Six tips to stay sane while doing genealogy research
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
I love genealogy research. I better, it’s part of how I make my living. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t pushed me to the very edge of sanity!
Genealogy research can be a lot of fun. It often feels like a game to me. How far can I get? What level (generation) did I reach? What prize (documents) did I find? How much richer is the family history thanks to the work I did?
On the other hand, it has made me feel like I was going crazy at times. Wrong turns, duplicate people in the tree, ambiguous information, confusing sources… There is a lot of opportunity to get discouraged.
Over the years I’ve developed a few habits to keep me sane when I tackle a family history project. Some of these habits are inspired by basic genealogy best practices. Others are my own learnings, brought to you by the sweat and tears of yours truly.
Family History Research Tip #1: Take good notes.
This sounds so obvious, you must be rolling your eyes. I know! I hate reading blog posts where people state the obvious. But in this case, good note-taking is so important that I can’t skip over it.
The best thing about modern genealogy research is that there is a ton (by that I mean billions; Ancestry.com has 20 billion records alone) of documents out there to look at. Dozens of websites, endless images, databases, blogs... There is simply no way any human can possibly remember all the things s/he sees when doing genealogy research.
The genealogy websites make it look simple. So simple you think you can leave old fashion pads and pencils behind thanks to modern technology...
Don’t be fooled! I guarantee it – if you don’t take notes, you will end up with mistakes in your research, and creating more work for yourself by having do tasks over again.
So before you dive into your research, make yourself comfortable in a spot where you can write. Taking good notes early on will make it all much easier and more fun.
And yes, you can take notes on your computer, though that is not my preferred option. I like to be able to look at my notes and at the screen at the same time, which is not something you can do unless you have two screens at your computer.
So, keep a pencil and pad handy to write down:
Sources you may want to come back to. Example: "Grandpa Jones is listed as a resident of 3401 Walnut Street according to the 1920 directory, but there is no other record of that. Is it him or another Jones?"
Discrepancies. Example: "Grandpa Jones’ death cert says 1930 but his tombstone says 1931."
Research conducted. Example: "Searched MyHeritage.com for Grandpa Jones in Dec. 2019. Only found census records, nothing else. Searched FamilySearch.org for Grandpa Jones in Dec. 2019. Found census records, immigration records, death records, and microfilm records. Consider consulting microfilm at local Family History Center local library."
Leads. Example: "Found ship manifest on Fold3.com stating a Tom Jones b. 1898 in Philadelphia served in WWI. Could this be Grandpa Jones?" As you find data, write down where you see it. If you’re looking at multiple sites, it’s hard to remember where you found a specific record.
Hard copy of an ancestor profile. Example: Some people like to start with a blank page for each person in their tree. This is where you can take all sorts of notes about a specific person. The genealogy websites do provide ways to do that online, but if you're just starting out, you should try this approach with at least one ancestor to see if it's helpful to you.
Research is nothing without sources. It's hugely aggravating to do research again because you can’t remember where you saw something. So instead of doing the same research twice, just write down what you saw and where.
The genealogy websites make it easy to save source documents to a person’s profile, but it’s the instances when you’re not quite ready to commit a source to a particular person when it’s most important to take notes.
Family History Research Tip #2 - Maps
Any genealogist will tell you addresses are great clues to help guide family history research. When you a research a family branch, make sure you write down all in one place the addresses you glean from different documents.
The genealogy websites will store the addresses from the various sources, but they won’t create a comprehensive list of addresses. For instance, imagine a person living in Philadelphia:
Grandpa Tom Jones
WWI registration card: 418 Delancey St.
1920 census: 320 S. 6th St.
1923 directory: 320 S. 6th St.
1930 census: 520 Pine St.
1930 death cert: 520 Pine St.
If you know Philadelphia, you know these addresses are all near each other, in a neighborhood filled with immigrants at that time. Matching the name and addresses lays good groundwork for future research.
It's not uncommon to find other family members nearby. If you find Peter Jones on the same census page as Tom Jones, you should pause to research if Peter is Tom's relative.
What if you don’t know the city where your ancestors lived?
Go to Google Maps and print out a closeup view of that neighborhood. By marking the homes and addresses of Tom Jones, and of Peter Jones, you can see if there is proximity.
And I promise, as your research grows, you will come back to consult your map and even possibly add more relatives. You’ll be happy you did it!
Family History Research Tip #3: Be specific, especially with names
I am constantly amazed by the fact that half the ancestors out there all seem to have the same name!
