Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Armchair Genealogist on Advice for Beginners

At The Armchair Genealogist, Lynn Palermo deals with a topic I can’t resist: “If I Was Starting All Over Again – My Best Advice for a Beginner Genealogist.” Lynn asks, “What’s the best advice you would give a beginner family historian?”

Next September 1 will be my fifth anniversary in genealogy. Yes, I know the exact date. I googled the name “Brinlee” to illustrate to a coworker that everyone with that spelling of the last name was related to me. And to my surprise, the hits included some indications that some of those Brinlee family myths that I thought were bunk might actually be true (almost all of them were, an exception to the rule about family myths).

That first year was when I got my feet wet in genealogical research, and I learned a lot. I think most of what I learned and did was a positive experience (my cousins Eunice and Jo Ann were excellent role models), though there were some missteps. So, as a response to Lynn’s question and excellent advice, I would offer a few additional comments and suggestions.

Once you know that your interest in genealogy is passionate and not passing, do invest in a good genealogy program (one that is reported to work well on your computer and fits with your way of organizing things and your approach to research) as well as in some guides on evidence and sources (such as Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained). This actually repeats one of Lynn’s points, but this was the main thing I would have changed in my first year. Six months into my genealogy adventure, my husband bought me the Reunion program, and I should have started using it then instead of waiting another six months. And instead of wildly scribbled notes, I would have developed a better system for organizing my data (almost) from the get-go.

If you can, do wait about a year to subscribe to commercial online database services such as Ancestry. Yeah, I know this contradicts those alluring shaky leaf commercials, but your knowledge of resources – both online and in hard copy at repositories – will be much greater. I waited a year to subscribe to Ancestry, and discovered the wonderful world of Cyndi’s List, Rootsweb, Genweb, the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, Family Search (with its research guides), library resources, writing off to state archives and county courthouses for copies of documents, and several excellent name-based websites.

Do be skeptical about the information you find – not just the sloppy stuff in many online family trees, but also information from books. However, don’t carry that skepticism so far that you dismiss something without first having solid evidence to disprove it. As noted above, my skepticism about many Brinlee family stories turned out to be wrong. On the other hand, some of the stuff that I first found online was absolutely false, and it is strange to go back to my early notes and realize that I actually believed some of this once upon a time. Also be ready to completely reverse your previous thinking. I’ve had to do this so many times, if I had a dollar for every flip-flop I could use the money to take a world cruise.

Do learn to be stubborn in your research. You will need to learn many different techniques and tricks, where to look for information, and how to use the different and sometimes contradictory clues you find. But “smart” or “efficient” research is not enough. You have to just keep at it and never give up. That attitude has generated more happy dances for me than so-called “brilliant ideas.”

Do start sending off letters and e-mail to as many known relatives as you can, as well as to every researcher for your family lines that you encounter online or elsewhere. Do it now, do it often, and don’t be timid. In my “previous life” I never would have had the courage to write an e-mail to someone I had never met before. I do it all the time now. Call up relatives, and not just to ask them those interview questions. Chat them up. Find out what they’re doing now, how all their family members are, and every now and again, steer the conversation into the past. In the context of “the usual family chit-chat and gossip” you can find out a lot of valuable family history. I learned so much from my cousins and from my Uncle Bill, and much of what Uncle Bill told me might have died with him had I not been in telephone contact with him over the past couple of years.

Advertise/Publish/Post what you do know about your ancestors, what you learn about them, and what questions you have about them. Start early with this and keep doing it. Make it a regular part of your research routine for each family line. Post on message boards, write articles for county heritage books or local genealogical society newsletters, and if you can, start blogging or create websites. You may not want to put every last tidbit out there; some people just scoop up what you publish and never acknowledge your work or share information, but many will, and if only a fraction of those who do have information, pictures, etc. to share, it is all worth it.

A final piece of advice to the beginning family historian would be: Treat genealogy as a quest for information, not as a collectors’ hobby. You are a detective-researcher, not someone who collects ancestors, only to get bored with them and let them collect dust on a shelf. If you dig for that information to learn who your ancestors really were, there will always mysteries that won’t let you abandon the quest. You will learn so much about history, culture, sociology, demographics, and many other subjects that might never have been the of the least interest to you in school. It’s like getting another degree, only more fun and you have control of the curriculum.

I still think of myself as an advanced beginner to beginning intermediate family history researcher and still have tons to learn. Lynn is right, you have to take a break from time to time. But I always come back.


  1. Thanks Greta, I particularly agree with sending off letters and emails. I have probably gained as much information through finding 'cousins' and learning their family history knowledge as I have from any subscription database. Some of your greatest discoveries will come in the most unlikely places.

  2. Nice article Greta. I always like to read what others would do. I had been thinking of doing a similar piece, but it will wait. Always enjoy your posts. I see you are going to FGS, they are great. Have a wonderful time.

  3. Good advice, wish I had known this two years ago, when I did not know which way to go.

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  5. Great list! I especially liked the hint about waiting a year before subscribing to online databases such as Ancestry. I'm always glad that I started my genealogical research before the age of the internet, because if I had relied on Ancestry I would have made A LOT of wrong turns. By writing family members, going to town clerks, and to the archives in Boston I was off to a much better start. I'm glad I still have those good habits.