The Dos & Don'ts of Family History Research

  • Do keep track of your sources – one day you’ll wonder how you know your 3x great-grandmother’s baptismal date but you won’t know how to find it to check who her sponsors were or what church it happened in.
  • Don’t copy someone else’s work, especially if they haven’t documented any sources. Tons of erroneous info is passed along the Internet – don’t fall for it or pass it along!
  • Do double check someone else’s sources – they might not have copied all the relevant or interesting information or they might have read a transcription wrong.
  • Don’t trust the transcription – names are spelled wrong all the time and, again, while a transcription might list a name, a date, and parents’ names, the actual record might include a parent’s occupation, sponsors’ names, an address, and other useful information.
  • Do use primary and secondary sources whenever possible – if you have a transcription, try to find the actual record. If you’re using a compiled family history, try to find the actual sources they used. The more times information is copied, the further away you get from the actual primary and secondary information, the more chance there is for errors to be made and passed along.
  • Don’t keep your discoveries to yourself – we trace our family trees for our families, so if a distant cousin reaches out to you and needs help, share your work with them. You might never have met them and they might be your fourth cousin five times removed but, hey, they’re family!
  • Do take breaks – family history research is mentally and emotionally exhausting, and especially when we’re constantly hitting our heads against a brick wall, it can be easy to want to call it quits. Sometimes it can be good to walk away for a month, a week, a day, and hour, clear our minds, and come back to our research with fresh eyes.
  • Don’t get discouraged –  genealogy is hard. Records aren’t available. Handwriting is impossible to read. Government agencies take forever to send you the marriage record you need to find out your great-grandfather’s parents and place of birth. Some of these problems will never be resolved, such as records that have been destroyed, so there’s no use in getting upset over that; everything else might require just a little patience.
  • Do learn a new language – I don’t mean become fluent in Russian or Dutch. I mean, whatever countries your family originated in, whatever languages they spoke, learn to recognize the important genealogical words in that language – born, baptized, married, died, buried, parents, godparents, from (where they lived), etc. You might not be able to glean all the details of an entry but if you’re looking through an 18th century German church book, I guarantee it’ll be in German and if you know these key words, they will absolutely begin to pop out at you and you will be able to take advantage of what might be an invaluable family record.
  • Do keep a cheat sheet handy – keep a list of those words nearby. And if the region used a different alphabet than you’re used to, keep a cheat sheet of those letters and symbols, too. I do a ton of German heritage research and they used four different standard alphabets depending on the place and time period; my cheat sheet is always right next to my computer.
  • Don't just use Ancestry - Ancestry.com is an amazing resource and the Internet has made family history research more accessible to more people...but it's not the be all and end all. Visit an archive! Take a walk in a cemetery! Spend time in a library! Go to a local genealogy conference and meet other researchers in person!
  • Don’t forget about history – it’s important to put our families into context. Maybe the entirety of world history is too overwhelming to cover and not quite relevant to our families, but if you can put an ancestor in a time and place, finding out more about what was going on in that time and place can help you understand things such as what a person’s occupation might have been, why a family might have emigrated out of an area, what a person’s religion might have been, whether or not someone might have served in the military, why a mother had five children all die young in a two year period, and so on.
  • Do look at other branches of your family tree – it’s tempting to just focus on our direct lines, but following sibling branches is extremely helpful in connecting to cousins, close or distant, which in and of itself can be rewarding discoveries but which also sometimes yield a wealth of family history information that you might never have known about but that got passed down to them. Also, if you’ve been hitting your head against brick walls, sometimes the information you’re looking for – a birth place, a parent’s name – that is missing on your direct ancestor’s documents can be found on the documents for one of their siblings, effectively opening up that dead end.
  • Don’t think you’re ever finished – a genealogist’s work is never done; nor do we want it to be! I have been doing this on and off for 25 years and while there have been lulls in discovery, I am still uncovering people and places and information that are new and exciting and opening up branches of my tree I never dreamed about.
  • Do get out there as soon as you’re done read this and start or keep digging!
  • Don’t wait!
  • Do send me an email if you have any questions or need help! :)