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The Do’s and Don’ts of Genealogy Research

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Whether you are new to genealogy or a veteran, it never hurts to have a refresher on the basic do’s and don’ts of genealogy. These are the things you do and do not want to do in order to make sure your research is accurate, sound, and verifiable. After all, you want to be sure that you are putting the correct people and facts on your family tree because this is something you are compiling that future generations will likely use as a source. Here are the things to do (and not do) to make sure your work produces a reliable family tree.

1) Do Cite Your Sources — This is an important one. Too many inexperienced genealogists ignore the crucial nature of adding sources to your work. Every time you add a fact to your family tree, be it a name, date, place, or anything else, you must cite your source. This acts as both a roadmap for you (to look at where you’ve been in your research, so you know where to go), and for those who are using your work as a source (so they can re-trace your steps in confidence that you are leading them in the right direction). – Learn More

2) Don’t Take Someone Else’s Word for It — You can get genealogical facts from a variety of places. However, unless it is a primary source, meaning it was generated by the person mentioned in it at the time the event happened or a person who was present when the event happened, you must look for verification. Family stories, things you read in genealogy books—even published family histories—and anything else that was not recorded at the time it happened by someone who was there is possibly incorrect. You must look for verification. If no primary sources are available, you must look for enough corroborating secondary sources to be reasonably sure the fact is true. – Learn More

3) Do Label Photographs — Nothing is more frustrating to a genealogist who is using photographs than to find some that belong to their family, but aren’t labeled. If they are very old photos, you may have no idea who is in them, and only have a vague idea that they are connected to you. This is why it is so important to label photographs as soon as possible after you take them, including the names of the people in the photos, where they were taken, and when, along with any other pertinent information, such as special events in the photos, like parties. If you come across old photos and are told who are in them by people who would know, label your copies right away. Use either an archival-safe pen on the back of the photo, or put it in an album with a label underneath of it. For electronic photos, make the file name the label. – Learn More

4) Don’t Copy Someone Else’s Online Family Tree — You can certainly use the online family trees of people with the same ancestors as you as a starting point to your own research on that line, but do not copy them verbatim. You do not know how accurate they are. Even if the trees have sources listed, you cannot be sure of the accuracy of the sources until you have investigated them yourself. It can be tempting to let someone else do all the work for you, but you won’t be sure your family tree is accurate. Use the online trees as outlines for your own, but verify every fact on them yourself before adding anything from them to your own family tree. – Learn More

5) Do Be Organized — You will collect quite a bit of paper and electronic files in your genealogy research. It is important to keep these as organized as possible. You need to keep a copy of everything you come across, and devise a filing system for both physical and electronic records that makes it easy for you to find whatever you need in an instant. The worst thing you can do is just pile things up with no method to it. Even if you have looked a record over, again and again, you never know when you will find a new piece of information that will cause you to need to look at an old, familiar record again to compare the facts listed or to see how they relate to each other. It is usually best to organize things by family, and then by the type of record within that family; you may also have sub-folders for various types of records of related families to the main family. Use alphabetical order for records with family names, and chronological order for records in sub-folders. Buy paper files for physical records, and make files on your computer for electronic ones. Do this, and you will always have everything you need in your genealogy research at your fingertips. – Learn More

6) Don’t Forget to Periodically Back Up Your Electronic Family Tree — Computers crash, break and get hacked. Don’t lose all of your hard work to a computer malfunction (or theft). This could mean years, or even decades of work lost. Make a habit of backing up your family tree at least once a month. If you have an online tree, back it up to the cloud. If you have a family tree software program, back it up to an external hard drive or a recordable disk. Label each backup with the date you made it, and you will always have a way to restore the most recent version of your family tree if something happens to your computer or website. For extra security, make two copies each time you back up your family tree, with one copy always being a hard copy regardless of whether you use the cloud or not. Take that hard copy and store it somewhere secure, away from your house, so your work will not be lost if there is a flood, fire, earthquake, or another natural disaster that damages the contents of your house. You will be glad to have the peace of mind of knowing your hard genealogical work is always protected. – Learn More

Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)