. If you want to learn more, join a genealogy group or connect with a genealogy professional that specializes in your specific area of research that can help you with your project. You can attend local or regional conferences to learn about genealogy best practices, connect with vendors, and more. It’s never too late to start learning about your family history.