I have bad news for all you genealogists, but I think you already knew: You have to keep all your research notes forever. (A couple of caveats: You have to file them logically and you can't copy everything you find just because it is only five cents a page.) You also need to go back over those old notes periodically. You would be surprised what you might discover!
When you are researching, it is really important to take notes on what you examined and what you found -- even if, and especially if, it wasn't productive. Reviewing old notes can refresh your memory, but it can also bring up many new possibilities. Genealogy is mostly a self-taught subject. There is always a lot to learn upfront and a lot of details slide by the first time around.
Beginning genealogists are usually vitally interested in finding ancestors and extending back in time as far and as fast as possible. For many people, the leap to the "old country" is the primary goal. In this quest they tend to overlook important clues that are vital to a complete family history. Once they have reached the end of the line in the ancestor quest, it is possible to take some time to review and perhaps come up with new clues. It is also a very relaxing, pleasurable exercise to retrace your steps and realize how much you have learned and where the knowledge came from.
The census was probably one of the first documents where you found family information -- or maybe you didn't find your family. If you did find an entry, I hope that you took a photocopy of the page. Go back and study it again. First, look at neighbors on the same page. Now that you have found more information on the family, you might see that parents or siblings are living nearby. If you are still looking for the wife's family, take a closer look at older couples nearby. It might be worthwhile getting the film again and looking at people on nearby pages. Did you overlook a "Pa" in the citizenship column indicating he had made his declaration of intent to become a citizen or "Na" meaning he was already naturalized? These papers should be on file and often have valuable information. Look at all the other columns. Whether or not he owned property could be important, as there are land records that should be investigated.
If you were unsuccessful in finding someone in the census, perhaps it is time to take another look. The census can be pretty frustrating when you first start, but after you become familiar with its format it isn't so bad. Even city returns that are not indexed are not as daunting as they first seem. With death certificates, city directories and other sources, you might now have an idea of where they lived. Many cities are broken down by wards and the census returns also list wards. You can find descriptions of the areas each ward covered or sometimes a death certificate might show a ward number. You can quickly go through a city census by looking just at the ward number. Several states have state censuses that have valuable information but are not indexed. You might want to consider taking a look at these now.
New indexes are coming out all the time, so perhaps the census you need wasn't indexed when you first looked at it but is now. If your state was indexed but you didn't find your family, see if any new indexes have been done. Even those that have been reissued on CD-ROM from the same database that produced the original books have had corrections. A new index might include all names rather than just head of household. If you could look up two year old Balthazar Smith, it would be a lot quicker than trying to look at every Smith family in northeast Ohio. If you can search a CD by first name, that could also provide the key for finding the maiden name for a woman with an unusual first name. Many censuses have been transcribed and are available online. Hopefully, you kept a list of the soundex codes you searched. Maybe you didn't code the name correctly. ( Family Tree Maker can do that for you.)
Go back and reexamine those birth, marriage and death certificates. That woman you didn't know who provided the information on the death certificate might now be recognizable as the daughter whose married name you hadn't yet discovered. Perhaps you overlooked the social security number on the certificate. You can use that to request the original social security application which has valuable information. If you study the cause of death you might begin to see a medical pattern in your family that needs further investigation. The social security index also provides a way to keep up with recent family deaths. The index is updated frequently so you can check on distant cousins to see if they are still alive.
Look at the negative reports you received when you requested a birth, marriage or death certificate (you did keep them, didn't you?) along with the original application you sent (copy also kept). In the light of later research, you may now see that you were looking for the event in the wrong county or had the wrong date. You might want to send in a new request or check online for vital records. California now has the index for births (1905-95) and deaths (1940-97) online so you don't need to send in your money until you know the certificate is there.
The index to the British births, deaths and marriages is being indexed by volunteers and being placed online. Instead of having to search by quarters you can search the entire database. You can also search for marriages using both spouses' names.
Records that contain addresses, such as censuses, death certificates and city directories, were not always that meaningful if you couldn't get a map of the city. You didn't know if people lived a block apart or miles. With interactive online maps, you can see exactly, right down to the block, where they lived. If you have a baptismal record from a city church, you can look up the church address and have a pretty good idea of where the family lived. This can help cut down on the area to search in an unindexed census.
