Contemplating such a title, most family historians would first think of key sources, and that was my first inclination. But then, I thought further. You know, each family being so different, there are very few sources that we need for every research project. My professional research extends into every U.S. state and Canadian province, not to mention most European countries. The census, essential in U.S. and British research, is virtually useless for German research. Vital records, another staple, have little use for many colonial problems.
No, I got to thinking, what are the "things" I use in virtually every research project, personal or professional? Once I really started thinking creatively, the number of items was well past ten, with no stopping in sight. Then came the hard part, narrowing the list down to only ten. Well, here they are, with a brief commentary, and not necessarily in priority order.
Family History Library Collection
I don't know about you, but with over 2 million rolls of microfilm (including all the significant national archives films) and a quarter of a million books, I just can't live without this collection. Why do you think I reside in Salt Lake City? But, even for those living elsewhere, the 3,000 plus branches (Family History Centers) of this library mean the collection is not too far away. Recognized as the largest collection of family history material in the world, and comprising records from virtually every place in the world, I need this collection. So do you.
Putting this on my list also gives me a chance to promote the Family History Library Catalog (which really deserves its own item on my list, but I ran out of room). More than just a list of sources in the collection, the catalog, a comprehensive list of sources, is a major research tool in its own right. It lists and indexes (by surname) more family histories more thoroughly than any other list. The microfilm descriptions tell who owns the data and where they were microfilmed, suggesting additional sources and repositories. And, now the catalog is not just available on the Internet, you can purchase it for home use on CD-ROM. Wow!
GEDCOM Database Computer Program
They say you can do genealogy without a computer, but I sure wouldn't. I remember the pre-computer days. Typing, and retyping reports, forms, charts, etc. Using "whiteout" to correct mistakes, only to find those mistakes on another page too. Getting confused about who's who, and where they fit in the family. Therefore, of all the uses of a computer in genealogy, the most important in my mind is the use of a GEDCOM database program for organizing and sharing information about the people you find in your research. You know, it hasn't just been computers that have brought about the explosion of interest in genealogy, but specifically, commercially available, inexpensive database programs, such as PAF and Family Tree Maker. Without them, millions of people would not now be enjoying the hunt for relatives. I guess that pretty much validates at least this item on my list!
This almost didn't make my top ten, but even living near the Family History Library, and having a very slow modem, this is an increasingly valuable tool. The growing quantity (and quality) of real data on the Internet, plus the hundreds of millions of names in GEDCOM files, not to mention the ubiquitous presence of e-mail, makes this significant. Yup, if I was out on the proverbial desert island, I probably couldn't take the Family History Library, so I sure would need the Internet.
We all grouse about the government, and how intrusive it is in our lives, but the records that governments (township, county, state, federal, and other levels) have created are the lifeblood of family historians. Try doing U.S. research without census, tax, land, probate, vital, and immigration records, as well as many others. For an interesting insight into the value of the records created by just two government programs, see Laurie Castillo's recent article in the Genealogical Journal, volume 28, number 1 (2000), "What Did FDR Do for Genealogy? Plenty!" (For information on the Journal, see UGA's Web site.)
No, not the book of that name, rather the concept: transcripts, abstracts, indexes, compiled family histories, etc. Not to mention all the reference books out there: directories, gazetteers, dictionaries, how-to manuals, etc. All of these published sources make our research faster and easier. They help us access the records, because the original or microfilm records are often available in only a few places. Plus, they help us as beginners, when we are just starting out, to find information easier, thus nurturing our fledgling interest. Finally, many such sources preserve records from generations ago that are now long lost, such as family Bibles and long worn away tombstones.
I don't know about you, but I'm lazy and impatient, plus I make mistakes when I copy things. Photocopy machines are a Godsend. With this marvelous tool, I can research faster, document better, read and review findings more thoroughly, and conduct more accurate research. Copy machines encourage us to photocopy an entire article or document page, rather than just making notes or abstracts. This makes for better research. Plus, I can copy my findings for any skeptical fellow genealogists out there. While I don't copy entire books or violate copyright laws, these machines, available almost everywhere I research, are essential.
This was not going to be on the list, until I looked around my home office for more ideas, and found eight filing cabinets! Most are full of genealogy papers, and there are more elsewhere in the house and attic. (Where do you think all those photocopies go?) What this really represents is the need for an organized system of maintaining your findings. It really only matters that the system is simple, complete, easy to use, and that you use it. It also reminds us to document our findings.
For over 150 years, genealogical societies have been making a significant contribution to our mutual interest in family history. Through the combined efforts of society members, our work is made easier in many ways. Societies, and their members do all of this:
- Preserve records (through publishing and microfilming)
- Improve access (through legislation and indexing)
- Share information (through exchanges)
- Provide instruction so we can learn how to do our tasks better and easier (through articles, conferences, and mentoring)
- Gather records into research facilities (through gifts and purchases)
- Share news and important information (through web sites and newsletters), and do much, much more.
In short, if there is something good happening in genealogy, you can be sure a society is behind it. (Well, what did you expect from a past officer in three major societies?) To find a society of interest to your research, begin with the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS).
Electronic, printed, Soundex, Russell, surname, every-name, card, it doesn't matter. I started doing genealogy when census indexes were a new thing, and I wouldn't want to live without them, or any of the many other indexes out there today. That goes for the Periodical Source Index, Filby's Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, Rider's American Genealogical Biographical Index and hundreds of smaller, but equally important indexes. Are they perfect? No. But, they speed up my research so much. The next time you disparage an index, try finding someone in the 1910 census of St. Paul, like my friend recently did. She spent about four hours, and that was even with the help of a street index. With a name index she should have been done in under 15 minutes.
A Loving Supporting Spouse
What else do I need to say? Every married genealogist knows this is probably number one. Who else will listen to your research successes and failures, and the ancestral stories you find? Certainly not your cousin, or those others at the family reunion. But, let me just add that my wife is the one who really got me started in this field, so, it's all her fault!
What Do You Think?
Well, there you have it. How did I do? Which of your favorites did I miss? Who wants to try their hand at a different list? I am sure many of you have found I left out some of your favorites. Why don't you take a few minutes and share some of your "wouldn't live without" genealogical items with me. Perhaps a future article will summarize your ideas. E-mail me your lists/votes, with or without commentary, to: [email protected] . You don't have to nominate 10 items, just your most important few will do, but please don't exceed 10 (you need the same constraints I had). You can agree with some (or all!) of my choices, or take me "out to the woodshed" on any or all. Let's see what's really perceived as the most important "things" in genealogy.
One More Thing
Can I squeeze in just one more item? Call it a "bonus" item I could not live without (and fortunately don't have to): My ancestors. They gave so much to me in creating the society I live in. From the Mayflower to Ellis Island. From Colonial wars to 20th century conflicts, I really can't live without them, and it is a privilege to be constantly seeking them, and learning about their lives.