By Maggie Huff
Hoping to get your research organized and achieve more in 2019, but are unsure just what to focus on? It may not be the beginning of the new year anymore, but it’s never too late to refocus and accomplish your goals. We’ve got some suggestions that just might help you take your family history to the next level. Consider picking one or more of these important tasks and adding them to your to-do list this year.
1. Secure Research Access for Future Generations
It’s every genealogist’s dream that one day future generations will benefit from our research. Make the eventual transfer of information as easy as possible by getting your papers and accounts in order. Here is a list of things you should do to preserve your work for your family.
- Decide who gets the files in the event of your research retirement, planned or not. Do not consider this a given and do not make it a surprise. Have conversations with family members to determine who is interested in continuing the research, or at least being the custodian of what you’ve assembled. Ideally, this is two people per family—just in case one misplaces the information or becomes estranged from the family. Once all that is decided, let your immediate family know who gets what and consider writing up a document that spells these things out specifically. Make sure you have the recipient’s current contact information. If something tragic occurs, your family will be overwhelmed with grief and decisions, so make the responsible handing off of your research easy for them.
- Share access now. Share online trees if you have not done so already. Many online trees, like Ancestry, have this option and MyHeritage offers a family site that makes collaboration very straightforward. If you are comfortable doing so, give others the ability to edit with clear instructions on your expectations. You may even find yourself with a research helper or partner. You can also simply give people access without allowing them to edit your work.
- Set up future access. Make a list of your genealogy accounts, usernames, and passwords. Put it in a safe place and include it with your files and/or share it with a trusted family member.
- Organize, digitize, and back up. If you’re researching multiple sides of your family, start with one family and organize. Write on the backs of photos. Put names, locations, and dates with digital copies. Then move on to the next. Digitize and back up everything with a cloud service. Create a calendar reminder to back up your work every so often – quarterly or monthly. (Need help with scanning? Check out this article, or this one.)
- Share the important things far and wide. Give special thought to heirlooms and important documents, like a family Bible or immigration papers, and photos. Write out who should receive the originals and make copies to distribute. These things become the stuff of family legend and, some 50 years later, people will not know who inherited the original and the ones who have it may have forgotten about it.
One benefit to this kind of work is that you might rediscover something you’d found before but had not properly incorporated in your research. You may also discover clues to your current research problems.
2. Turn in Your Work
It’s probably rare that someone sees what your work really looks like. Maybe you’re a neat freak, or maybe it’s a chaotic mess that only you would understand. Pretend one of the most critical people you’ve ever met—perhaps your fifth grade teacher—is going to examine your homework and notes in a folder. Clean it up.
Prepare to submit your lineage to the Daughters of the American Revolution or another membership organization. Consider some local societies if you are not already a member. Or start working on a book or a blog. These kinds of submissions require appropriate documentation so the process will also serve as a thorough self-review of your work.
3. Continue Your Education
Take a class—online or in person—that interests you. You can take an online genealogy research course or maybe something adjacent to genealogy like a foreign language, history, or DNA-related course would appeal to you. You may want to strengthen a weak area.
For example, if you haven’t looked at researching in Poland because of the language barrier, take an elementary Polish course. If you are interested in your ancestor’s lifelong Navy service, take a naval military history class. There are many free and low-cost courses online now.
If a course just won’t work for you because of time or other constraints, read a book. Here is a list of books for every serious family historian.
4. Call Distant Relatives
Scour obituaries for the names of descendants of long-gone, distant cousins. Look up their phone numbers and start calling. Introduce yourself and offer to share information. People may be caught off-guard, especially if they’ve never heard from you, so be ready to name a relative they may have met or heard of to put them at ease. Let them know you’re calling to share information. Offer to send documents relating to their ancestors. Offer to meet up in person if they are local.
Yes, phoning distant relatives who are 50-100 years removed from your common ancestor is not always a comfortable thing to do. But it can be so rewarding. The people you call may have information that you don’t have. Some of them may be researchers themselves. You may reach someone who doesn’t care for family history but has old photos or a scrapbook he or she is happy to give you. You only know if you call (or email).
Another great way to connect with relatives is to take a DNA test and reach out to genetic cousins in your match list. This article has some great ideas for how to do that.
5. Journal Your Finds
Write about where you’ve been and where you want to go with your genealogy journey in a few journal entries. Explain what’s going on in the research for each branch of your family.
Celebrate your victories by writing what you know. Maybe you found out your great-great-grandfather’s name was not Oscar but Andrew. Then write what you wish you knew. Maybe you wish you knew where he went to school. Then brainstorm how you might learn it. Contact the historical society in the county where he was born. Look up how long the schools have been open. Search for copies of high school yearbooks in ArchiveGrid or WorldCat.
The key here is that you may be able to talk through some issues you’re having and get an idea of how next to attack a brick wall – plus, you will be able to keep track of work you have done in the future. A course like this one can also help you learn how to organize and write your research down.
One of the keys to success with your “to do”s or goals is to write them down. Post them where you will often see them, perhaps near your desk or in the front of your research folder. Put reminders in your calendar and set time aside each day to work on them. Either way, get to work. 2019 is already flying!
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Maggie Huff is a librarian and writer. She became enthralled with genealogy when she learned that one of her ancestors was murdered. Ten years and many skeletons later, she’s searching for the answers to various family history mysteries. She lives in Missouri, where she frequents cemeteries and historic house tours.