Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Advice for Beginners - Part II

If you have followed the steps in the previous post, by now, you should have a basic familiarity with pedigree charts and family group records, your genealogy software should be installed, and you should have started your genealogy file with as much information as you have on yourself and your living relatives. Now it's time to really get into the nitty-gritty of research.

1) - Create an organized research plan. Far too many beginning genealogists make the mistake of haphazardly searching for anything and everything at once. Especially with the internet, it seems so easy to type a surname into Google and sort through the many results that come up. However, you will save yourself a lot of time and energy by being more organized and focused in your research.

The steps in the research process are: decide what information you need to learn, choose a source to look for the information, record what you find (including the sources searched), and repeat.

2) - Before I discuss very briefly the research resources available to you, I want to emphasize something that too many beginners fail to do: record everything. Of course, if you find the birthdate of your great-grandfather in a vital record, you will naturally add the birthdate to your genealogy files. However, what if the information you were researching led you through several different sources before you found what you were looking for? It is very important that you keep track of all of the sources you have searched, even if you found nothing. If you don't, you might find yourself searching those sources over and over again later, not remembering that the first search was unsuccessful.

This is where a research log comes in handy. You can find samples of research logs and research forms on the internet, or you can create your own simple one. Write down the ancestor's name and the information you are looking for. Then, as you search a source, write down the name of the source, what day you researched it, page numbers and any other details you'd need to find the source again, and finally, write down what you discovered, if anything. For example, let's say I am looking for my great-grandfather's children. I might search a census record in the area I know they lived in 1880. I would record that I searched the Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, 1880 census, enumeration district #12. If I didn't find anything, I would record that the search turned up no results. If I did find him in that census, I would record the information from the census sheet, as well as the page number of the census he was on. If possible, I would even save a copy of the census image on my computer in my Genealogy folder.

3) - Understand what resources are available to you in researching the information you are missing. Birth dates, marriage dates and death dates can be found in vital records, such as birth and death certificates. Obituaries, birth or wedding announcements in newspapers might also contain this information. Certain census years even record birth year, age, and in some census years, month of birth. Census mortality schedules might record the death date and place of an ancestor. Cemeteries might record not only burial information but death details, as well. Military draft cards or land records might record vital record information. In addition to these sources, you may find a family record on a distant cousin's website that contains a date and place you are missing.

Now is a good time to interject another recommendation. It is important to learn early on that some resources are better than others. For example, let's say I need to find the birthdate of my great aunt. I might find it on a personal genealogy website, but where did that person find the information? If you can find an actual birth certificate or birth announcement, or even government record like a social security application or a military draft card, you have a source that is much more likely to be accurate. In addition, someone else can see that you have a reliable source for your information. If all you can find is a birthdate listed on a family website with no source information, you can go ahead and record it as a source with the birthdate as potential information. Ultimately, however, you will want to track down a source that is more reliable and likely to be accurate.

4) - You can research several different pieces of information on different ancestors simultaneously. Just remember that you'll save yourself loads of time and spare yourself from duplicate research if you keep good records of what you are looking for and the sources you've searched.

In future posts, I will discuss different websites and resources available online and how best to utilize these resources, focusing your time and energy to get the most benefit out of your online research. If you have specific questions or want more information on a particular topic, feel free to contact me or leave a comment to a post. I check the comments often. In the meantime, happy researching!

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