If you’re looking for ways to improve your research skills, it’s always best to take a personal inventory of your research practices and habits. Following are some errors that many beginners and hobbyists make which, if eliminated, could save time and increase accuracy immensely.
Collecting Ancestors – This is one of the most common mistakes. Simply copying down someone else’s tree or taking their information at face value without sources or explanation is a quick way to perpetuate untrue lineages and family stories. A good rule of thumb is to be able to give a solid reason for every bit of information you add to your database/tree/chart. How do you know that John is the son of Robert? And how do you know that that Robert is the right one when there is another man by the same name a county over? Traditions handed down can be helpful and even true, but a good genealogist always double checks! (And P.S. – use special caution when attempting to tie into “royal lines”; many are known to have been fabricated long ago.)
Fishing for the Famous – We encounter this fairly frequently, and it involves trying to prove a relationship to a notable person simply because you share the same last name. “I am from the South and my last name is Lee. We are probably related to the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee.” Such an assumption is not a sound approach and is very seldom true. The best course of action is to start with your recent family and move backward. Avoid beginning with a celebrity or historical figure and trying to force him into your tree!
Tunnel Vision – It is usually difficult to find direct-line ancestors if the rest of the family is ignored. In your research, build complete families, not just single lines of descent. Don’t just know who your ancestor was and who he married, but research who his siblings and their spouses were. Even studying his unrelated close friends and associates can often be the key to solving a brick-wall problem. If your ancestor didn’t leave much of a paper trail, there’s a good chance that one of his siblings did, taking you back to the next generation you couldn’t have found only researching one man or woman.
Incomplete Research – Lone records can often contain inaccuracies, or at the very least, a fragmented part of the story. Be sure to make the effort to confirm information that you find with multiple records whenever possible. Find a headstone? Great! If possible, also locate a death certificate, parish record, obituary, and/or will.
Being Disorganized – Do you have notes scribbled on three different notepads and tucked away on Post-Its, backs of envelopes, and other random slips of paper? This one is for you! Your research experience will improve if you make a concerted effort to keep everything in one place. The same can go for Word documents scattered around your hard drive. Make folders, keep notes in your pedigree software, and always back-up your files externally! No one wants to lose ten years’ worth of research because their computer crashes!
Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself making these mistakes from time to time! Genealogy is a fun field, but it can also be exacting, with a steep learning curve. Even as professionals, we are constantly growing and figuring out better ways of doing things, and everyone benefits from raised standards!
We want to hear from you! In the comments, feel free to share some of the things that you have learned over time – perhaps even some trial and error you experienced in your own research.