No time to research your roots? Find your family history faster with
these five time-saving tips.
Even if you can only squeeze in your family history search on weekends,
you can still make progress toward your past if you know how to
make the most of your time. These five time-saving tips can help you organize
your research and get more done by tapping the Internet, plain old "snail
mail," research facilities and fellow genealogists. Approach your
roots research with these tips up your sleeve, and you'll discover just
how much weekend genealogists can accomplish with their family trees.
1. Make the US Postal Service work for you.
Requesting information and records by mail can save you hours of research
time. If documents can be delivered to your door, why spend precious time
looking them up yourself? Preserve those hours for items that are not
indexed or available by mail. Before hauling yourself somewhere, find
out what copies will cost, whether documents can be photocopied and mailed
to you, forms of payment and policies regarding faxed or e-mailed requests.
If you make a written request, keep it brief and include information regarding
any spelling variations that may affect the search. Always include a self-addressed
stamped envelope ("SASE"), as well as payment, your e-mail address
and your phone and fax number. Keep in mind that the less information
you ask for in each request, the more likely the reply will be prompt.
Using published indexes will enable you to request specific documents
by volume, page number and so on. Once you've thoroughly looked at the
indexes, decide if the number of documents warrants a trip to the facility.
If there are more than a few, it might be more cost- and time-effective
to obtain them yourself. In that case, write or call ahead and ask for
the hours, restrictions and costs involved.
2. Recruit some help.
Membership in the historical or genealogical society in your research
area has its privileges. You may be able to "swap" research
time with someone living in that area. Societies may send you newsletters
with educational articles and upcoming events. Some organizations, such
as the New England Historical Genealogical
Society in Boston, have a circulating library that allows you to borrow
books via mail that may not be available in your area. Also, if you have
no local access to census records, ship passenger lists, military pension
records and the like you may be able to borrow them by mail from the National
Archives and Records Administration and use them at a local facility
with a microfilm reader.
3. Leave no recorded "stone" unturned.
Most researchers don't fully utilize the records they acquire. Many types
of records provide clues that are often overlooked. Take what I call the
"Doberman" approach to your genealogy research: Latch on to
a fact and don't let go until you've gotten everything out of it. Squeezing
every single scrap of information from a record as a clue to other research
will pay big dividends. "Ask" every document you examine these
questions before you let go:
- Why was the document created in the first place?
- Are you looking at the original or a copy?
- To whom does the document pertain?
- How close to the original event was the document created?
- Who are the witnesses, informants or other persons mentioned in the
- Are any relationships stated or implied?
- Did the person executing the document sign with a signature or mark?
- Is the information reliable, usable or simply clues to further research?
- What's the full citation for the document?
Here's where taking a few extra minutes upfront will save you time in
the long run: Completely transcribe the document, don't just abstract
it. By transcribing, you're less likely to miss an important detail. Human
nature allows us to understand the basic document we're reading, whether
or not we read every word. Some of those words, when we're forced to decipher
them, turn out to be important facts.
Terminology has changed over the centuries, and you may not understand
what a fairly common term means in an old document. For example, those
of us over 30 or so are familiar with the expression, "you sound
like a broken record." Teenagers today never mind 100 years
from now! have little or no understanding of that phrase. Having
a good genealogical, general or law dictionary or several of them
to refer to while you transcribe documents will also be a valuable
4. Make every minute of research trips count.
After you've done as much advance preparation as possible, you're ready
to hit the road to a research facility. You should have your binder or
folder containing the information about the facility and geographic area
you'll be visiting. Make a list of what you need to accomplish, highlighting
"must-have" records. Read everything you can find on a particular
subject, locality or research facility before you set out to research
it. It won't eliminate every problem, but will certainly give you a more
realistic approach to the records. Two good places to start are Ancestry's
Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources (Ancestry, $49.95)
and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Ancestry, $49.95).
Keep in mind that your first trip to any facility is a reconnaissance
mission. You need to actually use the facility before you truly know its
advantages and disadvantages.
Before you put the key in the ignition, though, make sure you thoroughly
understand the record types you'll be using. Also, double-check that the
facility has the records you need, that records actually exist for the
time period in question, and that they aren't available closer to home
(on microfilm, online or by mail).
Once you've arrived, stake a claim at one of the designated research
tables. Take a brief stroll around to see how things are set up. Then
get down to your research business. Check your progress about halfway
through and prioritize the remaining records to get the most important
ones first. When you do find the records at the facility, make photocopies
rather than taking valuable research time to transcribe or abstract the
record while at the facility. I do that only if photocopies aren't allowed
or the print isn't as readable as on the microfilm reader. Your time is
worth more than the cost of a copy!
5. Tap others' expertise.
Networking with other genealogists, which has become a piece of cake
thanks to the Internet, is one of the best time-saving tools you have
available. Learning from others' mistakes and successes can be rewarding.
The knowledge that local societies and researchers will provide you with
is almost endless. Locals know what records are available, how you can
access them, and may even be able to provide you with information about
relatives or descendants still living in the area.
If you take a few minutes to list the different "groups" your
ancestors fit into, you'll be amazed at the new research possibilities
that arise. Classifying your ancestors by ethnic group, fraternal or religious
association, residence locale (local, county and state), gender, occupation,
military service, time frame or era, social class and any other classification
you can think of will give you ideas of additional records to look for
and ways to network.
One way to beef up your own research expertise is by volunteering at
a facility that houses records, such as the library or an archive facility.
Another often-overlooked resource is the local Council on Aging or senior
citizens group. Like the historical society, many members of these groups
have extensive knowledge of the town and its early residents. This is
especially useful when researching ancestors who lived in the 20th