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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Have You Done Your Homework?
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 22, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

So often I receive requests from individuals without enough information to even begin to answer their question. As I read such messages I can't help wondering how much the researcher has done up to that point.

With the introduction of the Internet to genealogical research so many of us have taken to short cuts that it is possible that information exists that we will never discover. This can be traced to the fact that we are not doing our homework, the preparatory work that helps us by familiarizing us with record availability.

Take time to save time.

A Little Secret

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. You need to keep it quiet though, promise? All the records we are likely to use in our genealogical research are not online. In fact, a small percentage of them are available online.

This does not mean that I am against the Internet. Far from it. I rely heavily on the Internet as a tool in my research. I use it to prepare the way for my next research trip in conjunction with more traditional preparations.

Learning the State or Country

Our ancestors moved from place to place. Sometimes this was just from one county to another. Other times it was from state to state. And still many of us are researching ancestors who immigrated to a new country. As our research progresses we will find ourselves in new counties, states or even countries.

Most of the time when a line goes back to a foreign country, we will stop and do a little reading as to the records available. However, when it comes to a new state, we don't take the same steps. This is a shame. Just because the states are all part of the same country does not mean that the records found in one state are the same as those found in another state. It does not mean that because in Illinois I find the probate records at the county level that I will find them there in Connecticut. In fact, in Connecticut, I will find them in a probate district. That district usually does not coincide with the counties' or the towns boundaries either.

Getting this Information

The Internet is certainly a good place to start. You can read wonderful articles from professional genealogists and experienced researchers at many sites free of charge. You may want to begin with those written through's Learning Center.

Another avenue for getting information about the records of a specific locality such as a state or county is through the USGenWeb site. Part of the USGenWeb project is provided to offer such information and also provides a place to ask questions of fellow researchers working in the same area, even if they are not working on the same surnames as you.

The research outlines that are available for each state, and many countries, through the Family History Library are another excellent step. They are written by experts in that area of research, the people who have spent countless years working in a given state or region. These outlines are available in paper form or on CD-ROM. You can also access them through the Web site.

And don't forget to see what is available at your local genealogy library. In addition to census films, books of abstracts and transcriptions, you will find some very useful guides to the various records of the different places.

In Conclusion

If we take the time to study up on a given new locality or record type, we will save ourselves time in the long run. The next time I go to the Family History Library, for instance, to work on my Connecticut ancestors, I will know that in their library catalog the probate records are catalogued under the state as a whole, because of the unique system they use with the probate districts. I will save time as I will not have to fumble through the towns and counties first only to be disappointed and possibly frustrated.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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