The Beginning Genealogist’s Biggest Mistake and How to Fix It
I recently heard from a NEW podcast listener named Judie. As a beginning genealogist she excitedly dove into family history awhile back. However, she soon became overwhelmed by boxes full of uncited, unorganized information having made the biggest mistake beginning genealogists tend to make. Read her story below. Does this sound familiar? Then my answer to her may help you, too, whether you are a beginning genealogist or you need start over with a few things.
A Beginning Genealogist’s Confession:
“Just found The Genealogy Gems Podcast and love it. I started my family tree research several years ago by joining Ancestry.com. My tree grew quickly with all the information there but after a couple of years of making every mistake possible including merging everyone’s tree with mine, I ended up with thousands of names without documentation. Another mistake was visiting a couple of historical societies and libraries where I printed lots of information but failed to note where it came from. Ok, I’m sure you got the picture.
After a couple of years of doing everything wrong, and several “dead ends” I became so overwhelmed with so many names and unorganized papers that I packed everything in boxes that would most likely end up in a dumpster when I’m gone (sad but true). That was a year ago. After discovering your site I am ready to get back into the search but don’t really know where to begin. Do I ignore all that has been done and start over or is it possible salvage some of what I have? Do you have any suggestions – Thanks, Judie
My Fix It Advice for the Beginning Genealogist
Start fresh. Get yourself a good genealogy database on your computer and start with a more methodical process like I talk about in the step-by-step series Family History Podcast (Episode 1 is on databases) as well as the Genealogy Gems Podcast. Not sure which database to use? I blogged about that here.
Organize. Once you have a good set of habits, have made some progress, and feel comfortable with your database and citing your sources, then you can start dipping back into the box and “processing” each piece of paper.
If it were me I would toss all those merged trees. The stuff from the historical societies and libraries may be valuable, but without documentation, will have limitations. I would only keep the most obviously applicable items, and toss the rest or at least file it away for now. If you stay focused on all that paper it will direct you, rather than you directing the research process. It may cause you to get off track and lose valuable time.
As you review the “keeper” items and deem them worthy of adding data to your database, you will need to make note that the source is unknown. Use the info gleaned as clues, but realize you’ll still need primary documented sources to back it up.
Cite your sources from this point forward. Beginning genealogists often feel like citing their sources is boring and tedious, and can find it hard to see the long term benefits. Believe me, benefits abound and this is one of the most important things you can do for the health of your family tree! Benefits include:
- avoiding going after the same record twice
- creating a bread crumb trail that helps you retrace your steps
- A foundation for future generations to confidently build upon your research
- adding authority to your research and helping you defend it when challenged
Get a quick start with Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Quicksheet Citing Online Historical Resources. For a more in depth studying of source citation turn to Mill’s book Evidence Explained:Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace 2nd Edition.
Bottom line: Put yourself in charge by following a logical research process. Don’t worry about time or paper having been wasted. The point is you jumped in and gave it a shot, and that’s a good thing. I’m just glad you’ve found Genealogy Gems and I’ve got lots of advice and info on the site, podcasts and videos to help you be successful.
Here’s to success!