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Lessons Learned: Get It Right The First Time

It can happen to the novice, the most organized, the cautious, and the most experienced. Genealogical information from a family member, family friend, or authoritative source can still lead to errors that come back to haunt a researcher. The author shares a brief episode from her own experience and suggests some strategies to recover when research has taken a wrong turn.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Toward the end of my second year of tracing my family history, I was able to locate a cousin who had prepared a very in-depth family history that included our great-grandfather. The information about this ancestor filled a gap I had been struggling with while searching my grandmother's lineage. My cousin informed me her break came when she found records for a man with our family surname, whose middle name was that of our great-grandfather, and whose given name had previously been unknown. She was then able to link this person to our family and back to Paris from seventeenth-century New France.

A month later, my daughter-in-law asked me to travel on a business trip with her to Paris. I thought a trip back to the family roots would be an impressive start to my third year of family research. I embarked on my travel to Paris with my list of "must see" churches, towns, and landmarks related to my ancestors and returned home with hundreds of photos and anecdotes.

I was delighted. I needed more information about my lineage and spent my summer vacation in the area of Ontario where my family still resides. My first stop was the town library. The librarian informed me that there is no longer a town hall and all the original vital records are now located at the county seat. However, the library received copies of all the records, and they were on view in the library basement. I walked away with lots of photocopies and one key piece of information. I found consistently documented in these records that the individual named in my cousin's research as the father to my great-grandfather was incorrect. We are not descended from the family in Paris.

This discovery had a tremendous impact on me. I was ashamed to admit that if I had been more conscientious about finding original documents and citing sources I would have discovered this error sooner. I knew I needed to take immediate action to get back on track. I used the following outline in order to regroup, but in retrospect, I should have used it to create a more formalized plan from the very start of my research.

Creating Goals:Describe/Identify

  • Create a detailed record of what you already known about the family's history.
  • List all country, state, county, or equivalents, where family members have resided.
  • Compile a list of living relatives and their contact information.
  • Determine who in the family is known to have originals and copies of family records.
  • Record who in the family is known to keep up to date about immediate and extended family.
  • Generate a list of long-time friends of the family who are knowledgeable about the family, its history, and family member whereabouts.
  • Determine which related family lineages will ultimately be researched and recorded in this family history.
  • Establish the kinds of data to be gathered, e.g. vital statistics, health, cause of death, family legends and anecdotes.
  • Develop a questionnaire to record family information from immediate and extended family members.
  • Inquire if another family member has conducted research of your family
  • Decide the most effective methods to contact relatives and knowledgeable family friends.
  • Determine how widely the initial research data will be distributed and at what point in time.
  • Decide how widely will the research data be distributed and in what formats.
  • Designate if the data is intended for publication.
  • Design a method and timeline for evaluating research data for completeness and accuracy.
  • Outline how data problems and conflicts will be resolved.


  • What information is still needed to have a complete record of the family?
    • gaps of information by lineage
    • gaps of information by generation within each lineage

  • What already acquired family history information requires verification and source citation?
  • What challenges are likely to be encountered while conducting research?
    • language barriers
    • geographically remote sources
    • errors that become evident during research
    • family issues that will negatively impact research efforts
    • limited time to devote to family research, etc.

  • Will there be a partner assisting with the research?
  • What will each partner's contribution or assignment be in conducting research?


  • Set up software, database or other method to record all research data.
  • Prepare notebook or spreadsheet to record research activities and Plan progress.
  • Prepare checklists and standards/guidelines to assist in keeping on track, such as the following:
    • contact lists with space to record who has been contacted
    • contact method and when response received
    • guidelines for creating a citation
    • list of all resources searched to indicate the results and if they should be re-checked at later data
    • time table to periodically evaluate and check the accuracy of data gathered and recorded
    • guideline on how errors or conflicting data issues will be resolved, recorded and, when necessary, distributed to other family researchers

  • Designate a specific short-term goal, its time frame, desired outcome of research period, and an end date for assessment of research progress
  • Specify for both short-term and long-term
    • lineage or lineages to research
    • geographic locations where research needs to focus
    • people to contact, institutions to visit, websites to explore, etc.
    • financial resource estimates for the first one to two years of research
    • if, when, and to whom any distribution of research results
There are many sources available online that provide support to the family history researcher. Brigham Young University has a broad range of independent study courses that even include FHFRA 73, Reading French Handwriting; FHGER74, Reading German Handwriting, and FHFCA74, Scandinavian Reading Gothic Script. Cyndi's List has diverse information for a broad range of researchers, including handwriting and script tutorials. There is also a helpful document on entitled, How to Cite Sources. Good luck and have fun!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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