27 Golden Rules of Genealogy

Genealogy has rules. There are Do’s and there are Don’ts. There are Rights and Wrongs. Commandments to follow. And it pays to know and follow these rules from the beginning of your research.

So let me share some Golden rules of genealogy with you …

Let’s start with some Don’ts …

  • Don’t expect to find your whole tree online.
  • In fact if you find information online, don’t assume it is accurate.
  • Don’t show living people in your online tree unless you have it hidden and Private.
  • Don’t take information or photographs from others and not give anything back.
  • Don’t expect that you can do it ALL for free.
  • Don’t be a name-collector. Look for the stories that MAKE the people.
  • Don’t believe everything on a Birth, Marriage or Death certificate.
  • Don’t give up if you hit a brickwall. Take a look at it from a different direction.
  • Don’t write on a chart in pen until you are 100% sure of the details.
  • Don’t assume that if you can’t find the data you’re looking for on a website, that it doesn’t exist. Especially if that website infers that it would be there. Not everything is indexed or digitised yet.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are plenty of people willing to guide you on your genealogy journey.
  • Don’t forget to write your OWN history. Afterall you know your own life history better than anyone else.


Now for the Do’s …

  • Always start from yourself and work backwards.
  • Get organised: both on your computer and your paperwork.
  • Join a genealogy group or society. The more you mingle with other researchers the more you’ll learn.
  • Do your homework and learn the social history of the area your ancestors came from.
  • Honour family members wishes when they give you (or let you copy) photos, stories and other information. Not everyone is happy for it to be online.
  • Learn to expect name and date variants. EVERY family has name variants.
  • When filling in a pedigree chart, the male line is always on the top with his wife’s details in the box below.
  • Be consistent in the way you record your data.
  • Verify everything with at least two separate sources for each piece of information.
  • Back up your files at least once a month and have a copy OFF of your computer, and preferrably a copy at a different location.
  • Expect surprises. It is truly amazing what you’ll find out about your family.
  • Use ethics when you do find out shocking tales about a family member. Not all stories need to be aired to everyone.
  • Visit as many living relatives as possible to get their stories now. Often family stories have some truth in them. But don’t believe them till verified.
  • If a document exists, read it. Every detail that is written on it.
  • Learn to record your sources of where (or who) you obtained information from. The sooner you start doing this, the better. And later you’ll be thankful that you took the time to note it now.

27 rules might seem a bit overwhelming to some, but in reality these aren’t hard to follow. For the most part they are just common sense. And if you do take the time to follow these golden rules, it’ll certainly help make you a better researcher and family historian.

And if anyone thinks of other golden rules that I’ve missed, please feel free to leave a comment.

43 Responses to “27 Golden Rules of Genealogy”

  1. Tony Proctor says:

    Don’t forget: ‘Record stuff as it was; not as you’d rather it was, or how your software thinks it should have been’.

    …very important, but often overlooked!

    • Alona says:

      Oh absolutely Tony, that is important for sure. And thank you for reminding me (and others) of that one, it is appreciated.

  2. Michelle Patient says:

    Great list Alona, and I would add…

    Don’t wait till tomorrow or next week to speak to older relatives. Start today.

    Do start a blog – even if all posts are private. Not only will it help with the book or story you eventually decide to write/publish, it will also help to keep you focused on your research and to spot any missing information.

  3. Pauleen says:

    Lots of good advice Alona. Strangely my German ancestry, Kunkel, didn’t change their spelling at all….the benefits of literacy. On the other hand: Sherry/McSherry/McSharry or Gavin/Gaven/Gavan.

    • Alona says:

      Hehe – you know I wondered if someone would prove me wrong on that point when I chose to add in the word “Γ«very” to that sentence. At least it makes your research easier.

    • Terry Sarsfield says:

      Pauleen, the little town I grew up in had a Dr. Kunkel. Wouldn’t that be interesting if he was one of your relatives!!

      • Pauleen says:

        Terry I didn’t see your response back when you posted. Kunkel is a much more common name in the US than in Australia. If he was in Aus, I’d be pleased to hear more as it means he/she has escaped me πŸ˜‰

  4. Kath says:

    Always check if a record office or local studies library is open before visiting and if you need to order archives before visiting – avoids disappointments. Have fun πŸ™‚

    • Alona says:

      Very true Kath. Thanks for this tip. Nothing worse that turning up on the wrong day or time when you’ve made an effort to get there.

