20 Rules for Genealogy

I often talk about my research with my co-workers.  I find myself saying things like, “I know ____ happened.”  When my co-worker asks how I know, my response is often “because my grandpa told me.”  Of course, I know, and frequently say, that nothing is “known” until it’s been proven.  I’m just sometimes so involved in what I’m doing that it’s hard for me to take a step back and look at it objectively, which is why I often talk to my co-workers about my research.  They act as a mirror.  They tell me the things I know but fail to recognize.  Currently, I have several different people that I’m researching and I really just need a reminder of what I need to do.  So, I set out to write down my rules.  Some of these I’ve picked up from peers and mentors and others I’ve learned the hard way.

  1. Genealogy without proof is mythology. Every fact needs supporting evidence.
  1. You have to be a detective. Pay attention to the details, think outside the box, and put yourself in your ancestor’s shoes. Be willing to beat your head against the brick wall until you make it through.
  1. Work from the known to the unknown. Start with yourself and move backward. Maybe you are descended from royalty, but it takes multiple times longer to trace it down from that royal ancestor to you.
  1. Be open. Accept that some of the things you “know” may be only partially true or may not be true at all. Family stories can be like playing telephone for decades. Also keep in mind that everyone has skeletons in their family closet. You can’t be afraid of what you might find. We are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors.
  1. Use pencil until it’s proven. Not only will you save paper (and trees), but this will also help you see what you still need to research.
  1. Use primary sources whenever possible. Secondary sources can be a helpful guide, but primary sources are generally more reliable.
  1. Cite your sources! It’s frustrating to you when you need to re-copy something and you can’t remember where you found it. It’s frustrating to others when they can’t verify something that you’ve written.
  1. Track your work. Knowing what sources were not helpful is just as important as citing the ones that were. Accidentally revisiting the same unhelpful source is a headache and a waste of your valuable time.
  1. One source is not proof. A minimum of two sources is preferable. Even vital records can be wrong. However, one source is better than no source.
  1. Check all possible spellings, sound-alikes, and look-alikes. Also look for nicknames, initials, and the use of a middle name instead of the first. “To ere is human.” Clerks, enumerators and transcribers are no exception.
  1. Always spell the month and use all four digits for the year. 3/2/12 could be March 2, 1912 or February 3, 1812. Using 2 Mar 1912 or March 2, 1912 is clearer. If you aren’t sure what the original record means, make a note of exactly how it appeared on the record.
  1. Research your collaterals. Your ancestor’s sibling may be the key to breaking through your brick wall. This is especially true if everyone in your family was named Charles, William, and Elizabeth, but there was one sister named America.
  1. Check and re-check all your sources. What doesn’t seem important now may prove to be important later. This is especially true if you’ve inherited copies from another family member and can’t quite connect some of the names to what you have researched.
  1. Back-up your work. Save it on your computer, an external hard drive, a flash drive, an online database, and the cloud. Make photocopies or printouts of everything. You can never have too many. Making a schedule for this will help. Maybe you save to your computer and print a copy immediately, back up to a flash drive and/or an online database once a week, and back up to an external hard drive once a month.
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Everyone needs help sometimes, even the experts. Sometimes you can be so focused on something, that the avenues you normally would consider have escaped your notice. Two heads are better than one.
  1. Ask questions of your elders. Having lived the longest, these family members will be the ones with the most information for you. Of course, you want to get information wherever you can, so don’t ignore the rest of the family. Often times, hearing family stories from more than one point of view can give you clues for your research. Record your family’s stories. The longer you wait, the harder it will be and it may be a useful tool for future generations.
  1. Share your discoveries. Publish a book, write a blog, or donate copies to your local genealogical society, historical society, or library. This allows access to others, ensures that future generations will be able to find it, and acts as another form of back-up, should anything happen to your files.
  1. Do not publish or post information about living people without their permission. Some people may wish to avoid being found for whatever reason. Many people simply like to keep things private and we should respect that.
  1. Some brick walls are permanent. Many records have been destroyed due to war or natural disasters, and some due to human accident. Some events were never recorded.
  1. You will probably never be finished. “New” sources are being discovered and digitized everyday. There is always something new to learn.

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