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"Records" from my archive...the early days of the search

“Records” from my archive…the early days of the search

This weekend many of my genealogy friends are attending the RootsTech 2015 conference in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, I’m not there. I figured that February travel ought to include someplace warm… Little did I realize that the high tomorrow for Salt Lake City would be 54 degrees while we’re expecting a wind chill of 0 here on the East Coast. But hearing about all of the new technology and how it can relate to or help our genealogy research is in stark contrast, much like the weather this weekend between those two locations, to what genealogical research used to be.

In the last few weeks I’ve been organizing and de-cluttering my home office, and I found my notes from a non-credit genealogy course I once taught. From about 2000-2002, my friend Marie and I taught the basics of researching your family history in a 5-week class at a Philadelphia university. It wasn’t until I looked over those notes that I realized just how much genealogical research has changed in the last fifteen years – mostly due to computers, the internet, and digitization projects. Not to mention DNA testing!

The first week of the class we focused on Federal Census records (at the time, the latest year that was released was 1920 and none were online), and the first thing we “taught” was all about Soundex. Today, while newcomers to genealogy might hear about Soundex and understand it conceptually, there is no need to really use it anymore. When I first started my research back in 1989, figuring out the Soundex code for my surnames almost added to the thrill of the search because it appealed to the cryptogram and code-loving days of my childhood. Today, it really doesn’t matter that my name converted to P532 because we no longer have a 2-step manual search through various microfilms (yes, microfilm constituted high technology back then)-just a short wait after the click of a button to see the possibilities.

But besides the onslaught of the availability of online digitized records (which we sparingly covered in the last week of our class in 2000), I realized that much of what we taught still applies as much today as it did a decade ago – or two hundred years ago. Step #1 in researching your family history – then, now, and forever more – is gathering all of the information you already know from talking to relatives.

As evidenced by the photograph above, I used whatever means available at the time to capture that information. Yes, friends, that is a paper plate. And an envelope. You see, back in those beginning days of research, I’d constantly pepper my parents with questions. Once I’d find something, perhaps a fact or person they hadn’t mentioned, and I asked again, it would jog their memory to reveal more information that I’d hurriedly write down. My parents’ house is renowned for never having notepaper, or a pen, available when one needs it, so I’d reach for whatever would serve as paper.

Not as cool as Evernote, Family Tree Maker, or even Notepad – but it got the job done. Looking back on these relics of research (before I finally toss them in the recycle bin), one thing is certain – those little tidbits of information I wrote down were, eventually, all either proved or disproved by my research. They were clues, and the search – whether you are using a computer and the latest technological advances or not – begins with basic family information.

Don’t get me wrong – I am so happy with all of the technological advances that have happened since I started my research. But don’t forget about the how-to lessons that will never change no matter how much more easier technology makes our search:

  1. Write down everything you know.
  2. Talk to living relatives about everything they know.
  3. Remember that spellings can change and were flexible in the past.
  4. Remember that history is important to know and geographical boundaries change over time.
  5. Document your sources!

One other tip that people just getting started in genealogy in today’s age of technology just don’t quite fathom…not every record you need to trace your family can be found online. That doesn’t mean it can’t be found, it’s not not as easy as clicking a button. Happy Ancestor Hunting!

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Randy Seaver, passing on a post on the APG mailing list, asked us what our genealogical regrets are so that others can avoid our mistakes. What would I do differently? My responses are similar to Randy’s and others who have posted replies, which should prove to any newcomers to genealogy just how essential certain things are! These are my top 3 genealogical regrets:

  • I regret that I didn’t start my research sooner. I didn’t officially begin researching until after college, but I wish I had started in high school. For one, I had a lot more free time while attending college than I did after starting a full-time job. Even though I’ve had two census releases since I started my research, and even though some things are more automated now and indexed on the internet (and therefore EASIER now), the main reason I wished I had started sooner is because many older family members have since died. By the time I figured out who some cousins were, the older folks were gone and I missed a possible opportunity to learn more from them.
  • I regret that I didn’t organize my notes better. You’ll read it time and again from many genealogists…get organized! I am what I call “slightly organized” in that I know generally where things are, but it take me forever to sort through things to find what I want. I even have notes written on scraps (a paper plate, believe it or not) that I haven’t seen fit to otherwise document. Yet.
  • I regret that I didn’t focus my area of research to one family at a time. When I first began, I used a shotgun approach…I’d fire a question or query, and if my shot in the dark hit scattered targets I’d run off and start researching in each of those directions. Well, it I guess it works, but it’s probably not the easiest or best approach. It’s certainly not the scientific method. When I found an “easy” line, I’d focus on that family and get better results in my research. But the other lines with their questions and mysteries would still draw me back, and I’d lose the focus on the line on which I had experienced some progress.

To re-phrase my regrets in the positive, I present Donna’s 3 Rules of Successful Genealogy:

1) Don’t wait or think about it…get started now. Find and talk to your older relatives while you can.

2) Find the method of organization that suits you and stick with it always.

3) Focus your research; using a systematic approach will save you time later.

What would you do differently – do you have any genealogical regrets?

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