  5. lyndall maag says:

    Gr8 tips. Helpful, brief, easy to incorporate into research methodology. Thanks so much for the reminders-they never hurt!

  6. Thank you Alona, The only thing I would add is to the comment about “two sources.” These days I always say, “two INDEPENDENT sources.” There are so many web sites “sharing” data these days it is very easy to find data from the same prime source on two sites so it looks like two references – but is actually only ONE.
    It can be a bit tedious finding out where the data originated but it can be even more tedious rewriting your tree because you got a piece of miss information from a single source!

  7. Peggy L. says:

    Thank you for this list! You’ve done a great job of listing the basics – especially for beginners. Well, and for the rest of us, too!

    • Alona says:

      Thankyou Peggy. I appreciate the feedback. I just figured that those of us who were beginners once should help those who are starting now, in whatever way we can, even if it is just a list. ;-D

  8. Carmel Joyce says:

    I am so excited to have met you today and read your wise tips which I will pass on during my library talk tomorrow. The session is called “Family History – Solving the Mystery”.

    I really must get ready for tomorrow and get off your most informative and interesting site for now! Thanks again

  9. Peggy Lauritzen says:

    This is an excellent list! Thank you for giving us all some good reminders.

  10. Guy says:

    You have made a basic error with your lists.
    These are your personal preferences not rules of genealogy.

    As an old and experienced family historian (I started in the 1950s) I find the current obsession about rules alarming.
    If such rules had been around in the 19th century when genealogy became popular or even in the 1950s when I became interested very few of the current available records would be avilable today.
    The genealogists of the past would not have transcribed the records, the activists who fought for more open access would have been unable to fight their corner.

    I suggest you look at what you have written and re-evaluate what could be classed as a rule and what could be claassed as a preference or even censorship.

    • Carol Norman says:

      I also have been the family historian for many years, and I wish that I had followed some of these rules early on. It would have saved me a lot of backtracking. I don’t think semantics matter. Call them rules, suggestions, preferences, or whatever. They are good tips for conducting good research.

    • Roger Lustig says:

      Guy, which of these rules do you recommend ignoring or even negating? Are there some “Do’s” that should be “don’ts” or vice versa? All this strikes me as basic advice, most of it applicable to research of many kinds.

      The situation 60 or 160 years ago strikes me as utterly irrelevant. We *do* have many transcriptions and databases to work with. Where we don’t, we have the Internet and can thus create a community to get such a database going.

    • Alona says:

      Guy, thanks for your comment. Call them what you want – preferences or rules, but in reality most of these are what I have been taught as “rules” myself, with others that I have learnt along the way, so yes some you could class as ‘preferences’. Either way, if anyone follows any of these, surely they’d be a better genealogist (or at least have a better tree) because of them.

  11. Angus Campbell says:

    I would add – do not be afraid to ask for help. But, when someone helps you, be sure to give it back when asked by someone else. Better yet, pay it forward by offering to help someone.

  12. Terri says:

    Great list, Alona. May I use this list for my next beginners class (properly cited, of course)? TIA

    • Alona says:

      Thanks Terri. By all means feel free to use it as long as it says where you got it from.

    • Carol says:

      Thanks for giving permission to Terri. I have already made a note to use these with my genealogy classes (and will, of course, give credit to you along with the URL).

  13. Roger Lustig says:

    Alona, all these are good, and I thank you–and will probably point people toward this page in the future.

    A few suggestions:
    1) add “When visiting the older generation(s), bring along photos. Discuss them and then write names, places and dates (where possible) on the back. Do this NOW.”

    2) Move the last item up toward the top of the “do” list. The most-frequently-asked question in genealogy is “Sez who?”

    3) Resign yourself to not knowing all the languages that you’ll need, or all the forms of handwriting, etc. By all means learn to read other languages, but ask an expert to confirm your deductions. “False friends” (words that look/sound the same in two languages, but mean entirely different things) abound everywhere.

    4) Slightly more advanced: spend time getting control of what sources are out there. Make a checklist when researching someone new in a region you have experience with.

