8 Valuable Tips to Get Your Genealogy Research Started
It’s great news that you want to start researching your family history. Genealogy research has been one of my most rewarding (and time-consuming) hobbies. And what a time to start! Many records are now available online, so you can do a lot of research without having to leave your house. No waiting for the weekend and wrangling microfilm at the library for you. #winning
I know you are hoping for some tips that will help you fast track your research but slow your roll. Genealogy research is not the place for shortcuts because that leads to missed clues or taking the wrong path. I’ve done both, and it’s costly. Not just in wasted time but also money spent on certificates or records that aren’t for your actual family.
Tips to getting your genealogy research started
So I want to share with you the eight tips that I wish I’d known before I started tracing my family history:
Tip 1: Start with you
Whether you are starting with an online tree or adding it to standalone software, the first prompt is for your details. Then your parents and grandparents. This information is the foundation of your research and will give you clues or create questions about what to do next.
I recommend treating this as an interview with yourself. Answer the same questions that you plan to use for your relatives when you get to that stage. Try a google search for ‘family history questions‘ or Barry Ewell’s ‘Genealogy: 150 questions to ask family members about their lives‘.
Grab a notepad and pen, print out the questions then step away from the computer for this one. Where possible, write a paragraph or two including your memories, impression and thoughts.
Tip 2: Create a genealogy plan
I know how tempting it is to dive into researching. It’s incredibly exciting to see your ancestors’ name listed in online records as you track them through the decades. But jumping in without goals is the surest way to slow your progress to a crawl and miss leads or facts along the way.
Treat tracing your family history like any other goal you have. Break it down into actionable chunks and work through them one at a time. Set yourself regular dates (e.g. monthly or quarterly) to revise and review your genealogy goals.
Tip 3: Track your progress
It’s easy to let the size of your family tree indicate how your research is going. I did that for years because I never realised that I was leaving clues on the table. Not everything you discover is going to go into your family tree software so make sure you track it elsewhere.
You could add progress columns to your research plan, or use a resource like the Essential Ancestor Discovery Worksheet to track your stats and see the gaps.
Tip 4: Verify every lead
Because it’s now possible to research from the comfort of your own home, a lot more people are tracing their family history. That means that there is a lot of advice and information on offer online. While this is fantastic and can save you a bunch of time, approach with caution. Just because you are new to family history research, but that doesn’t mean everyone else knows more or better.
My approach is always to treat everything as a lead to research and verify, especially if found in an abandoned online tree. You can try to contact the owner to see where they found the facts or add it to your list of things to investigate.
Tip 5: Find your genealogy tribe
Look for other people researching the same family line/s that you are. Not only can you share the cost of purchasing records, but also discuss theories and family stories. One of my best ‘brick wall busters’ came from a cousin that I connected with via Ancestry. She had a baptism certificate that solved several mysteries at once and isn’t something I’d have ever found on my own.
One of the best things about the internet is the ability to connect with people regardless of location. So, once you’ve discovered your tribe, you can always set up private Facebook groups or connect via Skype chats to continue to share your research.
Tip 6: Write the stories as you go
Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe.
But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.
Native American Proverb
When your family get together, I bet you don’t sit around spouting dates and locations about your relatives. Instead, you tell stories of your childhood, your grandparents and adventures that you’ve shared. Because while we might know the facts, the stories are what we remember.
Don’t wait to start your storytelling. Make writing the stories a part of your genealogy goals. You don’t need to wait until you have enough content for a 200+ page book. Start small. Write about one event or person at a time. Create snapshots, bookmarks or trading cards to help share your ancestors’ lives as you continue to research.
Storytelling also helps you see your research from another angle. It may help answers mysteries or show you gaps you couldn’t otherwise see. Gathering the facts will help you find the stories, but it’s the stories that people will remember.
Tip 7: Screen cap every discovery
One mistake I made in the early days of researching online is not tracking where I went. So I made A LOT of notes about things I could never find again.
Now I make a screen cap of everything, and I mean EVERYTHING. I make sure I capture the URL, the lead I’m following and any other vital information. I drop that into Google Slides, add additional notes and export as a JPG or PDF. So if that specific website disappears, I have a searchable list of clues that I can refer back to later on.
I also keep a spreadsheet of Frequently Used Resources. And again, it’s searchable. So I search for a place to find all of the resources I’ve previously used for the same location.
Read more about my processes for these at:
Make more time for genealogy research with searchable screenshots and resources
Tip 8: Be the tortoise
Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to genealogy research. It is a lifelong hobby, not one you’ll complete in three months. The good news is that you can achieve a lot in that time.
Don’t get discouraged if you hit a row of dead-ends. Or if the records aren’t matching the family stories that you grew up hearing. Remember that information is only as accurate as the person providing it. When my Aunt passed away no one could remember the full name of her first husband, so he’s listed on her death certificate by his nickname.
If you get stuck, try writing out what you know about that ancestor to see if you can get another perspective. Or move onto another relative such as their siblings. You’d be surprised what you can learn about Ancestor A from the life of Ancestors B, C and D.
Set yourself up for genealogy success
When it comes to genealogy research, I haven’t always set goals or tracked my progress. I had a terrible habit of purchasing records and never saving the attachment out of my email. When the big computer crash of 2010 came, I lost them all. The worst part was that I was jumping from ancestor to ancestor so much that I didn’t even know what I had in there!
I know that setting up systems and outlining goals etc. isn’t as exciting as discovering your ancestor’s stories. But by taking the time to set yourself up before you dive into the research will make a difference in the long run. You’ll have a clear record of what you want to find out, where you’ve looked and what you’ve discovered. And avoid disasters like the one I describe above. Now, that’s pretty exciting!
What do you think?
Which of these eight tips will you try? Or maybe you have a suggestion to share? Leave your thoughts in the comment or click ‘contact‘ and send me a message.