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The 12 Essential Skills for Family Genealogists

To succeed at this gigantic and often frustrating endeavor without going mad you'll need some essential skills.


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Becoming a successful family genealogist means more than just looking up your ancestors online or in records at the courthouse. To succeed at this gigantic and often frustrating endeavor without going mad you'll need some essential skills. Some of these you probably have already while others will take some time to develop.

First and foremost, you have to have a consistent plan of attack in both your research and the compilation of the facts you gather. Consistency applies to everything from note taking to numbers and dates to names. Take notes in the same format for all your ancestors and from all your sources. This way, you'll be able to find facts easily. Write all numbers under 10 as words and all those over 10 as numbers. Use global or military style for dates—day, month spelled out, then the year in four digits. Copy names as you find them, even if they're abbreviated, and make a note where you found them.

You'll need to get the cooperation of a lot of people in your genealogical quest. A little politeness goes a long way. The same goes for contacting your relatives. Don't be bossy, but encourage people to help you. Public servants, such as librarians and record custodians, often work long hours for not much pay, so be sympathetic to their plight.

As the popular saying goes, "Think outside the box." While traditional methods work much of the time in genealogical research, sometimes it pays to take a more creative approach. For instance, you may not know the birth date of an ancestor, but you've tracked down a record of her confirmation in the Catholic Church. Knowing that confirmations usually occur when a child is about 10 years old will enable you to at least come up with the year of birth which may help to narrow your search for the actual birth date.

No matter what sources you use to get the facts about your ancestors, you must learn to question their validity. Death certificates, for example, notoriously contain erroneous information because the person supplying it may have been biased or just might not have known the truth. Even published family histories may not contain accurate information. Remember, just because a fact is in print doesn't make it true.

It pays to develop an interest in other people's genealogy. You may just discover that you're related to the clerk in the Probate office or the reference librarian at your local library. But don't waste their time. These are busy people. If pertinent questions don't elicit a response, move on.

An inquiring mind is the mark of a good researcher. As you uncover more about your ancestors from reading, records, and interviews, ask yourself how what you've found relates to what you already know. And don't forget to ask yourself the most important question of all—"What if?"

Follow the leads your discoveries give you. You never know what else you'll find.

A good researcher also needs to be a good listener. When you ask someone a question, listen intently to their answer. Don't think about the next question or what you might say in response. Listen to nuances in meaning. If someone hesitates for a moment, let them pause. They may just be thinking about a detail that you need.

One of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to organize and collate massive amounts of information. While you may be good at locating information about your ancestors, being able to organize it physically and mentally is equally important. Learn to take good notes and to write summaries of your research.

Today, the phrase "hurry up and wait" seems to apply to lots of situations. Many people simply have no patience. If you plan to get anywhere in genealogical research, you'll need to develop some. Let's face it, you've waited this long to find out who your ancestors were, so why rush it now. In today's world of instant gratification, waiting a month or more to receive a reply may seem like an eternity. Learn to follow up your requests in a polite and timely manner. Government agencies, in particular, often take a while to respond.

Practice being a skeptic. Every family has some tall tales about its ancestors. Yours won't be any different. Just because your grandmother says something about someone in the family doesn't make it so. If she tells you a story that seems a bit fantastic, it most likely is. In the beginning, you'll believe everything you hear, even those tall tales. Be sure to note who told you the tale in the first place. There just may be some truth to it.

Finally, learn to see the "big picture." If you're from an extensive family, you'll need to think beyond yourself to include grandparents or even great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even your spouse's relatives if you're married.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

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

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