Whether family history research is your newest hobby or a lifelong passion — pitfalls are everywhere and sometimes they’re hard to spot. From forgetting to back up your data to limiting your research options, these important dos and don’ts will help you avoid some of the most common issues facing family historians today.
1. DO interview family members while you still have a chance. Many family historians are nervous about asking family members for important information about their family’s history or requesting copies of documents and photos — but doing so is a must. Once the information is lost, it is lost forever, so gather it while you can and store it somewhere safely. The interview process can also be a great way to learn new things about those you care about.
2. DON’T store all of your information in one place. Every day we hear stories about people who have lost years of research to a computer crash or some other disaster. Find a secure way to back up your data and do it regularly. Online cloud storage services, such as Amazon Cloud or Google Drive, are great options, or you can purchase an external hard drive or memory card easily online. Another great way to safely store your information and share it with others is by starting a family history blog. Find out how to do it easily here.
3. DO make sure that every single detail in your tree has a reliable source, and preferably two. Take the time to educate yourself about what sources you can usually count on for accurate data and what sources should always be questioned. And, no matter the source, always attempt to back up your findings. It only takes one incorrect fact to send a tree off on the wrong path and, online, these errors can spread like wildfire.
4. DON’T copy other people’s family trees. Not only are online trees often inaccurate and poorly sourced, which could lead to major issues with your own tree, but doing your own research will lead you to discover more information and will help you build a larger and more accurate tree. Use the information you find in other trees for reference only and spend your time looking for records.
5. DO share your information with others and ask for help when needed. Family history research is challenging, but it can be nearly impossible at times if researchers are not willing to reach out for help or share what they have. Additionally, connecting with other family historians can be a great way to make new friends, discover “lost” family members and advance your hobby. Consider joining a local or online research group or emailing others who are researching the same people as you are.
6. DON’T limit yourself to just a few websites. It may be easy to head over to Ancestry or FamilySearch every time you want to look for a new record, and these big sites have a lot to offer, but there are literally hundreds of high quality research sites online and many of them are free of charge. You’ll make many new discoveries by taking the time to explore all of your options. Find 50 free genealogy sites here or discover more than 200 no-cost sites and databases from around the world in our Genealogy Course.
7. DO understand how to use search engines to find what you need. You’ll miss a great deal of online information if you simply type in a search and hit go. There are many tips and tricks that can help you uncover buried information and sift through the oodles of possible results you’ll encounter. Try these Google search tricks or check out the “Secrets of Search” section in our online Genealogy Course.
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8. DON’T limit yourself to online records. A trip to a local historical society, library or FamilySearch center — or even a simple online order of an offline record — can often provide you with the information you need to climb a new branch of your family tree or tear down walls that are standing in your way. Don’t be afraid to explore the important offline resources available to you. Local volunteers are usually eager to help.
9. DO be flexible when searching databases. One of the biggest mistakes made by new family historians is searching only for exact names and dates. Very often, these important pieces of information were recorded incorrectly – so always be flexible when using online databases that rely on your search terms to retrieve the correct document. Try name variations and broad date ranges to increase your chances of finding a match. When searches fail, be willing to browse for the information you need. You’ll often be surprised by how much you missed.
10. DON’T get sidetracked. It is easy to jump from one task to another in family history research — but focusing on one family, person or event will allow you to understand the (often minute) details you need to work through your toughest problems. If you want to build a solid tree and make consistent progress, staying focused on the task at hand is the best way to do it. Of course, we all need to step back sometimes when we get stuck, but don’t be afraid to record (in detail) where you left off and come back again to finish the job.
11. DO educate yourself about the location your ancestors lived in. What records are available online and offline? What churches, schools and employers were active during your ancestors’ lives? Were there changes to the location’s name that you should know about? What major events happened that could have influenced people’s movements and life choices? Truly understanding your ancestors’ communities will open new doors in your research and help you grow your tree.
12. DON’T give up. There will certainly be times when the task of locating a specific piece of information seems impossible — but creativity, education and persistence can help you overcome most obstacles.
Our Genealogy Course has simple, online help for many of the topics discussed above. Learn more here.
Image: 5 Female Officers of the Women’s League, Newport, R.I. c1899. Library of Congress