This Year I Am Going To...
New Year's Resolutions for the Genealogist at Heart

by Donna Przecha

The January meeting at the computer genealogy society I belong to always has a big turnout. I am sure that "do genealogy" is high on the list of many people's New Year's resolutions. However, like many resolutions, this one seems to get put aside by about March. I have talked to people who have been doing genealogy for years and they still haven't gotten around to some of the basics.

Genealogy can't be "done" all at once — downloading hundreds of names from a database and considering them to be "instant family" is simply no solution. No, genealogy is a lifetime hobby and, for the most part, it doesn't matter if it waits a few months or even years. Those dead ancestors aren't going anywhere!

You do have to keep chipping away at it, though, and you can set some realistic goals. Depending on where you are in your research, there are some things that should not be put off. If you are just beginning, it is a toss-up as to which of the fist two is the most critical:

Resolution #1: Organize what you have.

It is difficult to know where to start until you know what you have. Get out that box of "family papers" or "grandma's trunk" and go through what is there. Make some charts and jot down names, dates, etc. While you have it all straight in your mind it would be a good time to put the information into a genealogy computer program so you do not have to reinvent the wheel next time you want to work on family history. Be sure to note the source of each fact.

Resolution #2: Interview your older relatives.

If you organize the material you have first, you will be able to ask more pertinent questions of your older relatives. It is imperative that you talk to the older family members NOW. They will not be around forever and they can supply information that will not be found in any records. While some enjoy writing letters, others prefer just to talk about the past. It is worth a special trip, taking along a small recorder, to preserve this information. Don't press them for exact dates. They won't know and you can find these later. Get approximate time periods and relationships — who was oldest, who was youngest, etc. Ask them names and places and let them tell stories.

While I was in college I sat my father down and had him explain the relationships of his large extended family. I don't know how he could possibly remember so many names, but I put them down in a graph form and put them away. Within four years he was gone. My charts were packed away someplace for 15 years before I took them out and began to seriously work on genealogy. Thank heavens I took the time to write down all the wonderful material my father had tucked away in his brain.

Once you have these two "musts" taken care of, you can begin to add information at a reasonable pace.

Resolution #3: Computerize.

Your life will be so much easier if you computerize your data from the beginning. People will dither around for years because they don't know what program to buy. There are so many good, inexpensive programs available now that you don't have to worry that this is a purchase of a lifetime. Buy one and start using it. If you don't like it, you can easily move your data to another program without reentering it. (Be sure that any program you buy has GEDCOM or the ability to transfer data to other programs.) A program will produce all sorts of helpful forms without your having to fill in endless charts by hand and will help you organize your research.

Resolution #4: Visit a Family History Center or genealogy library.

If you have not been to a Family History Center, find out where your nearest one is located and visit it. Some are tiny with little more than a couple of computers and a few microfilm readers. However, all have the FamilySearch on the computer which includes four helpful resources:

  • The IGI (International Genealogical Index)
  • The Ancestral File (data submitted by other researchers)
  • The Social Security Death Index (over 50 million individuals who received death benefits from the U.S. Social Security Administration)
  • The Family History Library catalog (shows all the microfilmed material that can be borrowed, and other data)

If you are just starting out, you may find it inspirational to see all the information that is available. Every library with a genealogy collection is different. Family history and local history books usually do not exist in great numbers so every library will have a different collection, often depending on what has been donated. Of course, a library usually emphasizes its own local area so a visit to a genealogy library where your ancestors lived might reveal some interesting and unique material.

Resolution #5: Write out the "stories."

Some people are very good about entering data into their program, but they don't take the time to add the interesting stories they know. These are the things that make genealogy come alive and interest other people in the family history. For a while, quit reading census returns and adding new names and just sit in front of your computer writing down stories.

Resolution #6: Add your sources.

When you first entered your data into a program you were probably so excited and eager to print great reports that you just put in the basic information and didn't bother with the sources. Take the time to go through your notebooks and files and add the source of the information into the computer record.

