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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Knowing Where to Turn
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 19, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I have begun to believe that the word "genealogy" is a catch all phrase that means I have to know a little bit about everything. In actuality, while it is always helpful if I already know something about the record, resource, or event in question, the reality is that all that we need to really know is where to find out more about the record, resource, or event. A good genealogist doesn't know everything, but what they do know is where to turn to get additional information.

There are many different books and resources available to genealogists, some better than others. Some are more geared toward the beginner and others are designed to give more detail about either a specific region or record type. Because our ancestors lived through historical events, we often find that we need an understanding of history.

The more you learn the more you will understand.

It Takes More Than One

Recently I was working in some early English records. I made a trip to Salt Lake City to work in the Family History Library. I had been working at one of the tables, in some books that dealt with the ancestry and descent of the peerage, the noble families. I had gone off to work on one of the computers and then to work in some microfilm, leaving my other papers, copies and whatnot at the table, since I anticipated coming back soon. A couple of hours later, (okay, not as soon as I thought) I returned to the table. There on top of my papers was a 3x5 note card with a call number and source citation for a book I had not considered as a valuable resource in the research I was conducting. Naturally I went ahead and got the book off the shelf. The book was published by the Harleian Society and had the Herald's Visitations for the County of Oxford. As I looked through the book, I saw many pedigrees.

Naturally this piqued my interest in the heralds' visitations and I began to see what I could find out about this subject. I wanted to know what the visitations were and why they were full of pedigrees. I also wanted to know more about the Harleian Society as well. I turned first to the Internet, one of my most frequent resources, and then when I didn't find as much as I wanted, I began to look at the various how-to books I have to see if I had any that went into detail about the record.

I have about four different books on English research. Of these four, only one of them gave me the kind of information I was hoping to find on the visitations. Oftentimes as I am looking for information about something (or someone), I find I must check more than one source.

What Should the Record Tell Me

One of the reasons that I have amassed my collection of how-to volumes is so that I can more efficiently, and therefore more effectively, use the various record types that we find ourselves using in our research. It also helps to remind me of records that I might not have considered useful, but which often in the end are the ones that give me the most information. Also, by understanding what type of information I should find in a given record, I have a way of measuring the effort I should put into trying to find that record.

This week in Rhonda's Tips, there was a question about census records. Understanding what the enumerator was supposed to record, and what actually happened, revealed that it was certainly possible for someone to be enumerated in two different households, just a few days apart. My understanding of what the herald's visitation was and how it was useful in my research of noble families, helped save me some time, and also helped me to better focus my research in those records.

While it is always likely that when you look at a record you will find some information, it is more helpful if you really understand why the record has been created, why the questions were asked and the guidelines or rules about how the questions were asked. Understanding all of this helps me to better evaluate the information I find in the record and may also guide me in the direction of other records.

You Can Never Have Too Many

Around this time of the year, that comment is often elicited from me in regard to the number of lights on the Christmas tree or hanging on the house, but when it comes to genealogy, it applies to the how-to books and research aids I have. I am always on the look out for more. While it is true that I sometimes need more things at my fingertips because the research I do is not as centralized or regional, I still believe that we can never have enough of these records and resources. You never know when your research may take a turn and you will find yourself having to research in a new state or even a new country. Certainly you will find yourself having to use new records from time to time and research aids will help you to get the most from the records.

Something to keep in mind when looking into research aids and how-to books is the thoroughness of the book on a the subject. Books that talk about everything cannot devote enough pages to get into the minutia of the subject. What you get is a general overview, and perhaps, with some of the more scholarly books, such as The Source at least a little in depth detail.

Ideally, you may want to look for guides and books that are devoted to a single subject. There are often books or Web sites devoted to information about census records or land records. Sometimes the approach to the records is more on a regional basis, so you will also want to keep a look out for books and research guides that are written about a state our county. Oftentimes there are records unique to that state or the state or county may handle. Regional guides or city guides may also clue you in to the libraries that have the best genealogical collections.

While I often find it easier to purchase these guides, primarily so that I have them right at my fingertips when I need them, you will find that they are often at public libraries, especially those with larger genealogy departments. There are also some useful articles online, Genealogy.com has many in its Learning Center. And you may find similar helps and guidance on the locality sites such as those that are part of the USGenWeb Project.

In Conclusion

Education is the strongest tool we have in this hobby. The more you know or the more educational information you have access to, the more productive your research is likely to be. By knowing the intricacies, peculiarities and special issues to deal with as well as the history should help you to avoid mistakes when evaluating the evidence found in the different records.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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