Monday, February 23, 2009

Advice for Beginners - Part I

There are literally hundreds of articles out there on the web about how to get started doing genealogy research if you are a beginner. There are even free web courses (see previous post on free BYU courses) that offer good information for getting started. As a 30-year-old genealogist with over a decade of research experience, I wanted to offer some advice for beginners who want to learn the basics while immediately utilizing the technology available. Along with the standard information for getting started, I hope that I offer here some unique ideas that might help you save time and frustration in the long run. For purposes of brevity, this information will be in two different blog posts so you don't have to scroll for pages to read it all.

1 - Decide your motivation and reasons behind doing your genealogy. Many how-to articles skip this critical piece. Your reasons behind your desire to do family history might change what software programs you use, how much detailed information you keep on family members, and even what websites might be most helpful to you. It may seem obvious that genealogists do research because they enjoy it and they want to learn about their ancestry. However, LDS genealogists will usually find that their most important information is the critical vital records information and LDS ordinance data. While they may want to gather other information, it may not be as important to them. Their genealogy software will need to specifically handle LDS data. Some researchers may decide that they want to gather direct ancestors as far back as possible to share with other family members. Others will want to also include children of ancestors' siblings (commonly referred to as down lines research) in order to collaborate with distant cousins and others on family details. Just defining in your own mind what your ultimate goals are will help you know what information will be most vital to you and what you want to do with that information once you find it.

2 - Learn the basics of the traditional paper genealogy forms. With so many software programs available today for genealogy, it is easy for many of us starting out (particularly those of younger generations) to download a program and start using it. However, before we get that far, we really should decide on what information we will gather. Understanding the traditional paper forms that were used before the advent of computer software helps us to understand what we are trying to record. The two genealogy forms most commonly used for recording family history are pedigree charts and family group records. Pedigree charts are tree-like diagrams that show the direct ancestors of a single person. For example, your first pedigree chart would show yourself, your parents, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents. Usually, the pedigree charts include full names, birth, marriage and death dates and places. A family group record shows a couple along with their children. For example, your grandparents family group record would include each of them and basic vital information at the top along with each of their children and children's information. Most software programs are based on these two types of genealogy forms. Of course, depending on your answers to step #1, you may also want to record extra information, including military service, occupations, education levels, emigration and immigration information, residences, biographical stories, religion, and more.

3 - Many "getting started" articles at this point include the instruction to write down everything you know. Unless you want to use the paper forms, this step really should be preceded by selecting and downloading a software program. If you are a Windows user, I highly recommend starting out with Personal Ancestral File, or PAF. This is a free program offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has good functionality and an easy user interface. As you progress in your research efforts, you may decide down the road to switch genealogy programs to get more features. Since all genealogy software uses a standard file format (known as GEDCOM), you can always move your data from one program to another without too much hassle. If you are a Mac user, I suggest PAF if you have a virtual Windows desktop or are running Bootcamp. Otherwise, you'll just want to research Mac genealogy software online. Most of these programs have demos available for download so you can try it before you purchase anything. Take advantage of those demos.

4 - When you first start entering information in your chosen software, you'll need to decide where you are going to save the genealogy file that the program creates. I like to keep it simple. I recommend creating a new folder called Genealogy on your desktop or in your Documents folder. Keep your main genealogy file in this folder. Eventually, you can add other folders to this Genealogy folder for things like pictures, census images, scanned documents, etc.

5 - Once you have a genealogy program installed, you can now proceed to record everything you already know. This is easier than it sounds. Start with yourself. Enter in your name, birthdate and place, marriage information, etc. If you are married, you can add a spouse. Add your children and as much information as you know off the top of your head. Repeat this process for your parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents.

6 - Now look through any information you might have in your home. Look for records like birth, marriage and death certificates; obituaries or other newspaper articles; wedding or funeral programs; family diaries, journals or letters; family bibles; scrapbooks or baby books; school records; military records; family histories; and legal papers. You might be surprised at how much you already have at your fingertips.

7 - See what information you are missing on any living relatives and make phone calls to get the information. For example, you might have your grandfather's birth year but not the month and day. If you know your grandma has this information, give her a call. Information on the living is much more difficult to find through traditional research channels than information on deceased family members. This is why the recommendation is to get this information through phone calls or visits with other family.

Now that you have a great start to your genealogy file, the next steps will include getting familiar with the resources you can use, steps in the basic research process, and then moving on to actually finding information on deceased ancestors. I will discuss these things in my next blog post.

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