I’m going to start this new series on genealogy at the very beginning. Some who follow me may think this is way too basic. Stay with me. You might find a point or two that will help you with what you’ve accumulated and what you still haven’t found, or lost in the piles of material at some point.
Whether you are just getting started or you already have a pile of material that is somewhat organized, it is a good idea to take yourself back to the beginning occasionally. Many of us started out jumping into genealogy with both feet, hopping around as the shiny object beckoned. It is always a good idea to come back to yourself and make sure you’ve documented all of the events in your parents’ and your generation, as well as those generations younger than you. If you didn’t do that, take some time and do it now. Your children, nieces, and nephews will thank you for that. You are the family historian. It is a very important unpaid job.
Before you collect a pile of paper or computer files, and trust me you will, do three things:
- Decide on how you are going to visually create your family tree and keep the mountain of data organized and readily available; on paper or software. There are a lot of good free forms out there for collecting data and organizing it but it is really helpful to be able to move quickly between the forms and a visual tree, especially when you are feeling stuck. Feeling stuck is a perpetual experience for family historians. Software makes it easier to change and review all of your material. However, you have to take time to learn the software or you wind up with new problems.
- Decide on a method to file and maintain copies of records. On computer and/or on paper. Do a little research and pick something that works for you, then stick to it. A search on Google will pull up lots of material on organizing and tools and resources to help corral the paper. While I am mostly geared to the computer these days, I did not start out that way. Which means I’m still trying to scan paper. But I also make paper copies of some things and file in my filing cabinet. Redundancy is a good thing in genealogy. Develop a backup system for both computer and paper files. Hurricanes Happen!
- Decide what you want to accomplish with your first phase of work. Family history/genealogy is a hobby that never ends. Develop a plan to accomplish that goal and develop tasks as you move beyond your parents. Document what you’ve done and what you found or didn’t find. Both are important to avoid replicating searches. There is nothing more irritating than finding yourself doing the same fruitless search over and over because you didn’t make a note that you did it and found nothing (Genealogy Groundhog Day). When I started, I wanted to identify my ancestors, full names, back through my 2nd Great-Grandparents. That’s just sixteen people (plus the extended members in each generation) but depending on your ancestors’ lives and your access to records, that may take longer than you think, especially if you document as you go and research the whole family. We will talk about both of those ifs in more detail in upcoming posts. After 25 years, I still have one truly aggravating unknown 2nd great-grandmother that torments me but hasn’t completely beaten me… yet.
Sit down and write out what you know, or think you know, about your life and your family. Ask your parents for your birth certificate and those of your siblings, or order them. Collect copies of awards, degrees and any other documents from your life and file them, or file copies, in your new file system, noting the key information in whatever collection system you decided on and making sure to note source on the document somewhere. If you are married, do the same for your spouse and children. Then, if at all possible, sit down with both your parents and interview them. Write down, or record everything. Don’t paraphrase them. Get copies of documents and photographs (identify them while your parents can help) and collect any stories they want to share. Do this for your siblings as well and your parents’ siblings. A word of warning here. People’s memories can be faulty or they may have a reason they fudge a bit. When you start collecting original records on your ancestors be prepared to let go of some of what you were told in interviews. Not all family stories are factual and some can’t be verified. If your parents are already gone, be sure to sit down with older siblings or aunts and uncles and try to fill in the blanks. When I started, both parents were still alive, and I did interview them, but looking back on that I do wish I had asked my Dad better questions because his family continues to be difficult to sort out. I don’t know what he knew or didn’t know because I didn’t ask good, open-ended questions. So, think about those questions you want to ask and how they fit with the goal you want to accomplish.
If you started doing genealogy years ago and you didn’t identify everyone, interview key people, keep good documentation (including on those research efforts that didn’t produce anything) and didn’t keep your records or software nice and organized, that’s okay. Some aspect of that happens to everyone. There are some resources to help with re-visiting genealogy research and we will cover some ways to deal with that as we good forward.
- Think about what you want to accomplish in your first phase and make a plan to get there.
- Figure out a good “filing system” for you – paper or computer or both. Have a backup plan and actually do it.
- Start with what you know, write it all down, collect any documents to support any of the facts.
- Interview key people. Start with the oldest and work your way down. Scan any documents or photos they are willing to share and be sure to identify anyone in the photos, note approximate date and location.
- Put all that you’ve collected into your filing system and pat yourself on the back. You are ready for the next step.
So, until next Thursday when we will start to explore each of the above steps in a bit more detail remember to be grateful for all your ancestors, even the black sheep, peculiar or really unique. They helped make you who you are.
- The Oral History Workshop by Synthia Hart
- The Genealogy Do-Over Workbook by Thomas MacEntee
- Family Tree Memory Keeper: Your Workbook for Family History, Stories, and Genealogy by Allison Dolan
- “Organize Your Family History” – blog by Janine Adams
- Family Tree Tips: 23 Secrets to Optimize Your Genealogy; Family Tree Magazine, free but you have to give them your email. It is a pretty good guide though.