It is always fun to go back and read old letters and you may pick up new information. Perhaps someone wrote to you about a family that you thought was unrelated but now you can fit them into your expanded family tree. Or maybe cousin Louis said he was going to go down and visit the cemetery in the spring. Get in touch with him and see if he has anything new. You might have exchanged a lot of letters with a fellow researcher 10 years ago and haven't heard anything since then. It might be time to follow-up. (It wouldn't hurt to check the social security index before writing!)
Genealogy has become a profitable industry, for good or ill. One benefit is that new information is being created on a regular basis. Some of it is free, some is for sale and some has a free teaser with the rest having a price. It pays to go back periodically and see what has transpired. The probate or land records you found unfathomable may now be abstracted or indexed. Many new indexes are in progress. The 1880 census is being indexed on an individual name basis, not just for families with children under the age of 10. A few years ago there was no index for any English census, but these are appearing on a regular basis. You only need to be patient. If you only knew a county in England a few years ago, it was hopeless to find the people in the census. Now, for the1881 census, there is a complete index by name. It opens up many new possibilities.
I found I had "new information" in my own files. I had been looking, unsuccessfully, for naturalization records for Wojciech Szul. Wojciech is Polish for Albert. His death certificate is under Albert and his grandson, Albert, was named for him so I never pursued it further. I did find one census where he was listed as George but disregarded this as one of the many errors in the census. On a list someone mentioned that Wojciech translated as George. A list of Polish names indicated Wojciech could be translated as Albert or George. When questioned, his daughter remembered that when he was working he did use George. I am now going to make another request for naturalization papers, this time for George!
Ships' Passengers Lists
Ships' passengers lists are a valuable source of information but many years are not indexed. Without an index it is almost impossible to locate people if you only have a vague idea of the year of immigration. Now many groups are working on indexing different records. For example, the Ellis Island records are being indexed by volunteers. And, while the original Hamburg passenger list index is difficult to work with since it is in German script, now some years are available online in a format that's easier to use. I don't advocate using only the database and not checking the original record because each step away from the original record means more chance for errors. However, you need to check all possibilities and someone with more experience may have read a name more accurately than you did. The Emigrant Ships Transcribers Guild is working on lists and every year new volumes of Filby's and the Germans to America series appear.
Pay Attention to Details
Quite a few years ago I received several baptism certificates from a parish in Poland. I thought it was curious that one child out of a family of four sons was baptized Greek Catholic while the others were Roman Catholic. However, I was in a hurry to write back and ask for more certificates and didn't think any more about it. Recently, however, I looked over these records, again noted the anomaly plus the fact that the family was supposed to have six children, not four, and I had no record of the mother's death or birth. Out of idle curiosity I posted a query on the Poland Border Surnames list asking why one child would be Greek Catholic. Several people replied that the custom was when a Roman Catholic man married a Greek Catholic woman, the boys would be raised as Roman and the girls as Greek. When I looked in my records at the name of the Greek Catholic, I found it was Franciszka, a girl. This provided a lot of insight: the mother was probably Greek Catholic; the mother's death and birth records would be with the Greek church; the other two children were probably girls and baptized in the Greek church. This is a great new lead for me.
Check the Internet
Browse the Internet periodically. More and more reliable information is appearing regularly. It takes time to dig through all the links but it can pay off in the long run.
Mailing lists are a great way of learning about new developments. Sign on to the surname or geographical area of your interest. This is not a lifelong commitment. You can subscribe today and unsubscribe tomorrow. If you are going to be away for a few days, unsubscribe. These messages can come fast and furious and if you get behind you probably aren't ever going to read the old ones. Lists are good places to learn the "stories." People who subscribe to lists have the most amazing font of information that they are willing to share. Perhaps deep in a Polish genealogy book I could have found out about the Roman-Greek tradition but many people on the list were aware of it and could provide personal experience. Someone usually knows the traditions or folklore and is willing to share. It is a great resource for filling in some of those blanks.
Do you have a copy of a foreign document from some relative, something you just never got around to having translated ? You don't think it has vital information but it would be fun to know what it says. As long as it isn't too long, many lists encourage people to post the information from these documents as several people on ethnic lists usually know the language.
These are just a few ideas of what you might look for in your old notes. If you take the time to go through them, you will probably come up with several new avenues to explore.