Resolution #7: Review your research.

Most genealogists take notes and make copies and file all this paper in notebooks or files. They record the significant information into their program as they go. You might want to take the time to go back through all these notes. We often copy information that doesn't tie directly into the family at the time. If you go back, you may find the answers to new questions. You may have copied the census page for your great-grandfather and, at the time, been unaware that the family two households away was his father's family. Rereading old information in a new light may open some doors.

Resolution #8: Clean up your database.

If you have been adding information over a long period of time, you probably have changed your style over the years. By now perhaps you have a firm opinion about which notation style you prefer: Chicago, Cook, IL; Chicago, Cook Co, IL; Chicago, Cook Co., IL; or Chicago, Cook County, IL. Why not go through your database and make sure all such notations have a consistent style. Run some alphabetical lists and look for misspelled places or typos like "CAlifornia." You should also run diagnostic checks available with the program to be sure you don't have people who lived to 150 or mothers giving birth at age 85 or three years after they died! If your program has the ability, you should look at unlinked names and possible duplicates.

Resolution #9: Print out your data.

It may seem that by computerizing your material you have saved it for all posterity using a medium that is much more durable than paper. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you step in front of a truck tomorrow and join your ancestors, what will happen to your data? If you have a family member who is equally interested in genealogy and equally computer literate, you are in good shape. However, usually other people are only mildly interested and no one understands that program that you spend so much time working with. If a computer sits idle for a long period of time, the hard drive will simply die and the information on it will be lost. Even if you archive your data on disks, the chances are that program will no longer exist in the same form in five years. By ten years your data will not be compatible with the newest version. If you save the program along with the data, no one will know how to run it and will not be inclined to sit down and try to learn it — even if the program is compatible with current computers.

I have a newspaper announcement of the marriage of one couple 198 years ago. I don't know of everyone who has had possession of this newspaper in the meantime, but I can still pick it up today and read the information. I doubt that any electronic material will be usable 198 years from now. Get a hard copy of your data so that some descendant years from now can pick it up and read it. Certainly continue to computerize and make backups, but plain, old-fashioned paper is your best link to the future.

Resolution #10: Take the time to order documents.

You may know that Great Uncle Charley was in the Civil War and that the pension records have lots of fascinating information, but you just haven't had the time to order them. Or you know your grandmother's social security application might give you her mother's maiden name, but it takes forever to get a copy. Government records do take forever, but take five minutes to send off the letter requesting the information or the form. Then forget about it and you will be pleasantly surprised when the information arrives.

Resolution #11: Concentrate on one area.

Experts often recommend that beginners limit their search to one line. When I started there was so little available that I worked on all lines at one time. Nowadays, with so much available, it is probably a good idea to stay with one line. Even if you have done a lot of work, you might want to concentrate your efforts on a problem area. To research in depth you really have to immerse yourself in an area and time period. You need to learn as much as possible about the town or county, the people who lived there and what was going on in history at that time.

Simply knowing the physical location of the various villages or geographical locations, which were adjacent, what name changes occurred, and which families were intermarried can be very helpful. If the handwriting was different because of the age of the documents or you are working in a foreign language area, it takes some time to become familiar with the writing. If you do focus on one area, after a while you will be very familiar with all of these factors. If you put it aside for a couple of years or never really study it in depth, it will be much more difficult to really dig into the records. You might want to devote this year to a particularly difficult problem ancestor that you have been avoiding.

Resolution #12: Don't try to do everything.

Don't attempt to do all of the above at once. Pick one manageable project and stick with it. I have known a few people who have "completed their genealogy." They printed their book and put genealogy aside as "done." For most of us, it will never be completed. It is an ongoing project — for every ancestor you discover, that means there are two more that need to be found. Since it will never be completed, don't put off printing out, at least for your own benefit, some sort of report. If you want to submit your names to a master database such as the World Family Tree or Ancestral File, send what you have now. Don't put it off thinking you will have more or better information later on.

About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!

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