Simple Tips to Maximize Your Genealogy Research

Recently, I volunteered to provide free genealogy assistance through a local genealogy society to which I belong.  I try to help twice a year – fall and spring – which is advertised throughout our county.  Every time I attend, I learn something new about genealogy practices.  Here’s my latest revelations:

1.  Keep your email accounts current – My first “client” had gotten everyone in her family to test.  That included her siblings, children and herself.  She had a DNA question for me but she couldn’t readily access any of her accounts because she had used an old email address she no longer had. I recommended she contact the DNA test companies to update her records.  But that led to the next problem:

2.  Know where you did your DNA test and when – She recalled she had last tested with 23andMe but when we clicked “Forgot your password?”, it was sent to her current email  The problem was that kit  was for her daughter.  She then recalled she had purchased the kit two Christmas’ ago intending to use it but gave it to her daughter instead.  We tried FTDNA, but couldn’t get in because that was the older email account.  She thought she had used Ancestry.com for her sister but it turned out those were her results.  Clicking around used up a good deal of time we could have spent analyzing the results.  I shared how I save my info; I use Excel to keep a list of the Kit numbers, date the test was ordered, who the test was for and the company that was used.  On a second tab, I record contact information from others after the results are returned.  This way, I avoid duplication of effort.

3.  Try, Try Again – Last fall I assisted a woman trying to find an obituary from the mid-1950’s.  Her grandmother had been active in the community where she resided but she couldn’t find the obit in the nearest big city newspaper.  I had recommended she contact a research librarian to find out the names of newspapers that were publishing at the time in that location and where the microfilm of those papers were held.  She said, “I called and someone said they’d get back with me but nobody did.”  Here’s a lesson we all need to heed, don’t think that call is going to happen now, months later.  Call again.  Ask to be connected with the Reference Desk.  If a few days pass with no results, email.  I love the Ask-A-Librarian online contact.  Not only do you have a record that you made the request, it saves you a phone call and having to spell out the surname while the librarian is trying to take notes.  

4.  Two Heads Are Better Than One  – I love paper but I don’t love having to sort through a ream and a half of every item ever discovered on a brick wall ancestor.  In other words, be organized.  If the information had been presented in time line order, we could have gotten through it much more expeditiously.  The woman used the method of last found information was placed on top.  I recommended she sort the information on a table by the year that the record was created.  Sure, the immigration paperwork completed when the ancestor was in their mid 30’s had the date and place of birth but keeping the documents in created age order helps to determine the accuracy of the information found.  She told me her method drove her uncle nuts but she was so into the hunt for records she didn’t like to take the time to organize them.  I recommended she  get with her genealogy buddy, the uncle, and see if he was more adept at organization.  Then, they could put their heads together and make a timeline on paper (she hates software programs) to find holes.  This approach also helps in finding information that was out there that you initially glossed over because you focused on something else.  For example, she had the ship manifest so she knew where the ship sailed from.  She also had a birth location from the immigration record.  She had scant information between the birth and the immigration.  I recommended reading the history of the area at the time the ancestor was born to determine if the family had relocated soon after (hint, it was probably the potato famine).  If she wasn’t interested in that type of research, her partner could do it and then they could discuss where she could research further.

5.  Know What You Want to Know – Your research question is imperative.  “I want to know everything about my great grandfather” is not a question.  You might be able to eventually get to the point where you know a lot about your great grandfather but to do so, you’ve got to start with a name or a place and a time from which to build.  If you start small, you don’t get overwhelmed and quit.  INMHO, that’s why people give up on genealogy.  It is a practice in patience, analysis, and sometimes, dumb luck.  You can control two of the three components.  My recommendation for this individual was to focus on one area of a person’s life, like their career, and see what you can find.  Then move to why that individual held that job.  Perhaps there was indentured or apprenticed paperwork.  Maybe the great grandfather or another relative was in the same line of work.  Here’s an example I shared; my husband comes from a long line of carpenters.  The original carpenter, however, didn’t build homes.  He was a ship’s carpenter.  That would have been a modern job when ships provided the largest means of transportation.  His son was a ship’s carpenter early on in his career but switched as he aged to building homes.  That man’s son moved farther inland and continued with the trade.  That original research question could disclose a wealth of family information over generations.  It pays to be specific about what you’re looking for.

Happy Hunting!

Musing About Life Lessons Learned That Apply to Genealogy


It’s been a slow week genealogywise for me as I’ve been consumed with the house renovations and an increased workload at my educator job. I thought I’d have difficulty coming up with a blog but instead I’m bursting with lessons learned from those situations that apply to genealogy.

With renovations, there is a lot of moving of “stuff” around as we empty one area of the house with the goal of making it an improved place. It’s a total pain to have to physically move items. I also realized I have a lot of things that I no longer use so I’m donating or pitching as I go (or pawning off on my children). This got me thinking about genealogy practices…

I used to have alot of stuff I took with me when I researched; I carried my clunky laptop, notebook, charts, lots of pencils, a camera, phone, stickees, and thumbdrives. It was a workout just getting into an archive. I’ve streamlined considerably and find I can simply take my Kindle, phone, a mechanical pencil and stickees. Instead of many thumbdrives that contained my surname info and individual thumbdrives for my clients, I now just take one for microfilms in case I can’t email it to myself and use the ap on my phone, Office Lens, to take a picture and immediately send it to One Note, for everything else I used to save to a thumbdrive. I can view that from my phone and Kindle to make sure it looked the way I want before I leave so I never get home and realize I needed to get a better view. Also on the Kindle is Evernote, which has my research log template. I still carry the stickees to flag book pages I’m interested in. These changes have made my research life much saner and safer. I don’t have to worry about someone walking off with the laptop if I have to go back to the stacks for another look. I have more flexibility in where I park myself down to research and I lost weight without having to diet. Very cool! Have no idea why it took me so long to figure out I needed to do this room by room in my house.

After a room is finished I find that I might be better off moving items around for increased efficiency. For example, my drinking glasses used to be in a cabinet closest to the sink. I realized it’s a better idea to move them in the cabinet next to the refrigerator as that’s where we go to get cold, purified water, ice and lemon. This practice definitely applies to genealogy. Just because you used to do something doesn’t mean you should continue to do so. Back in the day, I organized my genealogy files by lines. As the data grew I found that it was too complex so I took the time to reorganize by surname. A binder system works well for me today but may not in the future and that’s ok! Change is good although I must admit, as a creature of habit, I do tend to go back to the old cabinet to seek out a glass when I’m exhausted. Habits may be difficult to break but can be done. Investing time to make a task better is time well spent. You may be in for a happy surprise, which gets me to my next lesson learned.

Ironically, last Wednesday I blogged about my recent Dropbox experience. At my educator job, a decision was made right after I wrote the article that our team was going to only use One Note. I spent all day Thursday and part of Friday dropping and dragging files from Dropbox to One Note. Although I wasn’t thrilled to have to readjust my work priorities during a busy time, the situation did give me a big Ahaa! In Dropbox, I saved by event but in One Note, the decision was to save by date. Same situation as moving my drinking glasses and reorganizing my genealogy files! The data is the same but where and how it’s stored is different. So here’s where I learned another lesson – looking at the older files was quite enlightening. I was able to identify some holes in our program which we’ll be discussing this week. Try this with your brickwalls. If your found records are in timeline order, shuffle them up and place them by type of record or location where they were made. You might identify where your gap is and be off and running to locate overlooked events or places where they occurred. It sure is the same stuff but my looking through a different lens you might make a new discovery.

In other words, you’ve got to change your practices up to move forward, even if it’s painful. Happy Hunting!