What is genealogy?

Norfolk History Detectives 2: rules and regula...
Norfolk History Detectives 2: rules and regulations (Photo credit: UK Parliament)

Genealogy is the study of family ancestries and history.  If you are interested in knowing who your ancestors were, where they came from, and/or what their daily life was like; then genealogy research could be for you.

Genealogy is not a list of names and dates.  Unless you knew these people personally, a list of names and dates doesn’t have much meaning.  Genealogy goes much deeper than mere names and dates.  Genealogy research is a way to try to get to know your ancestors even though they may have lived long, long ago.

If finding a “black sheep” in the family or finding out that the family legend that’s been passed down for generations is not true is disturbing or upsetting to you, then genealogy research is not for you.  Most people find a “black sheep” eventually and also find out that some family folklore turns out to be true and some does not.  I have also met people that simply are not at all interested in their family history.

If you are curious about your family history and interested in a fun and inexpensive hobby, genealogy certainly fits that description.  Be prepared for a fun and adventurous ride down the road of history.

How do I get started?

Before you actually start your research, there are a few preparatory things you can do to help keep your research organized.  As time goes by and you have more and more information to sort through, this will be important.

Create a filing system.  You will need some file folders and a file box or file cabinet to file your research in.  Start out by using what you have available before going out and purchasing new items.  Wait until you have started your research and get a feel of what you prefer and need before making new purchases.

I prefer keeping a file folder per surname.  Once I start accumulating enough information to publish reports, I create a 3-ring notebook for that surname.  In it, I print family sheets for each family and insert documentation for my sources afterwards.  Each page is kept in a plastic cover sheet.

Decide HOW you will keep your records.  If you are comfortable using a computer, I strongly recommend using a computer program to store your information/research.  If used properly, this can put all of your genealogy research at your fingertips.  It also makes it easy for you to print reports, share information with others, and carry your information with you.  If you also use a Palm device or other hand-held device, you can synchronize or import your genealogy database to it so you have it with you wherever you go.  This has come in very handy for me at family gatherings.

If you’re not comfortable using a computer, you can also use the good ol’ pencil and paper method.  There are lots of free forms online to help you with your research.  Come up with a system to keep your records organized and easy to access.

Let’s get on with it!

Now that you have a filing system in place and have established a method to your madness, it’s time to get started!

The rule of thumb is to start with yourself and work backwards.  If you’re using a computer program to store your information, it will have fields for information such as birth date, marriage, death date, children, and many others.  Try to fill in as many fields as you can.  This is also great practice for your future research.

Don’t forget the sources!   For each field that you fill in, you will need to gather sources to document it.  For your birth date, common sources are birth certificates, birth announcements, newspaper announcements, etc.  People make mistakes, so it is a good idea to have more than one source if possible.  Remember that the source is only as good as the person giving the information.  Also, sources closest to the time of the event are likely to be most accurate.  Be sure to cite your sources in your computer program.

Once you’ve compiled information on yourself, compile information on your spouse (if applicable).  Then, compile information on your parents.  If they’re still living, interview them and get all the information  you can.  Also interview cousins, aunts, and uncles that are living.  Now is the time to interview living relatives about their childhood, life experiences, etc.  Once they are gone, all of their wonderful stories are gone with them.

Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to go on to the next generation.  I find it best to work on a surname at a time.  Once I seem to come to a dead end, I go to another surname.  Often times I will stumble across something to help with the dead-end surname while working on other surnames.  Find a method that works for you, and jump in!

Lessons I’ve learned.

Never, ever, ever under any circumstances share information on living individuals with anyone.  With the prevalence of identity theft, it is not worth it.  Even if you believe the recipient is someone you can trust, they still may not take the same care you do to keep information on living individuals confidential.  If you publish your genealogy information online, be extremely careful not to post information on living individuals.The internet certainly has made genealogy research easier and available to more people but don’t expect to go online and find your complete family tree going back 20 generations.  If you are fortunate enough to find information about your ancestors online, don’t accept others’ research as fact.  It can be a help or a clue as to where to look, but you still need to go back to the original documents and verify the information yourself.

Document, document, document.  Take the time and effort to document your sources.  After  doing genealogy research for a short period of time, you will notice that the paper documents will start piling up.  Whether you use a paper system or a computer program to compile your information,  document your sources so that they are easy to reference.  Several years later when a distant cousin contacts you and asks you for a source for the information you have on a common ancestor,  it will be much easier and quicker if you have your source documented with that individual than to have to go searching through all the information you’ve collected the last several years.

Don’t give up!  Sooner or later you’re going to come along an ancestor that seems to be your “mystery man.”  Find all that you can, post some queries on message boards or email lists, and then go on to another genealogy line.  Go back and review what you have from time to time.  You may see something you missed before.  Eventually you will find pieces to the puzzle and break down that brick wall.  It may take several years, but brick by brick the wall will come down.

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