7 Traits that Make a Good Genealogist

If you don’t like the idea of wandering a cemetery for hours, or spending a day in the archives, or if you hate the smell of old books … let me tell you that family history just isn’t for you. So can I suggest you take up photography, hiking, woodwork, scapbooking or knitting instead.

However for those that think the above is a perfect day out … welcome to “the tribe”. You are a fellow totally obsessed genealogist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. We feel at ease with fellow genies, as they are part of our ‘tribe’. They ‘get’ us, and don’t eyeroll like the other family members. But what brings us together is our similarity in certain traits. Here’s just a collection of 7 main ones.

HAVE PATIENCE – Sitting in a library or archive and scrolling through microfiche, or paging through old record books is not for everyone. But a good researcher will know that you might be there for a day or two (or more), before your find who you’re looking for. That one person you’ve been hunting for years. And some days you don’t find them at all. Family history IS NOT a quick hobby. I know many people who have been been researching for 20, 30, 40 or more years. You may spend days, weeks or years looking for one person … and of course frustration sets in, but when you find them you’re on cloud 9 for a year!! Your patience finally paid off.

GET ORGANISED – This is a great trait to have, but it’s not one that comes naturally to many of us. When you start researching you will experience what is known as the “paperwork snowball”. Paperwork is everywhere, notes, documents, printouts, photos and more … and it seems to breed. But having all this useful information and tidbits is only useful if the relevant information is findable and retrievable quickly. In saying that, I know many, many people who have ‘the pile’. This is one that usually on the office floor and has paperwork stacked as high as the desk. It’s great that it is sort of in one place, but you have to agree it really isn’t retrievable. So why not make an hour each week to work on ‘the pile’, and you might be surprised at how quickly it goes down, not to mention what you might find in the pile that you’d forgotten about. And of course then there’s the digital filing too (emails, scans, photos, downloads … ).

QUESTION EVERYTHING – Be a detective and question everything. A good practice is not to accept a piece of evidence until you have it verified from 2-3 different sources. Names, dates, places … query everything. The how, the why, there where. The more you question and look for more sources to verify what you have, the better researcher you’ll be. Also look for the original records, not just at the indexes.

HAVE DETERMINATION – This could also be labelled as persistence or stubborness is what it comes down to. When we are after that clue that piece something together, we are stubborn, and keep researching. As per point 1, patience is also needed here, but ultimately you’ll find your answer if you stick with it.

SELF-EDUCATION – This one is really important, but probably not one that gets the credit it deserves. This can include going to seminars or conferences, watching YouTube videos (genealogy related ones!) or webinars, listening to any number of the genealogy podcasts, doing an online (or offline) genealogy course, or simply reading. Read books, read blogs, read genie mags … it is a great way to learn, and help yourself get self-educated. In essence the more you learn, the better researcher you’ll be.

BE POLITE – I shouldn’t have to mention this one, but I know I do. Be polite and courteous in your dealings with people online as well as those offline. Others do want to help you, but they won’t if you’re rude and demanding.

BE ETHICAL – When you get into family history, without a doubt you will find out some family secrets, many of which other family members don’t know. While it’s good to record these in your private tree, you shouldn’t broadcast these details to the world, as in many cases it can have huge ramifications, and it’s not your job to blurt it out. So ethics are required, and you just need to tread carefully.

I think of my fellow genie friends near and far, and I recognise so many of the above traits in them, as well as myself. So if you wanting to be a better genealogist, practice the above and I guarantee you will improve your research. I know there are more, and feel free to add your suggestions as a comment below.

Older and Wiser: What I’d Say to My Younger Genealogical Self

So you’ve been researching your family history for a while now, and have learnt things over the years, and I have no doubt that you’re a different researcher now than you were back then.

So what would you say to your younger genealogical self? Here’s my response …

Dear younger me,

So I know that you grew up with family history, but you FINALLY took up doing your own. That’s AWESOME!! I know you had a good start with what dad did, but nothing beats doing your own searching, and in doing so you’ll come across people you never knew, find out amazing stories of survival, put names and faces to photographs and heirlooms and more. In essence you’ll learn about the people who helped make YOU!

So what advice can I give you?

Read. I know you already read, but read articles in genealogy magazines, read reviews of genealogical products and websites, read blogs on people’s research. I do all of this now, and learn a lot from them. The learning never ends.

Cite your sources. I know, you’ve heard it before. As much as you believe you’ll remember where you got that tidbit of information from, trust me 5 years down the track when you’re relooking at that branch, you won’t. So CITE. YOUR. SOURCES. While it doesn’t have to be in the “official citation format” if you’re not familiar with that yet, but at least note where it came from: what person, what book, what newspaper (including the date and page number), what website etc. Afterall a tree without sources is as bad as a photograph album without names … well almost.

Another thing … don’t be afraid to ask questions? Query your relatives, usually one question and one person at a time, and note the answers. Despite our family knowing they SHOULD write their own history, they don’t (or at least haven’t yet, despite my requests), so this is one way to get some info out of them! It doesn’t have to be a full oral history interview, but at least it’s something.

