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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Reliving Your Past to Help a New Genealogist
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 01, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

At some point, perhaps long ago, you were a "baby genealogist," to borrow a phrase from a colleague. Of course that time could be upwards of thirty or forty years ago. How do you remember what it was like to be a beginner? More importantly, why would you want to?

As we learned, either by trail and error or through the tutelage of another researcher, we threw off the bib and gave up the milk for the meat of our hobby. In doing that though, we also forgot what it was like to be new to this hobby.

We were all new at one time to genealogy.

Turning Back the Clock

Perhaps it is because I have been involved in helping newcomers for so many years, or the fact that I have often returned, in my mind, to those first days when all I could do was take baby steps, but I can still vividly remember when I first became interested in genealogy.

I can still remember when I was first learning how to research my family tree. I remember how confusing some of the terms were and how hard it was to remember to write the dates in that one format. Today of course, I use genealogy dating for everything, it is now harder not to use it. I can also remember when I first ventured out to the world of online genealogy, which was also in its infancy at the time.

If you haven't had to think back on those days, take a moment now and see if you can remember how overwhelming this hobby was when you first ventured forth. Or perhaps it wasn't until you had been researching for a little while before you realized there were guidelines and standards to genealogical research. It was then that things began to look a little more complicated than you thought originally.

Take a moment and turn back the clock. Remember how uncertain you were about how to research your family history. Remember how you didn't understand how to fill out the various genealogical forms. And then try to remember how you learned to do these things.

Trial and Error or Tutelage

For most of us, our mistakes were found and fixed through trial and error. We made a mistake, discovered that it didn't work, then went to try and fix it. Sometimes it took a few tries before we got it right. Other times, the error went undetected for years. In some cases, we are just sawing off the limb because we have discovered that our tree is not accurate.

If you were lucky, you may have had a friend or colleague who was more experienced and was willing to answer your questions and try to explain a new concept or method to you. Some of you may be finding yourself thrust into that position today, not as student, but as teacher.

Student Becomes the Teacher

There are many newcomers to the hobby. Some have been enticed by the Internet, others have personal reasons for wanting to search for their family tree. Regardless of the reason, they are new and could use some guidance. In some cases, that new researcher may be within your own family. While we all harbor the hope that one of our children or grandchildren will get bitten by the genealogy bug, it doesn't happen as often as we would like. When it does though, the student becomes the teacher. Your family member will turn to you for answers and guidance.

I suggest that you invest in one or more of the beginner how-to books. While it is true that you may know everything in these books, I find that each time I pick one of them up and read through a part of it, that I pick up new thoughts or tips that I hadn't known or had forgotten about.

Together, go through this book. Allow the new student to ask as many questions as necessary. Try to be patient. To you this all makes perfect sense, but there was that time when it didn't. Your student is in that place right now. Eventually he or she will move on, but until then, try to be patient so that the newcomer doesn't give up before they are truly bitten. Remember, there is strength in numbers. The more researchers in the family the more you will look normal. Seriously though, if the experience is a happy one, the new researcher will continue. The more researchers we have, the more information is found and compiled.

In Conclusion

We were all new to genealogy at one time. While that time may have been a long time ago, I know that if you put your mind to it, you will recall those feelings of uncertainty and hesitancy as you began to research. Help to assuage the concerns of a present-day newcomer. Sometimes all they need is someone they can bounce an idea off or get verification that they are indeed doing it right. We need to teach those coming along so that the research continues even when we no longer can.

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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