I realize there are social, cultural, and religious reasons for this, but the opportunity for confusion is enormous. And if there’s an opportunity for confusion, that means we need a way to maintain our sanity.
There are numbering conventions for people family trees, but you don’t have to do that if you don't want to. Instead, just be disciplined about how you refer to a person.
Grandpa Jones, who we’ve talked about in this post, should not in fact be referred to as Grandpa Jones. He should be “Tom Jones (1898-1930)” or “Jones, Tom b. 1898” or “Tom Jones the immigrant” or however you want to label him. Once you pick a way to label him, stick to it.
Because, guess what? You’re going to find his father, and it’s very possible his name will be Tom too. Or maybe his grandfather is named Tom. You must find a way to distinguish them from each other by the way you refer to them, or you will drive yourself nuts.
“My family doesn’t have common names like Tom and Jones,” you say. “So I am going to skip figuring out a naming convention for now.”
I totally understand that impulse.
What do you think of Arthur Scouten, my dad? Common name? Uncommon?
Well, I didn’t need to go more than one generation back to find another Arthur. He had an uncle named Arthur, who died when he (the uncle) was ten. I wouldn’t be surprised if my dad was named after his uncle.
You commonly see this within the same generation too. A child dies young, and the name reappears one or two siblings later.
Just commit to a naming convention for your ancestors. You’ll be happy you did.
Family History Research Tip #4: It’s not a paperless project, don’t try to make it one.
So if you haven’t figured it out yet, genealogy research generates paper. I wish it didn’t, but it does. The note taking and maps we just discussed are part of that. Another part is the documents you will find along the way.
The big genealogy websites make it easy to save images of documents to a person’s profile. That is a huge advantage in organizing and keeping track of records, and one of the great things about modern genealogy work. But, some things are best looked at on paper.
You are not going to escape paper when doing genealogy. It's much better to embrace it and use the paper well. Keep it organized and useful – it will pay off.
Family History Research Tip #5: Keep multiple windows open.
I don’t know about you, but I absolutely need to be able to see a whole family tree when I’m doing research on different tree members. I used to waste so much time leaving the tree to do searches, only to find myself looking at some online document and not remembering the data I was trying to match up.
The easy fix here is to always keep a window open on your computer with the tree in it. Most of the big genealogy websites allow multiple open windows. If you do this, you can keep the tree handy AND look at search results AND look at other clues, without hitting the back and forward button a million times.
Next time you log into your genealogy site, navigate to the part of the tree you are researching. Then, copy and paste the url at the top of the screen into a new tab, and you can do all your searching in the new tab. If that’s not enough, open yet another tab. Then, just jump from one to the other to your research moving.
Family History Research Tip #6: It’s not you!
Here’s the most important tip of all. It’s not you!
If you’re struggling, don’t blame yourself. Genealogy research requires hard work, discipline, and acknowledging the bite of the learning curve.
The big websites like Ancestry.com have done an amazing job at bringing genealogy research to our fingertips. The navigation looks easy and intuitive, there are help buttons everywhere. It should be a breeze!
Well, it’s not. And it’s not your fault. As easy as they have made it, and made it look, genealogy research is not easy. Once you get beyond what you know about your family, the discipline necessary to confirm data and be on firm factual footing, is pretty significant.
In professional genealogical circles, that discipline is tied to a particular standard: the genealogical proof standard. There are five elements to this standard, and they all relate to making sure the research you do is correct. Keep in mind, entire books are published about this concept. So don’t doubt yourself. It’s not that you aren’t up to it, it’s just more work than you thought it would be.
Another reason genealogy research can be hard is because websites do weird things from time to time. See duplicate records in your tree but only added the person once? Spelled the person’s name one way, but it appears another on their profile? Yup. We've all been there.
So again, don’t worry, it’s not you! This is just where you will need to learn the behavior of the different websites. Duplicate records form for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because you added someone from another tree when following a “Hint”. Other times, a record you add to an ancestor's profile will download data from the record that overwrites the data you had entered.
With a little practice you will learn how to avoid or fix these problems. It’s not hard to do once you understand how it happens. But at the beginning, it does make you feel like you’re going crazy!
Don't give up your sanity to a hobby
Genealogy has become a big hobby for millions of people. It can take up as little or as much time as you want to let it. The best I can hope for you is to do it with minimal aggravation and maximum pleasure. These tips will help!