While I’m on the topic of questions, don’t be afraid to ask other genies if you don’t know what something means or how to do something. That’s how you learn. The genealogy community is a wonderful place, and most of them are incredibly helpful.

Filing. It’s the bain of your life. I know. But you need to get into the routine of doing this early on, otherwise I am left with the piles that you left me, which are too high and are at the “where-on-earth-do-I-even-begin-with-this” phase! So please, please, please start filing.

Scanning & Online Filing. I know you came up with a numbering method for digital media – great – but (yes there is a BUT), if you’re going to change the system partway through, at least renumber them all. Don’t leave them all half one way and half the other!! It’s confusing even for me now.

Genealogy Conferences. You have been to many over the years, and while speakers often say they have notes you can download, don’t let anyone stop you from taking your own handwritten notes. I known that’s how you learn better (writing it down), so just do it!

Negative Evidence. Don’t let ‘not’ finding a record be a disappointment. That in fact is quite useful as it’s negative evidence. You’ve eliminated that source or record. So while it’s not as exciting as finding the person or entry you’re looking for, it’s still totally useful.

Persevere. You will get frustrated. There’s no doubt about that. But if needed take a break from research, or move on to a different family or branch. Then you’ll come back to it with fresh eyes. Trust me, it works!

So that’s just a few tips for you. But really you’ve pretty much got it under control.

And thankyou for being the researcher you are, which has helped me become the researcher I am today.

From current day (older and wiser) me.

So fellow researchers, what would you advise your younger genealogical self?

Phonetically Speaking

For those of you who have been reading my blog for at least the last couple of weeks, you’ll know that I recently visited Finland for a holiday to meet family and see the places where my ancestors came from.

One thing I found when being with my relatives, was that all the names and places I knew from correspondence with family and various Finnish archives, I had been pronouncing very wrong. I had simply seen them written down, and gave them my own Australian-version of the pronunciation as best as I knew without ever hearing it.

Now that I’ve heard the names and places said in Finnish, it’s made me realise how easy someone simply listening to it said could give a whole different spelling.

One thing I did while I was in Finland was create a listing of names and places with both the proper Finnish spelling, and then I wrote each with the pronunciation as it sounds in Australian-English, which was quite often VERY different.

An example of this is one of my family names, BACKBERG. It seems simple enough, Back (as in the back of something), and Berg (like an iceberg). But when it’s said in Finnish it is actually pronounced BACH-BERRY. Now had I simply ‘heard’ the name, I would have had no idea that is actually spelt Backberg. And the same goes for place names too.

Add into the mix all of those who emigrated to another country, and you have foreign names and places, said with an accent and you have the perfect recipe for some very creative spelling.

It’s not news for researchers to find alternate spellings on documents. In fact it would be far more unusual if you didn’t. But having to write the names and places out phonetically has made me take a step back and think just how it could be written to get the right sound, and it actually reminded me of being back in Primary School and writing words as you heard them. Anyway I found that it’s been a very interesting and useful exercise. Try it yourself, you might just be surprised.

You’re Searching. But Are You Researching?

We’ve all done it. Jumped online, done a search for someone, and come up with nothing, zip, nada.

So what’s next? Sadly that’s where many leave it. They simply go on to the next person. While a “researcher” likes to delve into the details. Finding out about the specifics of the records they were searching, such as what years were covered, what region, where the record came from, even the context of why it was compiled, and so on … and they may well find out that the area they’re after wasn’t even included. So then it’s a matter of searching further (usually offline) to search further.

It’s like looking up an index, finding a name, without looking at the rest of the book for that actual information.

The internet has made it easy to search, there’s no doubt about that. But is it making people forget about the actual research?

Take online trees as an example. We all know that there are WAAAY too many trees online that have huge errors, and sadly these get copied on to other trees. Why, because copying is quicker than doing the research. Again, these people are searching, but not “researching”.

I’m not sure if our “instant-everything” society is to blame and making people lazy, or is it that we’re not teaching these people how to research beyond the internet?

It’s an interesting thought, and one that I come across often. And while I don’t have an answer for it, I just hope that some of the searchers, do in time become researchers.

Besides who wouldn’t want to research further (meaning offline) when you hear that there’s only a tiny fraction of records that available are actually digitised and online. Think of all the awesome records sitting in archives, just waiting to be looked through! Sounds awesome doesn’t it. And just to clarify, by”tiny fraction” I mean probably only 10% or so. I’ll admit that I don’t have an exact figure, but between 5%-10% is what has been quoted in various articles a couple of years ago. So when we hear of millions of new records being added online each week, it’s really still only peanuts in the whole scheme of things.

NOTE: And as a side note for those who complain about all the errors on online trees … my advice is to simply ignore the trees. Do your own research. Document it. And then you have nothing to complain about. And you’ll know the quality of your own work.