  14. Laura higginbotham says:

    Thanks for the list. I’ve learned most of these the hard way over the 30 years I’ve been doing this. At first it was just all about the thrill of the chase, a great new hobby! Then , more and more I began to realize the importance of documenting my sources, which I had rarely done. Sooo…that tedious task began. But, the wonders of the internet came along and Family Tree Programs and Ancestry, etc. with the capability of adding sources to your existing tree with a mere click of the mouse! So, that’s what I’m doing now (and yes, checking to be sure the right person is there, and also adding comments and corrections.) Gotta LOVE technology! One thing that doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother others, is the importance placed on getting credit for photos, info, etc. (It’s kinda automatic on Ancestry anyway.) I really don’t care if I’m given credit or not or thanked or not but I would like reciprocity. When I put my tree and photos online, I assumed others would be “snatching” them, and I’m happy for them to do so. I get a lot of good laughs when I find a hint and go to it only to find it was mine in the first place. My biggest pet peeve is when I find that the elusive parents of a 3x great-grandparent, have suddenly appeared, then a bazillion trees are showing it. Trying to find the original poster is difficult, or even if I do find the person, when I ask for the source of their info, I get no response. This has happened in two of my family lines. Apologies for this long post, I realize this isn’t a rant forum. May I share this with my various family genealogy groups on facebook and with members of my genealogy group I run at my public library?

    • Alona says:

      Laura, by all means share with your geniefriends and groups. I just ask that if it is to be republished (online or in print) that it mention where you got it from. πŸ˜‰

  15. Emily says:

    When possible, see original documents, as transcribes do make mistakes, esp. on dates.

    Develop a system of keeping track of sources that works for you. When I add a source to my list, I put the family names that I am checking with that source, This way if a year later, I have a new family, I know that I need to go back and check that source for the “new” family

    • Alona says:

      Oh Emily you nailed it … I’ve found indexes totally wrong, and it was only through going to “every” index entry to look at the original I found who I was looking for – indexed nothing like it should have been (ie. should have been Charlotte, but was indexed as Frank!!)

  16. Kim England McGuirk says:

    Very good pointers! I also tend to be easy on the photo sharing rule. I assume it my tree is public, I am more than happy to share and I usually assume people feel the same way, if it’s public. The one thing that bugs me personally are what I term “genealogy snobs”. People who heavily criticize others (often criticizing beginners) which only ends up alienating the new researcher. When someone makes a “research / genealogy mistake” I try to be encouraging so as to not discourage them, while pointing out how they might better improve their query or whatever it is that they are seeking. Just a thought. Thanks for opening up the dialouge!

  17. Brenda says:

    May I use this list in our members-only genealogical newsletter, if I give credit to the author and source (your web address)? Thank you!

  18. Cindy says:

    I’m basically a newbie. I have been trying to do my family genealogy since I was a teen and now I’m to the point I have some free time and want to do so before I get too old. Ha Ha. Anyway, I really appreciate all the hints, advice, suggestions and encouragement. It really does mean a lot to newbies like myself. A few things I have found is.
    1. Get other family to help you when you can. If they are located locally to the sources such as the home place, places where your ancestors lived, grave sites, libraries, historical societies, etc. Especially if you are located distantly from these sources.
    2. Contact people with the same ancestors or those who have posted information about your ancestors to confirm and possibly get more information.(I have broke through brick walls this way and found some distant relatives with the same ancestors this way. – and hopefully made a few friends along the way). Be sure to give back to. Don’t just be a taker but if you have anything to share, be willing to share too.
    3. ALWAYS look at the CENSUS papers and other DOCUMENTS yourself by zooming in on them. Read them yourself, and if needed get help in deciphering the words on them. Many times transcribers only do the best they can and make mistakes. That also goes for the people filling out the paperwork whether it is the Census, Certificates or other documents. The spelling of names, etc. are sometimes messed up because they didn’t hear the name clearly or they just wrote it wrong. Same goes for the ages, etc.

  19. Stephen Rowe says:

    Alona, What a surprise to find all these in one list. I am about to start a Genealogy 101 course at a local U3A in Melbourne and had been putting together a similar list for week 1. With your permission, may I include yours, and this page, for the class? Together with proper citations of course πŸ™‚ Although I must admit, starting to create this course from scratch, the first week has taken me about 10 days to put together so far – only another 7 classes to go and 3 weeks till the start of classes! Then I have to also start on Term 2’s Genealogy 102 (the Advanced Version!)

    • Alona says:

      Stephen, please by all means feel free to use share my post, I just ask that you note where it came from. I wish you all the best for your course. I’m sure it’ll be popular.

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