Return to Home 
Research Center Directory 




 25 Tips to a Happier, Healthier Research

Frankly, genealogy is a time-consuming avocation that many of us are too addicted to even think of stopping! You evidently have been bitten by the genie bug or you wouldn't even consider reading this!

Following here is a list of 25 tips I've compiled through the years. Perhaps some, or even one of them, will prevent your becoming victim to some of the many costly [both in time and money] pitfalls involved in this science. I truly hope so....



1. Genealogy has a Cardinal Rule:

Believe none of what you hear, only half of what you read.


If you remember to always apply it your research will be assured of success.

2. Copy dates from old records and manuscripts exactly as they are presented. Do not translate names or dates from original or secondary material into contemporary usage. Failure to copy the data exactly as given in the record can lead you to make incorrect conclusions. When dates are given numerically [3-29-29] as is common in Quaker and German records, check other dates on the same page or in the same record to determine if the first digit is the month or the day. [Since there are only 12 months, 13-2-29=month-day-year.] If your research is prior to 1752, be sure you understand the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar [see The 1752 Calendar Change, also in this section].

3. Never throw away any of your research notes. Sooner or later you'll come back to them. It may be six months, or five years -- but come back to them, you will.

4. Would you consider writing on your birth certificate?....your marriage certificate? Of course not! But we genies make notes on just any little scrap of paper we can find! It would behoove you greatly to MAKE A PHOTOCOPY of every certificate [birth, death, marriage, military, baptismal, divorce, old map, etc.] that happens to come into your hands. Keep the original in with your important papers, putting the photocopy in your working files. Then you can highlight any data on any certificate you feel you need to.

These vital records certificates can become quite expensive [$30 per certificate from the State of Alaska] and can run up quite a bill if you have a lot of your family from this state. Therefore, ask your relatives for copies of any certificates they might have.

When a relative gives you a photocopy of a certificate, THAT COPY BECOMES YOUR ORIGINAL! Make a second copy of the certificate and put the first one in with your important papers.

5. Use a correspondence calendar to keep track of all the letters (or emails) that you write, when and to whom you wrote, what the letters were about, and the responses that you received. Make a copy of every letter that you write. This will save you from wondering which of your correspondent's questions you've already answered, and which of your questions they have or haven't answered.

6. Create crisp, concise queries. Write so that it is the exact question you want answered. Ask specific questions. [When did you get married? Who were your parents? Grandparents? Brothers and sisters? Where did your aunts and uncles live?]

7. Join a local genealogical group in your area of research interest. Local researchers may have done the work for you already.

8. If your deceased ancestor served in the U. S. armed forces during this century and filed a claim for benefits, you can request to view the C-File kept on the veteran by contacting your nearest Veterans Affairs Office. Include as much relevant information as possible, especially full name, social security number, and C-file number, if known.

9. Just because information is in print doesn't necessarily make it fact! Information in recent family histories is often based on that from older published works. If the older books are incorrect, the wrong information simply gets repeated and further disseminated. This is one situation where the Cardinal Rule is imperative.

10. Learn the local history and geography of each place where your ancestors lived. Oftentimes local events played major roles in our forebears' lives. Some examples may have been fires, epidemics, tornadoes, Civil War battles, etc.

11. Be aware of nicknames and variant forms of names. A request for a death certificate for Tilly Brown may be rejected by a record office if the name in their files is Matilda Brown. Records for Augustus Schmidt may turn up under Augustin or Austin Smith.

Don't place roadblocks in your research by tunnel-visioning! You may think the current spelling of your surname is the ONLY way it was ever spelled. Wrong! Unless your ancestors were literate writers, your surname is open to many spelling variations, like it or not. To decide that yours is THE only correct spelling is to doom your research from the starting gate.

12. Test every hypothesis or theory against credible evidence, and reject those that are not supported by the evidence.

13. A few terms used to describe relationships that had one meaning one or two centuries ago now have different meanings. Today, junior and senior are now used to denote a father/son relationship; previously they were used to indicate two persons in the same locality with the same name, one older than the other. A man sometimes named his sons for his brothers, and thus the junior and senior in the record you are reading might be a nephew and uncle, or no relationship at all.

In-laws and stepchildren are not clearly differentiated in old records. Stepchildren may be designated as in-laws in these records. Cousin, brothers, and sister are all terms used loosely in the South, and may mean a less direct relationship than the words imply.

14. Beware of mail-order promotions offering a personalized genealogy of your surname with a title like The Amazing Story of the (your family name) Family, (your family name)s Since the Civil War or Burke's Peerage World Book of (your family name)s. These books are not properly researched and documented genealogies. In reality, they are little more than lists of names from phone directories or other readily available sources. Notify the Better Business Bureau, postal authorities and consumer advocate agencies if you receive one of these. Their most common address is in Bath, Ohio.

15. Boundaries and place names changed constantly over the years. Always verify them in historical atlases or local histories pertaining to the area. An example: if your great grandparent was born in Schuyler County, New York in 1835, you'll have to get the birth record from Tioga County, NY since Schuyler County wasn't organized until 1854. If that same grandparent married in Schuyler County in 1852, you'll have to get the marriage record from Chemung County, NY!

Fortunately, Alaska doesn't have this boundary problem, though place name changes in some villages may be.

16. If you want to get more respect and help from the courthouse clerks consider dressing in business attire and carry a briefcase.

17. Double-check all dates to make sure they are reasonable. A woman born in 1826 could neither have become a mother in 1830 nor 1930.

18. Often, marriage partners were people who came from the old residence and/or relatives. Marriages between first cousins and other closely related people were common.

19. When reading the census it is always wise to look at a minimum of 10 families before and ten families after your ancestor's listing. Often related families lived nearby. Even wiser is to look at the whole county while you have the records available. Don't forget to be on the lookout for surnames connected by marriage. [Your grandmother's sister probably married and has a different surname.]

20. If you are working in a "burned county" check to see if any reconstructed records remain, search surrounding counties for any information.

21. Become best friends with your local librarian! Many times he/she can help you find new sources of information you never thought to look for.

Put your computer to work on your family history!

22. Search the internet for the surnames you are researching. [Use females' maiden names.] You could very possibly find others working on the same lines that you are. Also search the online telephone and email directories for folks with your family names in the states where they came from.

23. Make frequent backups of your computer disks. Store your backups and photocopies of your irreplaceable documents where you work or at someone else's home.

24. Advertise the surnames you're researching by posting them in the web's major genealogical databases (for example, on the ROOTS-L Surname List). Also submit your surnames to genealogical directories and surname lists published by genealogical societies that you belong to. This will put you in touch with others who are researching the same surnames -- possibly for a much longer time.

25. There are a number of commercial computer programs available, and some are free. Make sure the program you choose has a GEDCOM utility that allows you to import and export your data to another genealogical program. The program should be user-friendly and have a well-developed capacity for recording notes and sources. Any program will write down names and birth dates, but having a way to record, annotate, organize, and recall your source material is vital.


Next: Gather information


Return to For the Beginner



ęCopyright 2013 Alaska Trails to the Past All Rights Reserved
For more information contact the Webmistress